Spring 2008, Volume 4

Essay by Christopher Buckley

A Place to Start

The 1970s, early.  A bunch of us, grad students and under grads, in an evening poetry workshop at San Diego State University thought we were pretty clever.  Most of us were submitting our first poems to a critical audience, poems—through inward and encoded, though awkward and largely inaccessible—we thought were just a shade short of brilliant, completely original.  Some of us thought we were on the cutting edge, omitting all capitalization and punctuation from our poems, inserting two spaces where we wanted a pause (as James Dickey had done long before us).  Yes, we were the avant-garde, until our teacher Glover Davis—a poet from the early group who studied with Philip Levine and Peter Everwine at Fresno State College in the 1960s—showed us poems of his in which he had done the same thing years before when at the Iowa Writers Workshop.  There is not much new under the sun.

What we needed to risk, of course, was clarity, and it would take many years to realize that let alone achieve it.  Ten or more years later, one of the most witty and gifted poets I have known, William Matthews, told a workshop he was conducting with my students, that they should just follow the standard rules for punctuation, that using punctuation correctly would make their work clearer and that the punctuation then would in fact disappear.  I have always agreed with that.  I have, over the last thirty years, written poems in many strategies and styles, from formal to prose poems, free verse couplets to the William's triadic stanzas, to the poems orchestrated across the page like banks of clouds.  No matter what individual strategy seemed to arise out of my subject, I have followed Bill's simple advice.  If you think you are being amazingly original, chances are you are not; if you feel you have to add lots of bells and whistles, embellish a lot, chances are you do not have much worth dressing up in the first place.  Accurate and appropriate imagery, complete and intelligible sentences, phrases, and statements, a human emotion or theme with a fresh edge is what you need in my opinion.

Of course there is the whole school of theory-driven poetry, a coterie of absurdists, that would find my view very old school.  Given how quickly time passes, I could care less.  A good place to start is with an essential command of the essentials of language.  You can of course break the rules for effect if you know the rules in the first place.  Just a place to start.  Being a good grammarian will not make you a poet; being a poor one could keep you from being one however.  Each day I try to come to terms with mortality, the incomprehensibility of some metaphysical rescue, the point in time where you will find out drawing ever closer.  If any of my speculation or attempts at understanding are at all worthwhile, it is important to me that they are able to be understood as I have written them, without a code book, without further theoretical explanation.

Always I want a clear music and intention at the level of phrasing and image-making.  Over the years, one piece of advice Philip Levine has often given is to "follow the imagination," and there is no better poet and teacher than Levine.  However, you need to know how to handle your craft first, how to write and revise for coherence.  Few people want to hear you explaining your poems after the fact.  More and more, I want my work to be direct and accessible in its complaint or in its praise.  Poems, it has always seemed to me,  must have meaning, must make it, must earn it.  The poets I have come to admire most seem to have worked in that direction:  the great T'ang dynasty poets, then Milosz, Hikmet, Szymborska, Herbert, the great Spanish and South American poets, and Levine, Gerald Stern, James Wright, Charles Wright, Mary Oliver, Bill Matthews, and Larry Levis, to name those that first come to mind.  I am long past worrying about style, current trends and celebrity, the handshakes iin back rooms, the agendas, that get you to the poet laureate position or on TV.  What William Carlos Williams said has sustained me for years:  A successful poet is one who writes a successful poem.  Amen.  I am simply trying to work out to my mind what our place here on the earth might mean, and find a few fresh ways of saying it, approaching the subject.  We don't have all that long to work it out.

BIO:  Christopher Buckley teaches creative writing at U.C. Riverside. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry for 2007-2008. Hiis fifteenth book, Modern History:Prose Poems 1987-2007, was published in 2008. Recently he won the 2009 Tampa Review Prize for Poetry. Read the Verdad interview and excerpt from his memoir, Sleepwalk.