Your column No Ideas But In Things: Notes on Poetry features advice to poets, or those wanting to write poetry. What age range of an audience did you envision before you began this? You taught, or currently teach, creative writing, correct? Is this where your columns germinated?
Initially I was aiming for an older audience: the South Dakota Poetry Society members, most of whom are in their 50s and some even older. Many have been writing a long time, and yet some have recently joined and are not experienced. So it was for them, primarily, but then I began to offer it to anyone who likes to read and write poetry, experienced or not. And others—including high school and college students—are looking at my blog too.
Yes, I’ve taught creative writing for over 40 years, and so I was thinking: why not take what I remember, and in actual lecture handouts from classes, workshops, and other presentations, and put it out there for anyone who might be able to use it? After all, it’s the main thing I know at least something about, and I am still a teacher—always have been a teacher, in fact—so why not offer it to young or even experienced poets, and see if they can make use of it?
That’s what I’m trying to do.
Did you start the website yourself? Why a webpage? Is your column linked to other websites of similar topic/interest?
I started up a website—had a professional person do it for me—many years ago, and my blog is mentioned on my website. I don’t think my blog is on other websites. It would be good to be able to get it around, but I’m not at all smart or resourceful on the computer, so I don’t know much about getting it around.
Throughout the columns you offer, amongst your own wise words, are passages by fellow poets. Who are those poets discussing craft that have influenced you?
So many influences. Mostly, these are poets whose poems I’ve loved over the years and decades. Let me give you a partial list of influences: Frost, Dickinson, Sandburg, and Dickey—huge influences on me. Also: Denise Levertov, Elizabeth Bishop, M. Moore, Howard Nemerov, R. Wilbur, Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Gary Snyder, Dylan Thomas, Reed Whittemore, E.A. Robinson, Edward Thomas, Basho, Issa and the haiku makers, T.S. Eliot, WC Williams, and so many more. Sometimes just a single poem or just a line or two from a poem from an obscure poet, sometimes whole poems, whatever. It’s all useable. I have a little theory about the origin of poetry: it came from persons with a talent for saying something memorable in a few words, maybe a sentence (or line). And these persons from the beginning—long before the invention of writing—had status in their communities because they had that ability or talent for describing things in words that their friends could remember—and make use of in some way. It had to do first of all, I suppose, with where they could find a herd of deer, or where predators hung out. Or where they could find food. Poets are persons who can say something valuable and memorable in just a few words. “Thirty days hath September . . .” Again, useful things. And then, as time went on, the words began to turn into lines—utility evolved into art (maybe some of the poets began to wear strange beads and a funny cap?) And finally, whole utterances: haiku, sonnets, and so on. I assume that free verse fits into my theory too, somewhere, early on in fact.
In all the columns to date you state the undeniability of responding to what one has read. What poems, or poets, were those you found yourself first imitating? Have you emulated anyone lately?
At first, Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. But it didn’t take me long to learn that I couldn’t write that way—it wasn’t my style, my way with language, especially the meter and rimes, though I still love the poems of those two, as well as those by E.A. Robinson (another I tried to imitate), and of course Shakespeare and Donne, and others. Carl Sandburg was I think the first poet whose language and sensibility I could actually use. No doubt, because I too am from the Midwest, and so I understand his sensibility. And his free verse sounded authentic to me: “I ask a man where he is going and he answers: ‘Omaha.’” I love the cadence, the straight-forward, down-to-earth quality of that. No showing off, no messing around, and yet it has a quality of authenticity and confidence that I still appreciate. Then I met James Dickey at a writer’s conference in Colorado when I was in my late 20s and still searching for direction. Dickey took one look at my poems, and said to me, after reading my poem, “Pole Vaulter,” which he liked a lot, “Shakespeare never did any pole vaulting.” That statement changed my life as a writer and therefore my life as a human being. It took awhile, but what Dickey said to me about my poems was a game changer for me. Dickey too had been an athlete, and so we had similar backgrounds, and both of us drew from our physical life directly for our poems. I still consider Dickey the major influence, along with Sandburg, for me. Everybody has to have a mentor or somebody whom they look up to, who mentored them—and not necessarily in person either—in order to grow, to mature. I’m grateful to James Dickey, a poet I happen to believe is one of the major American poets of the 20th century.
You’ve written in multiple forms. How do you decide which one to use? Or do the words beg for the proper shape? How does a poem come into fruition for you as opposed to a prose piece?
The words, the lines, the images dictate the poem, I suppose, though I don’t think anybody has actually figured out how it works in the brain. A lot remains mysterious. A rhythm, an image and a way to present the image—this is what happens to get a poem going, for me. It’s an exploration. Since I am much more poet than prose writer, what I think and feel and see just comes out in lines of poetry, mostly. Lately, I’ve been writing almost all poetry, except for my articles for my blog. I am of course essentially a free verse writer, though I occasionally have used rime. I follow WC Williams pretty much in my way of setting up my poems. Very organized, but without rimes and/or meter.
Do you have a ritual before writing or a routine revision process?
I used to make sure I had two coins in a front pocket, usually a nickel and a penny. I still am somewhat superstitious, the way a ball player might be. But I mainly just hang around my computer and see what’s there on the screen, as I used to, before I got my computer, look at what I’d typed on my typewriter. For 20 years I must’ve gone through a forest of paper, enough to feel a little guilty. But now I just compose on the screen. And I still use up a lot of paper with revisions. Robert Bly once said that it’s a calamitous life for any person without at least one obsession. I’ve got more than one, but certainly a big one for me is revision. Though I will say, I revise less these days, in my early 70s, than when I was younger, especially in my severe 40s. Is that because I’m better at making poems? I don’t know, I’ll never know. The main thing is that I go on, as best I can, making poems. If one day I don’t have anything going on my computer screen, that’s fine; I’ll probably have something going the next day, or in a couple of days. I’m grateful to be able to make a poem now and then that pleases me, and that I can share with others. And there’s hardly anything better to hear than somebody liked a poem I wrote, or even a line or two of a poem.
Poetry is detailed intimacy. What advice can you offer to the shy, beginning poets who have difficulty extrapolating/presenting particulars of personal experiences?
“Detailed intimacy”—excellent phrase. The best thing any beginning or even experienced poet can do is to keep the eyes open and observe, and look for details in what you see. But especially for the beginner, it’s so important to read other poets and find out how it’s done. Want to be a bull rider? I always say, go to rodeos and watch. And the same with becoming a poet. Read poems, and see how the good and great poems are made.
A skilled poet selects words that mirror motions, rhythms that reflect action. I echo the sentiment that ‘we’re searching for the words to match our experience.’ How do you see this creative journey evolve?
I often take a racquetball or tennis ball with me to a workshop, bounce it in front of my students, and then read the opening line of a Richard Wilbur poem:
A ball will bounce, but less and less.
And then I say: this is what poets try to do. If you can do it, you are a poet. Because poets try to find rhythms and phrases that in some way reveal meaning, reveal how things work in the actual, physical world. “A ball will bounce”—I say, note the strong “b” sounds at the beginning of the line, and then as the line goes on—and the ball bounces less and less, the “lighter sounds” of “less and less.” Poets, above all, are persons who like to find words to describe what they see and feel and hear and smell—what it feels like to do what they do, to perceive what they perceive. “To be alive on the planet,” as James Dickey put it. Amazing how true it is that the world amounts to our perception of it, and people are what we perceive them to be, and we are what they perceive us to be. That lens you look through is yours, and it’s absolutely unique:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself . . .
Or, P. Larkin’s opening to his poem “At Grass,” about retired race horses:
The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
Till wind distress tail and mane . . .
Nice touch, I say. And I’m grateful, and honored, to be able to see those old, “anonymous” horses so well because a poet saw them so well. Richard Eberhart (another big influence I forgot to mention earlier) was right: “Poetry makes us bright.” Art is ultimately shared experience.
Works by David Allan Evans
|Bus Depot Reunion||Poem|
|No Ideas But in Things #1||Article|
|A Winter Journey||Poem|
|June: Biking Home After a Workout at the Club||Poem|
|The Story of Lava||Poem|
|No Ideas But in Things #2||Article|
|No Ideas But In Things #3||Article|
|No Ideas But In Things #4||Article|
|No Ideas But In Things #9||Article|
|No Ideas But In Things #5||Article|
|No Ideas But In Things #6||Article|
|No Ideas But In Things #7||Article|
|No Ideas But In Things #8||Article|
|No Ideas But In Things #10||Article|
|No Ideas But In Things #11||Article|