From the second annual Poets Forum, presented by the Academy of American Poets on November 8, 2008, at New York University in New York City. On the third panel of the day, Louise Glück, Carl Phillips, Ellen Bryant Voigt, and C. K. Williams answered questions about "Danger & Difficult in Poetry" from poet and critic James Longenbach.
It's a very elusive subject, our subject; it seems to me. I hadn't given thought to either of these words ["difficulty" and "danger"] until this panel was announced to me. And then I was obliged to give thought to them and realized that the brilliant jottings that I'd made in the middle of the night were, in fact, misperceptions of the questions involved and couldn't be used.
It seems to me that the idea of danger, as Jim [James Longenbach] suggests, is enormously self-flattering to the writer and that the only danger to the writer, really, is self-delusion—but the problem of self-delusion is that it's essential to the getting-on-paper of the poem. You have to believe that what you're doing as you're working has the makings of a miraculous utterance, you have to believe it. But if you continue to believe it, in the absence of evidence, if you begin to think that if nobody seems to like your poem it's because your poem is so harrowing and so violently perceptive that people are fleeing from it—that response needs to be examined.
Basically, it seems to me, you write to surprise yourself, to stay awake, to make of writing a continued adventure. And this has nothing to do with words like "difficulty" and "danger." And, in fact, poems make their audiences. Each great poem teaches its readers how to read it. But that can happen over time, and the problem is that you don't know whether yours is one of these poems that will instruct a generation in an art, or is it one of those poems that will be used as a terrible example of the writer's narcissism?