Nearly every writer at some point considers why he engages in this peculiarly difficult activity of writing. Many great writers have penned stunning essays on the topic, such as George Orwell and Joan Didion. The question suggests itself every time the writer puts pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Why am I doing this? Perhaps it’s different every time. The poem written today has a different reason for being written than the poem written yesterday.
Thomas Hardy said, “The mission of poetry is to record impressions, not convictions.” When I write a poem, I am not usually trying to convince anyone of the rightness or wrongness of a point of view, I am usually trying to recreate a moment, an observation, a sensation. Sometimes those sensations imply a point of view, but the perspective is only important in so far as it conveys the sensations, in remaking the moment in the mind of the reader. What I want them to come away with is an experience for their own contemplation, not a principle of moral conduct.
Writing is a way of finding meaning or creating meaning. Life and existence aren’t implicitly meaningful. The sun doesn’t mean anything by itself, it simply is. A life doesn’t mean anything in itself, it simply is. But to me, the sun or a leaf or a life, can mean something because of associations, of similarities or contrasts with other things. I see how, whenever I take a walk, I always end where I began, and realize this is like blood circulating through the body and this, in turn, is like being born and dying. Seeing such connections between disparate things and bringing them together in a poem or other work of art gives life cohesion and that cohesion is meaningful.
Writing is an act of discovery. Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Many writers do not sit down with a particular idea to convey or some point to make. In fact, writing, and especially writing poetry, is not about making a point, it’s about discovering a point.
Writing is a way of seizing the day, of approaching something with full attention. Even if one doesn’t live in the fast pace of city life, life goes by quickly because we don’t pay attention to everything, especially the small moments of simple beauty or insight. In fact, we can’t. Work, chores, bills, all the daily responsibilities take up our attention. Writing is a way of slowing down the flow and reflecting on what has passed.
“Savor” is one of my favorite words. It literally means “to taste.” But it is also used to mean “to value” or “to fully enjoy.” There are things we do, moments that pass, events we participate in without valuing them, or “tasting” them. Like medicines, we swallow them without chewing, without savoring. But we should savor life, that is, fully taste the moments and events we are in, fully value them. Writing is a way of doing that. It’s a way of getting to the bottom of a feeling, a hunch, a moment. Writing is a way of tasting and valuing the depth of the day.
In good poetry and good prose there is some indescribable sensation conveyed, some kind of ethereal hunger satisfied. It is something more than the ideas, the theme and subject, the plot or characters. Sometimes I think it is the consequence of the physical aspects of language, that language elicits a physical response. It is as if the sensibility, that vague organ which registers aesthetic appreciation, were something between a tongue and a stomach. Like eating a meal of quality food prepared by an expert cook, it registers a kind of pleasure but also satisfies a kind of hunger. Something is digested that nourishes another, more rarified system, and is noticed not in better eye sight, but in sharper perception, not in clearer skin but in greater sensitivity to the moment and to the world. Because of this, a good poem may not teach us to be moral people but we are better people for reading a good poem.
Bertolt Brecht said, “First comes food then comes morality.” It is very hard to be a good person or care about being a good person when one is starving. Brecht was right, but it is also true that when this aesthetic hunger is satisfied, it is easier to be kind and care about being kind. The world is a better place in light of a good poem. Because in its afterglow, sunlight passing through the maples appears thicker, greener and more golden, as if color settled on the skin like gauze. It is warm and comforting. That is, the light becomes tangible. The aroma of a season becomes pungent with significance and the darkest view distills to a surprising clarity. In that clarity, there may not be an articulated principle or moral dictum, but there is a desire to continue that clarity and significance, a reason to be kind, a motive for not spreading darkness.