blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


PIVOT POINTS  |  Second Generation Poet

Gregory Donovan

In making poems, I work with a kind of poetic faith: a trust that the needed material will come, if only I remain alert and open. A trust that additional streams of information, from mythology or history or language itself, will come along to complicate and frustrate the process and ultimately bring it to completion. Like much of religious belief, it may be a willful notion imposed on the whims of chaos, yet it has the aspect of mystery nevertheless. The workings of this faith are uncontrollable, yet self-control and discipline are required to make full use of what is given. Instinct is involved, in finding a subject rich in poetic potential, and knowledge—including what is learned along the journey. Just as photographers work with available light, poets must work with available language, inherent in each subject, and as always, every word is a Janus-faced trickster, carrying within it a past but also a suggestive possibility, offering gifts, setting traps. Each subject, with its accompanying language, is as Rainer Maria Rilke suggests in the first of his Duino Elegies, a mission:

                         Many stars changed
for you, so you would notice. A wave nearby
heaved itself up in those days gone by, or else,
as you were passing by an opened window,
a violin gave itself. All this was a mission.

It nearly goes without saying that it's a mission impossible, and that there will be a crisis of poetic faith, a doubt that the twisting stream might lead not to a poem but to a dried up failure. The job of a poet who teaches is to be honest about the difficulty of the journey, how often it sinks into the many forms of failure, yet also to hand on that sustaining improbable faith, both by example and by instruction. I was fortunate in my own teachers, Thomas McAfee, who taught the exact weight of every word, and Dave Smith, who kept his students honest about the difficulty, and the novelist John Gardner, whose special gift was giving courage to keep the faith no matter how many turns the journey might demand. I have also turned to others not formally my teachers, especially to Norman Dubie for ongoing inspiration and renewal, a notion of the magic possible, and to Philip Levine, who knows what work is, and whose ideals strengthen a person from the working class who dares to be a poet. Encountering the poetry and the process of Larry Levis changed mine forever. Early on, reading Elizabeth Bishop and her mentor Marianne Moore, and Bishop's friend Robert Lowell and his friend Randall Jarrell showed that, among artists, teaching and friendship are perhaps the same thing, each being as difficult and complex, as twisted and rewarding, as any poem. Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, and W. B. Yeats, in the exchange of inspiration he achieved with the young Ezra Pound, and Pound with his unlikely friend Eliot, all teach the same lesson.

The friendship of my teachers, the teachings of friends, are voices that echo in the mind and drive the rhythms of words that trick through the bloodstream, and they, together with that peculiar poetic faith the teachers left in my trust, have sustained me in making the poems here. One day, walking on an island in the James River, I encountered an unnatural cold spot, remembered I had felt it there before—and a subject had found me. Later reading brought historical details that confirmed what instinct had suspected. One morning I heard a woman on the radio tell of an African legend and when I went to write it down, I saw it fitting into my poem about John Coltrane's own legendary work habits. A poetic faith, instinct schooled and encouraged by inspired teaching, helped me follow through to finishing these poems. My students, such as Joshua Poteat, have also taught me along our journeys together. Perhaps everything I have said here about making poems also applies to that other art, the art of teaching—teaching poets—or that is what I hope and trust, anyway. Another kind of poetic faith.  

 Breathing in the Cool
   Belle Isle
   Isla Bella

   Notes and Acknowledgments
   Levis Reading Loop