Welcome to the second installment in our “Why Write?” guest blogger series, in which GMR contributors very generously attempt to unravel for us why they do what they do. Daryl Scroggins kicked off the series last month, and we’re pleased now to present poet Stephen Dunn, who picks up the thread below:
At this point, because it’s what I do and have done for almost 50 years. It’s habit. It’s how I translate experience, and invent it. Both. It’s what I do when I go to my room. To go to my room.
At first, there were a variety of motives. Then a variety of understandings.
To impress girls. To play with language. And out of play to make something surprising, maybe even beautiful. To find out what I thought. To make sense of experience. Often to correct for myself other people’s sense of experience. In other words, to try to feel sane. Once I discovered one needed tools to make something good, to develop what might be called a tool box. To learn to be, therefore, as serious as a carpenter or machinist. To avoid the embarrassment of the poorly made object. To impress both women and men.
Though I usually write in the first person, to be disinterested in self. To begin poems about ME with a profound sense of boredom. To make the poem pass the “interesting” test. To invent myself so that I might be you, or anyone. To have an allegiance to the poem more than any moment in it. To never write with a sense of the therapeutic. To get the poem in motion so that it might seem to move on its own. To be aware that the ear finds the next moment as much as my sense of purpose does. To doubt the smartest thing I find myself saying. To love the shape of a sentence as much, maybe more, than the content it bears. To take myself as seriously as the most serious artist I can imagine. Practice. Be as limber as a dancer. As aware as a clown.
To be wary of the “important” subject. To take it on anyway. To know that it takes all the precision I can muster to be faithful to the ambiguities of experience. To know that anything that resembles honesty is an achievement. To worry when the poem seems to find its essence. That is, to worry that I’ll execute what I’ve just learned about my poem. Time, then, to give it wings. Or say something the poem can’t yet accommodate. To let the imagination reach for what it can’t yet accommodate. To remember that a poem is always a compromise between the drift of language already employed and my willfulness. When in doubt, follow the language and its sounds.
What I said about play and discovery aside, most poems, in my experience, are worried into existence. Let them run wild, then make them behave. Advice to self: in art, no one cares or should care about your life. But if you’re really good that day or the next, someone might, though it may not matter. Always be aware of your betters. Then try to stick it to them.
To impress the best reader you can imagine, which, after a while, could be yourself.