The Poet’s Tithe
May 07, 2014
By Abby Kerstetter, Colorado Review Editorial Assistant
Workers need poetry more than bread. They need that their life should be a poem.
“What are you looking for?”
It’s the most frequently asked question, and it’s the hardest to answer. There are more opinions than poets, and more poems attempting to defend those opinions, than there are true poems.
A poem is “the act of the mind.” (John Ashbery)
It’s “that struggle against oblivion, a search for something beyond the moment, a sense of a larger mystery that can never finally be known, a search that defines us as human.” (Richard Jackson)
The “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.” (William Wordsworth)
It should instruct and delight. (Horace)
It should stir or provoke or enlighten or anger or cajole or frustrate.
I’ve been spending a great deal of time this past year studying just what a poem can and should do, and trying to apply what I’ve learned to the consideration of countless poems that submitted to Colorado Review. And the answer I’ve come to is that I want a conversation. Earlier this year, fellow editorial assistant Cornelius Fitzpatrick wrote a post about “the queue,” in which he expressed the satisfaction it gave him to simply have the opportunity to read so much writing, to see what other writers were up to—to listen in on their conversation.
That is what good writing provides: a conversation. And even bad writing, to be honest.
Recently Colorado State University was privileged to host poets Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman for a reading and seminar. Among the many fine ideas they graced us with, a couple really stuck: useless protest and tithing.
There’s no such thing as a useless poem. Every poem, publishable or not, presents the opportunity for conversation. Every poem invites us to relate to the world outside ourselves—even if we relate by how empty or trite we might think a particular poem is. The worst poem still draws us out of ourselves—it rallies us to a cause, however useless our protesting might be in the face of obstinate rubbish.
It can be exhausting. But the isolated writer simply does not exist.
Wars drag on. Conflicts conflate until we’re not sure what side we’re on. Violence hits closer to home, and I’ve given up trying to understand which ingredients in my food are natural. Add to these anxieties the pressure of balancing school with work with relationships with the tedious demands of daily living, and how is one to sit down and write a poem that matters and is capable of tackling all of these injustices?
How does any poet carry on against such demands? Tithing.
A term traditionally applied to moral etiquette regarding charitable donations, applied to poetry it comes down to this: don’t let anything take you from your poetry. Simply focus ten percent of your effort to the conversation. Ten percent of poetry devoted to the pursuit of reality outside of the individual subjective experience. Writing is an act of attention.
So what am I looking for when I read submissions? “To be more awake,” Anne Waldman says, “that’s always the challenge.” I look for the ten percent that focuses my attention where I was blind before. And some days I simply revel in the ninety percent that makes the world small enough to manage. What am I looking for? What else does poetry look for? Nothing, everything, anything.
So thanks for submitting. I look forward to reading your work again in the fall.
Abby Kerstetter is a poet in Colorado State University’s MFA program.
Photo credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz.