Finding their voices

The following story was originally published in PAW’s Jan. 25, 2006, issue.

Those moody young men and women you see, talking to themselves or huddling over tattered notebooks in the dark corners of coffee shops, aren’t necessarily crazy. They might be poets, searching, searching, searching for their voices.

“Every few generations, poets talk about having to speak again the language that men speak,” says C.K. Williams, one of the great poets teaching in Princeton’s creative writing program. “Wordsworth, most famously.” Wordsworth did it in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, in which he argued that the language of poetry should not be lofty or self-consciously poetic. Better it be direct and unpretentious — in his words, the language of “a man speaking to men.”

But that is advice more easily formulated than followed. It’s a rare young poet who finds a way to make practical use of Wordsworth’s credo — if, indeed, it’s still applicable 200 years later. Poets, even supremely gifted ones, need more guidance than that. At a reading on campus last September, Galway Kinnell ’48, whom Williams calls “probably the most talented poet of the last half-century,” said that when he arrived at Princeton he had an interest in poetry, but no idea of how to go about cultivating it. “I thought it was a dead art,” he said. “I didn’t know [poet] was something you could be. But the first person I met was [classmate] W.S. Merwin, who was busily writing poetry all the time. I left Princeton knowing that was what I wanted to do with my life.” (All these years later, the two old friends — each a winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award — remain a remarkable pair.)

So how does one learn to be a poet? “I don’t think it’s any harder to teach poetry writing than to teach anything else,” says James Richardson ’71, a poet who teaches in both the English department and the creative writing program. “People always say, ‘How do you teach someone to be a poet?’ Well, how do you teach a lawyer or an anthropologist? You put them in front of examples. You help them see how this thing worked or that thing didn’t. You have them try it. You tell them where they’ve done well and where they haven’t done well.”

Each term, there are three or four poets leading workshops at Princeton, with about 60 students enrolled. The curriculum varies from teacher to teacher, but students generally are expected to write one poem per week, some on subjects of their own choosing, but often set pieces chosen by the teacher.

“Sometimes,” says Susan Wheeler, who has taught in the program since 1999, “I’ll ask them to write about something really dramatic: a car crash, somebody dying, the breakup of a relationship. That’s always a very thorny poem. Or it might be to write in a form. I’ll have them write a sonnet or a villanelle [a 19-line poem using two rhymes and some repeated lines]. There’s so much to conform to that, while the poem may not write itself, it carries from one thing to the next. It’s a facilitator, because it often takes you places you don’t want to go.”

The goal is not necessarily to turn out professional poets. “We’re in the business of turning out readers as much as poets,” says poet Paul Muldoon, acting director of the creative writing program. “What we’re trying to do is to teach these students how to read poems, their own and others. It takes some doing, just as one has to be educated in reading an architectural blueprint.”

To those who find contemporary poetry difficult or obscure, Muldoon answers that it’s really not meant to be easy. Good poetry probably never was, but it certainly shouldn’t be now, after Darwin and Einstein and the Internet. “The world is more complex than it was 100 years ago,” says Muldoon. “It may be that poetry, to be equal to the world as much as to make sense of it, may necessarily be a bit more complex.”

That’s certainly true of Wheeler’s work. She is probably the most experimental of Princeton’s poets, tossing together puns and neologisms, advertising jingles, vastly different voices, scraps of other poems — sometimes all in a single poem. In her 2001 collection Source Codes she turned to computer language, and in the excerpt from “The Maud Project” that Muldoon chose for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2005, she stitches together folksy phrases she recalls her mother using (“Don’t you ping my machine. Young lady”). It comes as close to autobiography as this playful scavenger ever gets.

Growing up in a family of visual artists — her parents met at the Rhode Island School of Design, and her brother is an architect in Chicago — Wheeler saw writing as a way of staking out some territory of her own. Though her parents were “aggressively agnostic,” most of her childhood friends were Catholic, and she was fascinated by prayer. As a 6-year-old, she wrote what she calls “these very odd, early rhyming prayers,” which she showed to her teachers, friends, and parents, who must have found them curious indeed.

Throughout high school she wrote songs and performed them in coffee shops, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. She was encouraged to write poetry both at the high school she attended outside Boston and at Bennington College, where the free-form curriculum meant — for better or worse — that she could streamline her program to focus pretty much exclusively on poetry. Growing up in the 1960s and early ’70s, when Boston was convulsed by struggles over school busing, also had a tremendous impact on her. She reveled in the mix of new voices struggling to be heard, and strives for a similar effect in her poetry. “I’m interested in how these voices work together,” says Wheeler, 50. “Putting them together invites some kind of conversation, even in some small way.” The approach is a bit like rubbing sticks together, hoping to create heat. It is, in a way, a political act. (She aims for something similar in her first novel, Record Palace, which was published last May; it preserves the voice of a black record store owner she knew while doing graduate work in art history in Chicago.)

Wheeler’s collection Ledger, which won last year’s Iowa Poetry Prize, contains her most complex and successful poems, with “The Debtor in the Convex Mirror” probably standing as the most ambitious of the group. By referencing a painting of a moneylender by the 16th-century Flemish painter Quentin Massys, it explores commerce and currency, city life in both Massys’ Antwerp and Wheeler’s own then-home of post-9/11 New York City, and her debt to other poets, notably John Ashbery, whose “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” Wheeler’s title alludes to.

The book is full of serious purpose, but is playful. Consider the first three lines of the long poem “Money and God”: “In the country of individuation, I struck out/like a match/for the gravid coast.” It’s hard to know when you’ve exhausted all the punning possibilities in those three lines, and that’s OK. This is not poetry that can be wrestled to the ground and pinned to any single meaning. Absolute control over the words is neither desirable nor, Wheeler believes, possible.

“I don’t think poets have much control anyway over what people get,” Wheeler says. “I always tell [my students] that the workshop is like an advertising focus group: In it, you have readers committed to trying to figure out what you’re doing and trying to read it on your own level. So use it, ask questions, see if it’s operating the way you want it to operate.”

I was always a little puzzled by why I became a poet,” C.K. Williams muses in his memoir, Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself. He grew up in Newark, N.J., the son of an office-supplies salesman who stood 6 feet 7 inches and was something of a bully to his family. Williams himself was tall enough to play basketball as a freshman at Bucknell, but he decided he no longer wanted to play and transferred to Penn. There, his closest friends were architects, and he traveled in the circle around architect and Penn professor Louis Kahn. “In those days,” Williams says, “I used to struggle a lot with what I was going to do with my life.” He got a glimpse of what he might do when he wrote a poem for an English class. “I showed it to a girl and she said, ‘I know what you’re going to do: You’re going to be a writer.’”

Though he didn’t yet believe that himself, he went off to Paris with a copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and Other Poems in his pocket. “One night,” he says, “I was sort of saying poetry. I was reading Eliot and speaking poetry. That’s when I knew: I said, ‘I’m going to be a poet.’ It was an absurd choice, nothing to do with my life.”

This was the ’50s, when, Williams notes, much of the poetry in vogue “seemed almost to be written to please critics rather than readers.” That might have smothered the poet in him had not the ’60s come barreling round the corner. Vietnam War “read-ins” and the trove of great poetry just then getting translated into English livened things up considerably. No doubt Bob Dylan helped, too.

For a time, Williams wrote overtly political poetry. “I went over the edge,” he says with a rueful chuckle. “I really thought I was going to change the world. That’s not a good illusion to have. There’s too much disappointment attached.” He grew so dissatisfied with his own work that, for a few months in the mid-’70s, he stopped writing poetry altogether and turned to prose. From that, something else began to grow. “In order to speak the way my mind worked,” he says, “those long lines sort of evolved.”

The first of his long-line poems took him by surprise. “I wrote it without even thinking. It felt like just talking instead of poetizing,” recalls Williams, 69. He took it to a reading and found, lo and behold, that it worked. “It was what I had been looking for without really knowing I was looking for anything.”

Specifically, he says, writing longer lines loosened something up in him, giving him the time and space to express the things that felt most important to him. “I had been writing poetry that leaves everything out,” he told The New York Times in 2000, shortly after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Repair. His earlier short-line poetry, he said, was “like a code. You say very little and send it out to people who know how to decode it.” Williams does not count the stresses in a line, as one might if writing pentameter. Instead, he thinks in terms of phrases, which he calls “cadences.” Printed on the page, his long-line poems alternate one long line followed by a much shorter one. One reviewer wrote earnestly about the significance of those alternating lines when in fact, Williams says, “They are meant to be single lines that just go across the page.” He tried early on to print them that way, but it made for a book too large to sit comfortably on bookstore shelves.

He has made peace with his urge to write about politics: “Sometimes these days I think, how can I write about anything else besides politics and war, because it’s so excruciating? But you can only [write overtly political poetry] so many times. Even Auden couldn’t do it that much, and he’s the great one of our time at it. So you try to strike a balance.”

Williams does so admirably in his latest book, The Singing, which includes poems about his grandchildren, a meditation on loss and memory occasioned by the death of an old friend, and poems about war and about racism. The title poem describes coming unexpectedly upon a young black man “singing no it was more of a cadenced shouting,” who instantly incorporated Williams into his rap: “He shouted-sang ‘Big’ and I thought how droll to have my height incorporated in his song.” The poem recounts how the young man keeps his distance by chanting, “I’m not I’m not a nice person,” which leads Williams to consider joining in by chanting, “I’m not a nice person either.” But he doesn’t, not because this wouldn’t be true — it surely wouldn’t — but because of the gulf between them. The poem is funny and moving and true.

Williams recently began working again with shorter lines, intrigued, he says, by the different constraints they impose. “The Hearth,” a poem from The Singing written in shorter lines, reflects the troubled urgency he feels these days. It’s quite direct, its tone hushed and confiding. It begins with a fire on a bitterly cold night, shifts to the memory of an acquaintance burned by napalm, and then to an owl killing a small animal outside his window:

... if the creature being torn from its life
made a sound, I didn’t hear it.

But in fact I wasn’t listening, I was thinking,
as I often do these days, of war;
I was thinking of my children, and their children,
of the more than fear I feel for them, ...

It sounds meditative, and that’s the point: “Poetry in a way is talking to yourself,” Williams says. “As you’re writing, you’re talking to yourself. The fact that anybody overhears at all is sort of amazing.”

Poetry,” says Yusef Komunyakaa, “is really the marriage of the imagination and that which has been observed by experience.” Much of his own poetry comes from two experiences: growing up poor and black in the Deep South and serving as a soldier in Vietnam. He is a superb observer. The physical world — its smells and tastes and sounds — hardly could be more palpable than it is in his poetry. Consider “Meat,” one section of a long autobiographical poem called “A Good Memory”:

Folk magic hoodooed us
Till the varmints didn’t taste bitter
Or wild. We boys & girls
Knew how to cut away musk glands
Behind their legs. Good
With knives, we believed we weren’t poor.

Imagination trumps circumstance nicely, but they were poor all the same, as the poem’s final lines make clear:

... Sometimes
We weighed the bullet
In our hands, tossing it left
To right, wondering if it was
Worth more than the kill.

Komunyakaa grew up on the outskirts of Bogalusa, a mill town in the toe of the Louisiana boot. His family lived by City Limits Road, on the edge of the vast expanse of piney woods some people called the Great Southern Pasture. The town was polluted by toxic fumes and by Jim Crow, but the woods fed the imagination of the sensitive young boy.

“I was attracted to the beauty of Bogalusa,” he says. “It had a severe beauty: the rituals of the animals, insects, and this whole composite of life speaking its own language. In the middle of the woods, there were moments of great quietness that always held a blaze of symphonic sound. I was quite taken with that.”

There was music of another kind too, the rich, funky sounds of New Orleans coming through the family’s big wooden radio. Jazz and blues remain touchstones in Komunyakaa’s poetry, with artists like Thelonious Monk and Leadbelly serving as muses. He thinks of poetry literally as a form of music.

His father was a skilled carpenter, capable of building a house from the ground up, doing the electrical work, the masonry, and the plumbing. He believed work was sacred. What he could not do was read or write, and when his moods or violence drove his wife away, he turned to his 12-year-old son to write down the words he hoped would woo her back. Performing this excruciatingly awkward task, Komunyakaa learned the power of words when his mother read them and came home.

Bogalusa, of course, was segregated. Central High, from which Komunyakaa graduated in 1965, had no white students. Blacks also were barred from using the town library. They had a tiny library of their own, no bigger, he recalls, than his living room. “I would go in there and just pull books off the shelf and read them,” he says. “One day I found James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name. His picture was on the jacket, and I felt a kinship. I had never read anything quite like that.”

Inspired by Baldwin, he thought he might like to write essays, but it was only a thought, and an intimidating one at that. Long before he ever wrote his own poems, he was reading a lot of poetry. The first poem he ever memorized was Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” which appealed to him, he thinks, partly for its strong cadence but also for the Southern-sounding name. Next came James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation,” which intrigued him by mixing the biblical with social commentary.

Komunyakaa didn’t plan to go to college. He enlisted in the Army and went off to Vietnam with the Americal Division, spending a year overseas, first as an infantryman, then as a journalist, and working his way up to managing editor of The Southern Cross, a military newspaper. “I was pretty much out there [fighting] every day,” he says of his experience as a foot soldier. “That really penetrates. I was lucky because when I came back from Vietnam, I just found myself at the university.”

At the University of Colorado he intended to study psychology but took a creative writing course, and that was that. He went on to earn several graduate degrees, including an M.F.A. at the University of California, Irvine, where one of his teachers was C.K. Williams. It would take Komunyakaa 14 years to get around to writing the first of two volumes of poetry about his experiences in Vietnam. Some of those poems are included in Neon Vernacular, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. (Despite his willingness to take on painful subjects, Komunyakaa has not written about the death, in the summer of 2003, of his 2-year-old son, Jehan Vazirani Komunyakaa. The boy was killed by his mother, the poet Reetika Vazirani, who then killed herself. Komunyakaa does not speak about this tragedy.)

Komunyakaa has taught poetry in an astonishing variety of places: at Canyon City Penitentiary in Colorado, in the New Orleans public school system, to veterans at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at The University of Massachusetts, and in Trenton, where he now lives, through a program called Cave Canem (“Beware of Dog”) that promotes poetry in the African-American community. At Princeton, he urges his students to write every day and to do so in longhand, explaining, “One has to be aware of language as tangible. The human brain has been informed by the dexterity of hands, and I think it is still part of that natural process. I also want them to be aware that [writing] a poem is a process of discovery. They should take the risk of being surprised.”

At 58, Komunyakaa is stretching himself in new directions: He has been working on a stage version of Gilgamesh and has nearly finished the libretto. He is working on a long, narrative poem called “Autobiography of My Alter-Ego,” the main character in which is a white Vietnam vet working as a bartender. Komunyakaa is contemplating writing a one-woman performance piece about Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter, who took care of Thelonious Monk when the great pianist was frail and deeply depressed. And he is always working on old poems, fiddling, tinkering, changing a word here and there.

“I think that is part of the process,” says Komunyakaa. “After all, poetry is always a dialogue with oneself. I don’t know if [the aim] is to make sense of what has been hard or painful in life. But it’s definitely a way of asking questions.” 

Merrell Noden ’78, a freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to PAW.