by Erin Lillo
Not knowing what I wanted to read, I recently grazed my bookshelves. This indecision—wanting to read, not knowing what to read; needing to write, not knowing what to write—is often a part of my writing process, especially when I approach the end of a project. Although the end may not be the right nominative for this moment as I’m likely to return to the same poems, scenes, stories, chapters again and again with a kind of restless tinkering that makes me wonder if I missed my calling as a watch maker or nervous mechanic. Early in my writing life, this ending anxiety unnerved me, but as I approach the final draft of my poetry thesis, I find myself resigned. The manuscript is done enough to fulfill degree requirements, but the manuscript isn’t complete. Anxiety marches on.
My grazing led me to Stephen Dunn’s essay collection, Walking Light, and in this spirit, I read Dunn’s essays in no particular order, beginning with “The Good and Not So Good.” I’m fascinated by these kinds of essays. The good poem versus the bad poem—is it like the Supreme Court’s definition of obscene: you know it when you see it? Is it quantifiable, like that bit of dialogue from Dead Poet’s Society, where the imminent Dr. Pritchard’s essay teaches prep school boys how to chart a poem’s greatness on a graph?
My instinct is to say not definable, not quantifiable and to embrace the playfulness in Dunn’s essay. Yet in my more cynical moments I wonder if this tendency derives from my ambivalence toward my almost (but not really) finished aforementioned work.
Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite lines from “The Good and Not So Good:”
The good poem is implicitly philosophical. The not so good poem, conversely,
may exquisitely describe a tree or loneliness, but if the description does not
suggest an attitude toward nature, or human nature, we are left with a kind of
dentist office art—devoted to decoration and the status quo.
The connection between sanitary art and the status quo reminds me of product jingles; think of all those poets and musicians colluding to sell us heartburn medication and upscale tequila. I’d much rather challenge the insanity of our contemporary moment, to witness the reality of voice and power. Dunn implies the good poem must reveal a complicated attitude toward its subject matter—not bitterness, but not indifference either. This attitude must also reveal the place where the poet’s voice and wounds rest edge-to-edge; otherwise, the poem tidies up reality to the point of sanitation or empty prettiness, which is a lie.
Here’s another excerpt and observation:
Not only must poets turn away from tired or dead language, they must be wary of
their best ideas and all the language that was available to them before the poem
began. That is, all the language that hasn’t been found by the language in the
poem. And then even that new language should be doubted and resisted.
Resistance leads to discovery. No, no, no, no, and then yes. The good poem offers
us a compelling, vibrant replacement for what, in our complacency, we allowed
ourselves to believe we knew and felt.
I discovered Fahrenheit 451 when I was a freshman in high school and ever since I’ve been drawn to literature that exposes how so many of our thoughts, emotions, and actions derive from untested belief. We can believe we’re happy, living lives we chose for ourselves, until someone asks, “Are you happy?” Test the belief, like Bradbury’s Guy Montag, and you never know what devastation you might find. With Dunn’s definition, however, this devastation becomes a source of creativity—resistance leading to discovery, a series of no’s followed by yes. A compelling, vibrant truth replaces a complacent lie when a poem is a good poem. Therefore, beware the pre-packaged and beribboned ending—too tidy, too complacent. And one of my most persistent writing habits.
Here’s one final example from Dunn:
The morality of the poet is to keep his/her tools sharp, always to be ready for the
convergence of deep concern with subject matter. In this sense, craft and care for
the integrity of language are the only things that separate the poet from the
The not so good moral poem often works against some abuse or injustice and in
its zeal gives content more attention than composition. This is the gift that
falls apart, the one years later you can’t seem to find when the giver comes to
I read this, thinking “Of course, language first.” On the one hand, the precision of language, its rhythms and sounds; on the other, language and its slippery, emotive fogginess—a poet’s toolbox must be versatile, indeed.
For me, a new and somewhat begrudged tool has to be patience. Part of writing the good poem is knowing when and how to return to the work with language best suited to converge deep disquiet with subject matter. It’s a psychic energy as much as anything else, I suspect, but I’m not sure how to recognize the symptoms of “obvious moralist” in my work.
Does developing this sensibility come through the submission-rejection-revision cycle of publication (also closely linked to patience)? When the poem (or story or essay) finds an editorial home, perhaps that’s a signal of completeness. Rejection is a signal of incompleteness, of the necessity for more work and more time. But if this is the case, why do I suspect a great deal of obvious moralizing receives acceptance notices?
Maybe the integrity of the poem is something you hear rather than see (this reminds me of a line from To Kill a Mockingbird, something about how recognizing truth in a witness’s testimony is more about listening than anything else). Could it be that the only ears tuned to hear the poem for what it really is belong to the writer? But then what’s the point of sending the piece into the world, if the music is for myself alone? Dunn’s essay left me with more questions than answers.
Regardless, this reminder about a poet’s integrity living in the individual words and the choices those words represent, all these unanswered questions, nourish me. I return to my tinkering, less anxious, more curious about what the next word might bring. For the moment, I forget about finishing the project. When there’s so much potential for discovery, why worry about the end?
In addition to writing, teaching, studying, and parenting, Erin Lillo reads too much and listens to music too loudly. She also has an ongoing competition with her husband to see who can work the most lines from The Big Lebowski into everyday conversation. Currently, she’s losing. Her short fiction has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review.