Presented as a craft lecture at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in 1982
God knows, there exist more techniques for writing than are usually acknowledged. Probably, each of us uses a hundred or more all at the same time. Some of them may occur before a word is put to paper. For example, you go for a walk because you have noticed that afterward you feel like writing. Or you stay up extra late because you have noticed that after midnight you somehow elude the more banal levels of rationality. Or you begin to get up earlier than the rest of the family because you have noticed that, by afternoon, the poetry you might have written has gone into caring for the children. Or you sharpen twelve pencils because a better first line seems to emerge after a little stalling. Or you use a fountain pen, or a typewriter, or examination bluebooks, or yellow paper, or lined pads, or a quill pen. You smoke or drink coffee. You don't smoke or drink coffee. Like Hart Crane, you drink cheap wine and play Ravel's "Bolero" on the phonograph. You walk about. You pull your hair. You eat your beard. You sit in the corner of the cafeteria during lunch hour. You sit at the kitchen table after breakfast. You hide in a studio out back where you scheme to build a trapdoor and a tunnel to the sewers of Paris. These are "Writing Techniques." If you are lucky and talented, you may not need much else. You will be able to do your best work by adapting the method suggested for painters by W. M. Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "Make yourself perfect and then paint naturally."
Certainly, that seems a worthy goal: gradually to replace labor with inspiration, to achieve in maturity that condition in which poetry arrives as easily, as Keats would have it, as leaves to trees.
In the meantime, which is where we generally find ourselves, we need among our stores of writing techniques a method for noticing the little things in language, and for seeing how others did, consciously or unconsciously, all that we hope to do later by nature. That method is rereading. Not reading but rereading. We all know readers who have looked their way through great libraries of books without absorbing any. On first reading, such readers may experience a poem as fully as any of us, but their experience of the poem is perforce limited to the least experience of reading and to the associations a text may stir as one's thoughts wander.
Reading as a writer is another matter. Language is a reflexive medium, even for the most unconscious of poets. In addition, writing usually assumes a strong linear base—one word at a time. Self-reflexive and linear, a poem read once has not been fully read. To learn from language itself and from poetry, we think about how it says what it says, as well as what it says. You must know and, knowing, you must be able to say. If you cannot say it, you probably don't know it.
There is another side to this. Learning to reread your own work and others' is vital to those of you who intend to go on writing because you must learn how to continue to educate yourselves in the absence of teachers. Everyone knows that writers' conference conferee in search of answers that would at once kick his or her writing up a level. In applications to the program for which I teach, we sometimes note that an applicant has studied with A through M in school, and also N through Z for periods of a week or two during summers. Teaching can make a difference, but only for the self-reliant.
Sometimes a student brings me poems that have already been discussed by another teacher. In such cases, the poet must be taking votes, right? "The other guy said this poem was bad but you like it, so it must be a good poem after all." Or, "The other guy liked it, so what does it matter if you don't? I was just checking your taste."
I get questions about writing that are based on there being a "correct" way to say a thing, or to lineate a free verse poem, or to begin or conclude.... But you know the questions. Not one of them has an answer. The plain truth is that, except for mistakes that can be checked in the dictionary, almost nothing is right or wrong. Writing poems out of the desire to find a way to be right, not wrong, is the garden path to dullness.
You have to learn to learn, if you're serious about writing. It's not that hard. First, you should realize that no teacher is going to tell you all that he or she knows. Second, however much he or she tells, you will hear only as much of what is said as you are able to at the moment. You can take from a given teacher a few tricks, perhaps one or two ways of writing, but what you might better seek beyond that, for the long haul, is an attitude toward writing and an attitude toward how to read as a writer.
Reading as a writer is not the same as reading as a nonwriter. The writer is looking for what he or she can use. The writer reads on the edge of his or her chair. The writer goes slowly and doubles back.
Teachers were my teachers when I went to school, but poems have been my teachers since. I don't say books, but poems—one by one. Reading, or perhaps just scanning, entire books of poems is what the critic does when he or she discusses style or theme. In an ideal world, I sometimes think, we would not review books at all—as if individual poems did not have content. We would write reviews of single poems. Come to think of it, students often do that. Is it possible that it's students who are on the right track?
Nor need you wait to be "tempted," like they say, to reread poems. Poems are not movies; one doesn't lie back in the dark and demand stimulation. You go forward. At least, you lean a little. In part, that's what poetry is: a quality you experience because you pay special attention to the language.
Richard Wilbur's poem "The Writer" is an accomplishment of sanity and intelligence. It is also a fine example of how one small move in the language can lead to others, and how poetic showmanship can lead to serious concern.
Wilbur's poem is accentual—three stresses apiece in the first and third lines of each stanza, and five apiece in the middle lines—but I haven't chosen it to discuss meter. Rather, I'd like to look at how it begins, continues, and ends.
That's a simple enough first line, isn't it? Anyone can write that, right? Imagine yourself writing it: "In her room at the front of the house...." No, not "front," but "prow." One word has been changed in a phrase anyone might utter over coffee or on the telephone. Instead of "her room at the front of the house," Wilbur says, "at the prow of the house."
Why? Well, any reason will do, and it's possible that the poet simply thought to jazz it up a bit, to be figurative because poetry thrives on figurative language and because this poet has a talent for making figures. It's even possible that the poet's house somehow resembles a boat. My own suspicion is that this is simply one more example of a poet using what comes to mind. Wilbur is a sailor; he served in the Navy; he vacations in Key West on the Atlantic. To him it must be natural to identify the front of a house with the prow of a boat.
Lines two and three announce the place and the plot. What could be more straightforward? "My daughter is writing a story." And what could be more natural but that the proud father, a writer himself, pause in the stairwell to listen? He stands outside her door and hears the sound of typing, and how does he describe it? First, as "a commotion of typewriter-keys." That's more figure-making, at first blush an elementary sort, the kind of prepositional phrase figure-making we were asked to compose on the blackboard in grade school—an "enigma of elephants," and so forth—except that this one contains nothing made-up. What he hears is, in fact, a noisy commotion, in which the clamor of the keys also signals the creative turmoil taking place in her room.
Here Wilbur decides to extend the figure with a simile. Well, a poem must listen to itself and give visible indications of listening to itself. Hence, having likened the front of the house to the prow of a boat, he chooses another nautical item to which to liken the sound of the typewriter: the sound of a chain being hauled over a gunwale. Is she, perhaps, pulling up anchor?
Likewise, stanza three is witty and showy. If the house is a ship, why then her life in it carries cargo, some of it heavy, and one may wish her a lucky passage—both in her story and on the sea of life. That's easy: serious but easy.
The poem is still listening—rereading—itself. And what has it heard so far? It has heard a proud father saying the usual things, albeit with grace and flair. And so we come to the second part of this poem, in which the father will realize how casually one may wish someone good luck. Please notice, by the way, that he didn't write, "But now it is she who pauses, to reject my thought and its easy figure." No, that would have been mere fancy. He can't know what the silence means, and so he writes, " ... as if to reject my thought and its easy figure." His simile was an easy figure for her typing; his metaphor was an easy figure for her writing and her life; he is, likewise, an easy figure pausing for a moment outside her door, calm against the clamor of her keys.
At this point in the poem, it might seem that there is nothing further to say, at least not if one is able to resist the siren call of one's abstract ideas and bald statements of feeling. It is time to look elsewhere, and the poet looks, as poets will, into memory. For when the poem listens to itself, the poet has been listening to himself o herself, and listening to oneself is listening to the past. Language can eat the future, but it lives off the past.
He remembers a trapped bird—in that very room—who had to try and try. When it fell, he tells us, it fell "like a glove," sometimes to the "desk-top," and one may picture the writer's hand slumping from the keys to the desk in between sentences. But there is more to the parallel. The bird grew humped and bloody in its effort. Its success in getting out of that room depended on its wits, or brains and it had to learn the hard way on its own.
Finally, it makes it, "clearing the sill of the ... window." No, the "sill of the world." If we didn't get it, we do now: his daughter's writing a story is part of her growing up and away. She, too, will someday clear the sill of their world: the world of the family and of her room at the prow of the house.
Guess what? This is serious business after all. The triumph of this poem, the big thing which depends on all the little things along the way, lies in the speaker, the father, taking his daughter more and more seriously. Finally, he says it: "It is always a matter, my darling,/of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish/what I wished you before, but harder." One thing that poems do is to give a phrase or sentence or thought more meaning. Or to find out how much more it meant all along. "I wish what I wished you before, but harder."
When I reread this poem, I see many reassuring things for a writer. I see that simple details can have meaning beyond furnishing a world or telling a story. I see that the past may relate to the present and vice versa. I see that what begins in word-play may end in honor. I see again how the very essence of a poem may be to arrive at that spot at which the speaker may call his daughter his darling.
Okay, that's groundwork. How is my reading of it affected by my being a writer? Primarily, in this way: having read it and been taken by the reality and clarity of its feelings, I go back to see how the poem might have been written. I try to imagine myself freely arriving at the same words, images, associations, and thoughts, in the same order.
You know, it's a truism that one learns to write by reading. But not necessarily by wide reading. Rather, by deep reading. One might read a few things over and over, perhaps over a period of years, and so be more lastingly influenced than by a slighter acquaintance with more.
Of course one may read and reread happily without thinking about it, learning by intuition, and certainly some poems are less discussable than others. I have a theory—just one of many theories that come and go, depending on the context—that the great achievements of American poetry have been essentially those of rhetoric rather than of image and metaphor, or of imagination, structure, and vision. In American poetry, as you all know, great emphasis has been placed on an individual tone of voice. The great Mommas and Daddies of modern poetry in English are enormously distinctive, each from the others. The great flowering of American poets mainly born in the twenties exhibits individuality of style and of tone of voice in profusion. From the late 1950s until the late 1960s, it seemed as if few American poets wanted to look or sound as if they had anything in common. The goal was an individual voice, and I suspect that retrospective analysis will find the content far less individuated than the variety of styles implied. Nonetheless, the Imagists had said that a new cadence meant a new idea—essentially a defense of formalism, whether in traditional forms, variants of them, or so-called free verse. Not a new imagination, mind you, a new idea. The emphasis on ideas, baldly stated or only insinuated, in American poetry has meant an emphasis on those aspects of a poem that are essentially rhetorical. The secrets of tone are, for the most part, those of syntax and words without meaning, so-called "function words" that indicate relationships: subordination, coordination, conjunction, opposition, etc. Syntax is logic, or the appearance of it, and new logic inevitably produces a new tone of voice.
In the classroom, we tend to marvel at rhetoric, and to discuss most freely poems held together by rhetoric, poems in which, however frontal the narrative, however rich in objects, images, or metaphors, however insistent in vision, the poem is primarily a set of rhetorical maneuvers.
It is harder, much harder, to learn from poems that skip that rhetorical level and that present themselves as associational texts in which the reasoning is in between the lines while the lines themselves present only the emblems of experience and, sometimes, of epiphany.
James Wright's poem may seem "farther out" than Wilbur's "The Writer." Its images seem to lie on the page as if disconnected, each from each. If by rhetoric the poem establishes its tone of voice and hints at connections, nowhere do we come on anything as bald as, "It is always a matter, my darling, of life or death, as I had forgotten.” Instead we get, "I have never gone through that door,/But the elf owl's face/Is inside me."
Now look again at the first three lines. From the writer’s point of view—that is, from the point of view of a thief—what’s to notice? The basic sentence is a simple statement of fact: the elf owl creeps into the saguaro at night. But Wright says "secret" of night. “Secret” is one of James Wright's special words. It shows up often in his last three books. From its recurrent use we can tell that it holds symbolic and visionary overtones for him, much as “grace,” “noon,” “seal," “purple,” and "circumference" held for Emily Dickinson. From the canon of Wright's poetry we can tell that his use of the word "secret" comes from his feeling that a man's life is inside him, out of view of others, not one's public life at all—something private, personal, intimate. But of course you don't have to know any of that. The phrase here, "secret of night," makes perfect sense all by itself. Night is the great cover. The elf owl creeps secretively into the tree.
The other tiny "extra" in what would otherwise be a plain sentence of desert lore is the rhetorical maneuver at the start: "I had no idea." That's immediate involvement; the voice of the poem is at strong and engaged. A stance has been taken. While such small maneuvers may come to be second nature, using them is quite as much a matter of technique as is calling a section of one's house by the name for a section of a boat.
From here on, the poem will increasingly identify with the elf owl. Wright says that he has had to tear himself away from many places that seemed to be, like the cactus tree that is home to the elf owl, tall green-rooted. But, being a man, he wasn't able to live in a cactus tree. His desert was that of the factories where he worked and quit.
Still, there is in each of us a secret life. A life in which we identify with the elf owl, and in which we see ourselves living at night in a cactus tree in the welcome desert rain. And so he says, addressing the tree, “You were the shadow/Of a hallway/In me." If, being a man, he has never gone through that door, at least he can say of himself that he carries the elf owl's face inside.
The poem listens to itself. That is how it arrives at tall and green-rooted places in mid-noon, to echo and parallel a cactus tree in the desert. That is how it finds its way to factories which are themselves scorched deserts.
But the poem does not merely repeat itself. Try out the last stanza without its second line. Without "You are not one of the gods," it would simply be more of the same. What has been added? For one thing, in case the reader was wondering—no, he is not according tree divinity. Moreover, the line contains a certain insistence on facts and this world, the sort of insistence we saw four lines earlier when he said, "I have never gone through that door." Without such moves, a poem is limited to mere fancy: a story, say, about a man who could live inside a cactus and talk to elf owls. No; it is not a story at all, but an expression of a secret identification and a longing to be naturally at home.
From the very first, this poem held my interest as a writer. James Wright began writing poetry as a formalist, indebted to the poems of Edwin Arlington Robinson. With The Branch Will Not Break, his poetry underwent a sea change, apparently influenced by his reading and translating of Spanish poets and the German expressionist poet Georg Trakl. Thereafter, Wright was always said to be a surrealistic image-maker. In later books, he put back the open-faced rhetoric he had forsaken in The Branch Will Not Break, but he continued to compose, also, great flourishes of surrealistic imagery. In this poem to the saguaro, the landscape takes on a surreal tinge—it helps in the desert to be among The Friends of Salvador Dali—but it is not fanciful. Everything here is real.
We should all, I would think, wish to write such lines as, "You were the shadow/Of a hallway/In me," and, "I am an elf owl's shadow, a secret/Member of your family." It may help, therefore, to notice how Wright gets to such lines and why they hold such meaning when he does. You don't come to, "You were the shadow of a hallway in me," unless you first see in the cactus tree a hallway for an elf owl. One of the things poems do is to add meaning to what has already been said: "I wish what I wished you before, but harder."
Now pause a moment over the last two lines of the poem. There are the words "shadow" and "secret" again. Are they just vague emotional equivalents to the speaker's feelings, or do they make sense based on what "shadow" and "secret" meant when he used them earlier? See if you agree with this logic: if the cactus tree was a hallway to the elf owl in the desert, and was therefore the shadow of a hallway to the worker in the hot factories, then the worker could become the shadow of the elf owl. Each is a part of the other. The elf owl doesn't live exclusively in the cool tree, but also in the burning desert. Indeed, he "creeps" into the tree, a secret act in the night. Nor does the worker's entire life take place in the brutal light of factories. He has his naturally cool places, his secret life. The living elf owl and the living man are one, more so than the speaker realized, perhaps, when he wished openly to be the shadow of the roadrunner, the lover of the diamondback, and the tear wept by the tarantula. He is, in a sense, all of those—the more so if he knows it. If the green arms of the saguaro do not lower and gather him in fact, in his mind he is able to rise to embrace them and to affirm his identification with the world and all its forms of life.
Sometimes, at the end of a poem, the world is larger, and the speaker is less alone.
James Wright also wrote short pieces in paragraphs. He explained that he "wanted to learn to write prose." Are they prose, or prose poetry, or are they poems that happen to have been set down in paragraphs? I would say that it is a sign of the times—some would say a bad sign, others would say a good sign—that we need not linger on the question. Our technical definitions and technical standards for poetry have been greatly enriched by a larger, untechnical understanding based on the quality of the poetic imagination, and on what we might call "poetic structure": how the poem proceeds from one thing to another and how meaning is apprehended, enlarged, or diminished.
Our American poetry and the ways in which we speak about it have been changed since the mid-I960s, perhaps not as much by the examples of our own best poets, or by those who have been brought to our shores from other English-speaking countries aboard barrages of publicity, as by poetry in translation. These changes were not wrought only by the finest, most considered, and most accurate translations (for example, Mark Strand's versions of Alberti and Andrade, or Charles Simic's of Vasko Popa, or Alistair Reid's of Pablo Neruda, or translations of Zbigniew Herbert by Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott, or those of Cavafy by Edmund Keeley and George Savidis). They came about also because of those translations that, like Ezra Pound's of Li Po, take liberties with the literal and with form to render, perhaps even to exaggerate, the spirit of the poem (for example, Robert Bly's versions of Neruda, Lorca, Jimenez, Rumi, Rilke, Martinson, Ekelof, and Tranströmer, and W. S. Merwin's translations from both eastern and western languages). And there were the best of the anthologies of poetry in translation (of which I will mention Mark Strand's and Charles Simic's Another Republic, Czeslaw Milosz's Postwar Polish Poetry, Hardie St. Martin's Roots and Wings: Poetry from Spain, I900-I975, and that hoary old favorite, perhaps now forgotten, Robert Payne's anthology of Chinese poetry, The White Pony, first published in 1947 and again in 1960). But it was not only the finest translations, nor the most accurate, nor the most conscious of spirit and imagination, nor the best anthologies that influenced us to think more broadly about poetry, but so also random translations by poets who did merely a little of this or that, using a "pony" and a dictionary to translate a few Persian ghazals or one or two poems by the Spanish poet Unamuno, say.
In every translation, there comes to us a new wave of permission, an increased sense of freedom. Is it because we are forced to abandon our prejudices and preferences if we are to enjoy travel? Is it because not all cultures share our overwhelmingly technical view of things? Is it because the pressures of empire, even a crumbling empire involved in a desperate holding action, affect our point of view? No doubt it is for all these reasons and others. One thing is certain: every literature has grown fresh, and every great writer been made greater, by writers looking to other cultures and languages for new words and renewed permission.
The poem is titled "After a Death." One could easily misremember it as "After a Shock," for that is how it feels. It is not an elegy. We are told nothing about the person who has died, not even his name. We read only that the death was indeed a shock. There is a mention of television. Perhaps it was someone famous. Perhaps it was an assassination. Perhaps it was the killing of John F. Kennedy. In fact, it was. Tranströmer says so. But I note that he does not say so in the poem nor even offer a dedication or an epigraph in memoriam. The poem is more general than that. Tranströmer says that an uncle died around the same time, and that the deaths combine in the poem. In my mind, I contrast his way with the sometimes unseemly American rush to dedicate poems, to mention the names of famous friends, and to publish elegies for poets before the ink has dried on their obits.
Of course, the rush to identify and dedicate is not born of bad intentions. We want everything to be particular. We love particulars. We have faith in particulars. We honestly believe that, if we can get the particulars correct and in the right order, our job will be done and the poem will be complete. Perhaps we favor particulars in part because our choice has long seemed to lie exclusively between specifics and explanation. For important reasons, we favor the concrete over the abstract, the particular over the general, presentation over explanation, showing over telling.
Yet so much poetry from other cultures exhibits both the tensile strength of the particular and the active force of the general. How does this happen?
I can spot elements in this Tranströmer poem that line up with the question. Conventionally, we can say that a long, shimmering comet tail is a fine metaphor for the sudden, fiery grief that exploded when Kennedy was assassinated and then streaked into darkness. Or for any death that comes as a shock. But I notice, also, the first thing, which is simply the poet's leap into the heavens and then his sudden drop back to earth and the domestic: "It keeps us inside," a wonderful detail; "It makes the TV pictures snowy." Do these things feel right? Obviously. Do they make sense physically? Yes, for a comet tail might be thought to affect electronic reception. If it's exaggeration, it only imitates in hyperbole the extreme emotions of shock and grief. And the fourth line—"It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires"—continues the images of difficult communication, messages, all in the air. If the telephone lines themselves sweat cold beads, what effect must the news be having on human beings?
Some kind of thinking has taken place between stanzas one and two. I can imagine it. While the poet was asking himself, unconsciously, "What next?" for his poem, he came to the same question about his subject. For there is nothing notable to say about the anatomy and biology of death which would advance this poem. The rest of the event is only news.
This is another way in which a poem can listen to itself. The poem does not listen to itself merely so that it can gain applause by showing that it did. No, it listens for clues. "What next?" Imagine this. You are sitting at your kitchen table, writing. You have written four lines. You read those four lines as if you were someone other than the writer, someone who asks a question or disagrees. Now you know what to say next.
After a shocking death, one can still go out into the same world on skis if you are in the right place and season for them, but the world will seem changed. The few leaves hanging from winter brush will resemble pages. And here we notice something having perhaps no basis in the original language of the poem: that the English plural of "leaf" is "leaves." But pages of what? The poem is still paying attention to itself. Remember those telephone wires in line four? "Pages torn from old telephone directories"; hence, "names swallowed by the cold." Cold drops on the wires, names swallowed by the cold, a lump in the throat—as separate as the images may seem when we first come upon them, they live in one neighborhood.
The beginning of the final stanza of this poem reminds me of the distance between our poets and many of our critics. Few of our critics would care for a line like, "It is still beautiful to feel the heart beat." Half of our poets and most of our critics write as if they believe that, since life ends in death, we are essentially dead. Hence, they believe, sometimes without knowing it, that any uncomplicated emotion about life is excessive: therefore, sentimental. But poetry, because it is written by the living to be read by the living, is a way of life. It is always about living, even in the shadow of death. The samurai's armor of black dragon scales, which Tranströmer saw in the Stockholm Museum, overshadows the swordsman, and the shadow often "seems more real than the body," but it is "still beautiful to feel the heart beat." Without line nine, the poem would be different. Without line nine, it would not be wisdom, but complaint.
Now, this Tranströmer poem, in translation, does not show a certain vibrancy of language American poetry readers favor, nor a fiercely idiomatic character, nor a sharply etched individual tone. It comes to us in a neutral tone, in an almost impersonal voice, yet I find in it a certain intimacy regardless—perhaps because of the very objects in the poem (TV, telephone, brush, and leaves), and perhaps because it asks the question most of us would ask, "What next?" And perhaps simply because it employs the word "us."
And it accomplishes extra meaning in its last sentence, just as the Wilbur and Wright poems did. That the suit of armor dwarfs the samurai might be merely a museum fact, something which moves us to say, "Look at that!" Occurring where it does in the poem, however, we are more likely to say, "Think about that!" Thus, the writer has taken a detail from a museum display and, by a deft use of context, set free an emotional weight it always contained. I find this quality in poetry from other countries more often than in American poems: the quality, that is, of releasing from objects the emotional force they hold in quiet.
Now I'd like to strengthen or weaken my case, and add a dimension to it, by confessing that I sometimes read, in private, my own poems. And that I read them the same way—to see, as much as possible, how they were written.
You might think I ought to have known everything at the time, but what we first do consciously later becomes second nature, and I believe in any case in inspiration, spontaneity, association, accident, and temporary insanity. During the interminable time of a writing block, I am tempted to employ a rubber stamp reading, "Temporarily Deceased."
Here, then, is another poem subject to rereading, just as if it were someone else's: "To an Adolescent Weeping Willow."
Right away, I notice things. It seems to me that this poet began with a line that is both sincere and tricky. He challenged the tree. Even before he told us one thing about it, he got worked up. Immediate emotion. Condition now. A rhetorical maneuver, cast in the idiomatic language of ordinary people, perhaps similar to the first sentences of certain favorite poems by James Wright: "The Old WPA Swimming Pool in Martins Ferry, Ohio," for example, which begins, "I am almost afraid/To write down/This thing." Or, "To the Saguaro Cactus Tree in the Desert Rain," which begins, "I had no idea….” Influence? More accurately, something of experience and language held in common and welcomed into the writing because one has seen it employed elsewhere.
I can hear the poem listening to itself, using the rest of the first stanza to explain the challenge of the first line. And I can see, now, that the poet simply turned his back on the question he had posed: "What can it mean/when a thing is so easy?"
Even that little bit of evidence suggests that the poem is not about what the speaker knows as much as it is about what he doesn't yet know he knows. And to find out what one doesn't know one knows, one must sometimes look elsewhere. It's a process that happens when you go to bed to sleep on a problem and wake with the answer. Physicists do it all the time. Freud did it. Does it matter where one looks while looking away? I tend to think not. The self has a coherence, and the poet, good or lucky or both, can retrace those connections later on.
Looking back, it all seems patently obvious. The willow stands swaying easily in dirt. The speaker in the poem (the poet, yes) once did something involving dirt that was easy to do but that now seems, at first glance, to have contained the seeds of unease—so much so that the poet immediately retreats to explain. He wasn't bad, he didn't make trouble for his father; he was good, he helped.
In fact, he did more. He swept up, and he oiled the floor.
"Yes," says that invisible reader, lurking behind the writer's shoulder (though never in the direction in which the writer looks). "Yes, but what did he do while you were handling your childhood chores? Didn't he do the harder things? Let's name a couple to remind you."
And that's enough of that. Is this a poem about running a five-and-ten? No, we don't know what it's going to be about-mostly, finally— but it won't be that. "Don't forget," says the second self, "you're talking to a tree. You asked it a question, so far unanswered. Can you answer it or not? Not yet? Then why not ask the tree some more questions?" Hotshot tree, doing everything so easily…. Do you think my father was like you? Did he sway, kiss a rock, soak up water and climb into light? And now comes a lucky moment in the language. It's not just any old tree; it's a willow, a weeping willow. "Did he weep and weep in the yard?" That means one thing for the tree and another for one's father. Asked about a tree, it's a piece of light wit, but it's damn serious when asked about the father.
Suddenly, the poet is forced to answer his own seemingly rhetorical questions. When he began questioning the tree in earnest, they were questions that seemed to suggest differences. One expected them to be answered with "no's," but it turns out the answer was "yes" all along, even in a sense to the first and last question.
So now the weeping willow—at the start, bothersome, even offensive, in its ease—can be accepted. The poet has asked his challenging question and, though he has yet to answer it, has bled the confusion and confrontation from it. The willow and his father have much in common.
The differences, however, are still at issue. Willow, come Sweep my floor. I have no store, but I have a yard. I do the father's singing and crying now. Not only that, I planted you there.
What, then, of the question posed in lines five and six: "What can it mean when a thing is so easy?" Looking back at this poem, trying to imagine myself at the time of writing it, it seems to me that by writing the poem I found the answer—to what I meant, not to what the same question might mean when asked by one of you. The question itself had to be given more meaning by the poem, meaning that lurked underneath when the poem began.
It takes the whole poem to answer the question. Then it takes only one sentence of six monosyllabic words to deliver the answer. The willow is an adolescent. That is why some things are easy for it. Moreover, the seeming ease of youth is characteristic of the distance in time between any father and any son, not the distance of not getting along but the distance of cold fact: the son knows little of the consciousness of the father. The son hangs around, sweeps the floor. He assumes life feels more or less the same for his father, who fires the coal stove and kills rats in the basement. He doesn't know, like they say, shit. Not because he is stupid or unsympathetic. His not knowing means only that he is a boy, not a man. He will know the difference when he is a man.
I am reassured when I look again at this poem. It says to me that I can pose a question and not answer it while the poem goes on, confident that an answer will arrive. It says to me that I can talk to one person (or a tree) about another. I see, as I have always suspected, that I feel a heightened engagement when I address someone or some thing directly—that, in that sense, I want the poem to matter because someone is listening. I see that, when I ask a question, I want it to be answered. I suspect that I could derive from this poem a method by which to write others. The method would require a challenging remark, some description of what is being addressed, a question to be answered at the end, and a set of memories set down one after another until a connection has been achieved between memory and the thing being addressed, acceptance has replaced the initial challenge, and a resolution occurs. I am not interested in applying such a method myself, if it is one, but I see that it might be done, and that something similar might be done out of any poem that interests one enough. I know of one poet who writes her poems primarily by extrapolating requirements from other people's poems. After all, one's own obsessions and language will surface regardless.
In conclusion, I'd like to talk about what it takes besides talent and perseverance to make the big leagues. Everyone knows that, no matter how good you are in your hometown, at some point you have got to play with and against the best. If your kid is really that talented with the violin, he or she needs a world-class teacher. It's no accident that a large number of the best basketball players in the country come from a few well-known schools and playgrounds, or that hotshot high school baseball and tennis players head for those particular warm climates where the other hotshots have gone. Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis didn't get to play that way by stepping on the football field with the high school band to play marches. You want to be a carpenter, you've got to apprentice yourself to a good one. You want to be a tailor, it helps to know at least one person who can make a suit.
Well, one can't always give up everything and go off to hang around the right playground or teacher. But in literature it's different: one can hang out with the best. It's all right there in the library.
Still, the books are not the process. What's in the books is the end result. It's as if one saw the ball going through the basket again and again, without ever seeing the moves that made the shot possible. Consequently, if you are to learn from what is given you, the poem itself, you must put yourself into it again and again, imagining the process—nay, inventing the process—by which the poem may have come to be. More often than not, what you invent will be sort of what the poet did.
From rereading, you will grow up and go free. Then, getting your poems written will depend on need, luck, and perseverance. The rest is genius.