How to Become a Poet

When I was a sophomore in high school, I applied for a really exclusive summer school for aspiring student artists. Only five poets in the entire state of Pennsylvania were accepted out of the thousands who applied each year to spend a month and a half on a college campus studying and living among other student artists of all shapes, sizes and crafts. I had been fancying myself a writer since first grade, and more specifically a poet since fourth or fifth. I was anxious but confident. I made it past the first round of interviews…. but I didn’t get in.

Today I stumbled across two pieces of internet flotsam that reminded me of that teenage, poetry-ridden self of mine. The second was an article by Jim Moore, who recently saw his seventh book of poetry into print. Moore writes:

People sometimes ask, especially parents of aspiring writers, “What does it take to become a poet?” From my own experience I would say four things matter most:

  1. A broken heart.
  2. A sudden dislocation which results in you living in a new place, not really knowing why you are there.
  3. A welcoming bookstore floor.
  4. The luck of stumbling across a poet whose work seems written as if just for you; whose poems feel as if they are saving your life, stanza by blessed stanza.

Everything else takes care of itself.

Yes. Yes, Jim, a thousand times yes.

The end of my story is a happy one. The following year I applied for that elite arts school again. This time, during the second round of interviews, the head of the creative writing department for the school commented bemusedly, “You applied last year? I don’t remember you at all — your work must have improved a very great deal since then.” Then she asked me why I thought it had. Nervous and confused, both flattered and insulted by turns, I replied, “I fell in love.”

Here’s how it went:

  1. The broken heart was named Chris. He was my best friend. He had the cutest, crooked nose. He didn’t think of me like that.
  2. The sudden dislocation was a far less prestigious, week-long writing camp at a local community college that my parents decided to send me to that summer instead of the really good one that I didn’t get in to. Most of the kids who were at the camp came every year. I was awkward and sullen.
  3. The welcoming floor was the lounge of the dormitory where we were staying for that not-nearly-as-prestigious writing camp that week. I worried that my roommate didn’t like me much, so I spent long hours after dinner curled up in an uncomfortable chair in the lounge, browsing the collection of poetry books the community college professors had gathered for our benefit and enrichment.
  4. The poet? Mark Strand. But I didn’t find him in a book. On the last day of camp, when we were all packing up to leave and awaiting our parents’ arrivals, a girl named Sarah asked me if I’d ever heard the poem “Keeping Things Whole.” She recited it to me there and then, from memory. The world spun. I was dumbstruck. There in this one poem was the perfect articulation of all my awkwardness and loneliness and dislocation, embedded in a landscape of rolling fields and grass-thick meadows so akin to those I’d grown up with as a child in Lancaster County farm country.

I was in love. Everything else took care of itself.

(Yes, the next summer, I did get in to the prestigious school, and those five weeks on the shores of Lake Erie changed my life, as so many small things do.)

Even today, I can still recite that poem by heart. There is something beautiful and tragic about it, yet so heavy with profound hope and acceptance and love. “We all have reasons for moving….” Yes. Yes, Mark, a thousand times yes.

It’s been a long time since those summers. All through college I surrounded myself with poets, musicians and artists, I attended workshops and edited student magazines, I shook with nerves and spoke with power at local readings and poetry slams. Though I don’t think about it much, I do find that these days — when we are all so busy being adults and bustling around saving the world from each other, with not so much time for the dreamy loneliness of poetry — I miss it. Sometimes I worry that I don’t have it in me to be a poet anymore. I feel so rough around the edges, so armored against vulnerability and uncertainty despite my best efforts to stay open and attentive. There is a fear there, different from the fear that haunted me that summer when I first met Mark Strand and his reasons for moving. A bottled-up, nervous-laughter, eagerly self-righteous kind of fear.

Which is why I’m still so in love with poetry. Because there will always be someone out there who is writing to your condition, who is going to come along to save your life, stanza by stanza.

Like Jane Hirshfield, another favorite poet of mine from years ago, and that first bit of internet flotsam I stumbled upon today over at Poetry Daily:

Building and Earthquake

How easy it is for a dream to construct
both building and earthquake.
Also the nine flights of wooden stairs in the dark,
and the trembling horse, its hard breathing
loud in the sudden after-silence and starlight.
This time the dream allows the building to stand.
Something it takes the dreamer a long time to notice,
who thought that the fear was the meaning
when being able to feel the fear was the meaning.

Yes. Yes, Jane, a thousand times yes.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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