‘Does My Poetry Have to Be Difficult to Be Real?’

You can have what you want, and should.

Welcome back to The Reading, an advice column for creative writers.

Hi there,

It’s hard to believe that 2021 is almost over. What a rollercoaster of a year it’s been. Now, it’s a rush to hibernate.

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There’s one more Writing Space on December 5 and everyone will receive the year-end roundup later this month. Was there a letter that touched you deeply this year? Are you a former letter-writer and want to send an anonymous update on how things went? Have you lost someone you’d like to remember this year? I’d love to hear from you.

Now, on with the work.

Dear Yanyi,

I have been writing poems since my late teen years. But they were less poems and more volcanic eruptions of emotions. Over the years though things have gotten a bit serious. My reading influences have changed and it has started reflecting in my writing, too. I read everything from Tranströmer to Ada Limón to Basho’s haikus to Walt Whitman. However, the academics of poetry is something that I find incredibly technical. I believe in writing from a place of intuition and feeling and rewriting from the same place, too. But when I look at the “real poets” out there and their heavy leaning and discourse on various theories, forms, and technicalities of a poem, I kinda feel like I am a fraud. Also, I am not a huge fan of hardcore literary criticism and analysis. I dislike treating poetry as a science that needs to be decoded and like to keep an open space for wonder. For me, it’s more like a river - you skinny dip despite not knowing swimming. I love accessible poetry that allows curiosity to thrive. But I sometimes fear sounding like a noob when I say I dislike reading difficult poems or poems that you have to break your head over for hours to get to the core. I want poetry to be accessible to the non-poetry folks, too. Like Mary Oliver’s poems. I want to write simple poems reflecting a deeper truth.  But every “real” poet out there is nose deep in theory, in flexing their knowledge of literary academia. It feels overwhelming. When I compare myself to these people, I feel very small and it feels as though I am not serious about putting my words out there. I work a full-time job and have been unable to stick to a writing routine of sorts, so there’s that too, which makes me feel like I am not living a writer’s life and therefore am inadequate in my art. How can I feel like a real poet?

Not A Real Poet

Mumbai, India

Dear NARP,

Let me get you the short answer first: no, you do not need to write poetry teeming with theoretical allusion in order to be a real poet. You already know this, given your example of Mary Oliver, who we both know to be wildly (and preciously!) successful. Yet, I want to get a little deeper into the marrow of the question you pose at the end of your letter.

I had a similar trajectory to yours in poetry. I wrote poems starting in my teens less as exercises in forms and more just to write out my feelings. Perhaps, like me, you were encouraged to take on an economically stable career early on in life. So off I went to study something else, and, soon thereafter, even though I loved my English classes and writing workshops, I pursued another career while poetry stayed firmly on the wayside.

As my peers went on to do MFAs and pursue their PhDs, I fumbled through evening workshops and read literary magazines. I questioned why my work seemed so different than the poems in those magazines, but I also wanted to have work accepted into those magazines. For some reason, I needed those acceptances in order to accept myself as a poet. I wouldn’t allow myself to be one without them.

Despite doing well in writing, I had internalized a belief that I should not be a writer. The messages were sometimes outright—my family steering me away from writing—or they were implied, as when my emotional survival was predicated on my economic independence. Poetry, to me, was framed as a nice-to-have, and as so often happens to what we want, it fell to the wayside on the way to doing what I “had” to do, so much that even I began to doubt that I should, or would ever, have it. I needed proof not only for others, but for myself as well.

And how could I have given myself permission when I had no stable role models to teach me how? Even when I did look to learn poetry, I thought I had to do so in linear progression, like how one learns addition and subtraction before moving onto algebra. Like in grade school, I expected my education to include teachers who would reveal those hidden building blocks. In the absence of a formal program, I looked outward to those magazines and those poets whose work, bolstered by years of training I hadn’t yet received, felt distant in a way completely removed from how I was writing. Yet, I still looked up to their models as the algebra I would one day have to master if I wanted a poetry career.

Even as someone who likes analytical work both in and out of the academy, I have feared, at various times, that my poetry was missing a crucial component that would ensure its success, be it intellectual rigor, contemporary relevance, or just plain quality. The component often changes. Yet, at every point I have had these doubts, I’ve noticed that they have less to do with writing and more to do with the pre-conditions necessary for the writing itself: will I have a career that will garner me money that will buy me time to write? Am I talented enough to—? Am I networked enough to—? The concerns led back, almost always, to time to write.

Do you want a writing career or do you want to write? The difference in priority is immense. If you care more for the career, then you’ll end up deriving your permission by comparison to highly visible writers. But if you care more about writing, and a career seems the way to do it, your permission derives from whether you will let yourself write.

You know that saying, don’t put the cart before the horse? Well, in poetry, one’s career is the cart, not the horse. The capitalist mindset we’ve been taught assumes that a life of poetry must be pulled by a career, and a career only being possible if one is “enough”—enough of a fit, enough of an intellect, enough of a talent.

Now, looking back, I didn’t want those acceptances because I cared for a career. I cared for being told that there was at one other person in the world who looked at my work and said, yes, this is enough. I cared for having, at last, the freedom to claim my life as my own, a life that I would devote to writing, which was in turn the only thing I did that was solely devoted to myself.

Perhaps we want to turn our passions into careers because our jobs represent the time that doesn’t belong to us, but should. You are, at this moment, resisting difficult poetry. But is it difficult poetry you’re resisting, or the notion that in order to write “serious” poetry, you have to write in traditions that you don’t care for? That is, are you resisting yet another part of your life being taken up by what something you don’t truly want?

To feel like a real poet, you need to feel support for the life you truly want. But you also have to be ready to receive this support when it appears before you, and to recognize it when it comes. The support I’m talking about is not winning national awards or even getting a recommendation from a famous poet. The support you need to remember is the kind you receive from the person who comes to thank you at the end of a reading; it’s the friend who puzzles with you over the writing industry as you have coffee while trading drafts; it’s the small magazine editor who treasures your submission and the poem you’ve placed with them. Your proof is closer than you think—you’re a real writer to them.

There are more traditions in poetry than the magazines or institutions that can hold them up. Poetry is a thinking art, one in which language has permission to play in whatever part of consciousness you hope to convey. Some of those traditions do love to build on academic theory, but academia is not so far away from the thinking one does while walking down a stream.

The word “difficult” can be thrown at poems that are inaccessible in one way or another. But not all inaccessibility is a bad thing. Difficulty, for example, may just refer to difference. I wouldn’t expect someone who doesn’t know Chinese, for example, to understand Chinese in multilingual poem. It might be my purpose, in fact, to keep that part of the poem for Chinese speakers, especially those who grew up with not only the language but the cultural allusions that can only come from that lived experience. Rather than something to be conquered, the unknown might stand for the independence of one life from another.

The truth is, NARP, I don’t think you dislike difficult poetry. The poetry you speak of as “accessible” in itself contains its own kind of difficulty. The spiritual aspect of poetry, that wonder you speak of, requires embodiment, contemplation, and attention that is not usually cultivated in assessment-oriented school curriculums or productivity-oriented workplaces. The difficulty of wonder, of embracing the unknown, is difficult to receive for those who are not yet receptive to it.

As I said earlier, poetry is a thinking art, one in which both you and I have permission to speak as variously as we dare to. The difficulty is not in learning a set of techniques or a rote progression of literary history, but the courage to think and act toward the art, and world, we truly want. The difficulty is in holding difference not in competition with each other but together, at once, without diminishing their distinctions. To truly honor the other by learning to include our own.

Postscript: On difficulty in poetry

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Yanyi is the author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World Random House, 1 March 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale University Press 2019). To find out more, go to yanyiii.com.

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