Unlocking the Heart and Soul of Remarkable Leadership, Keith Merron
Remarkable Leadership

The Poet’s Corner – July Poem – by Robert McDowell

What follows is on the surface a poem about a poet and poetry. John Berryman was an innovator who many associate with the founding of the Confessional school of poetry. Poets are really never parts of schools of writing except by accident or assignment by others (and sometimes themselves), but it’s true that Berryman relentlessly mined his personal life for material he put into his verse. His ongoing epic of mostly short, connected poems is The Dream Songs.

I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war
 
don’t lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you’re older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity
 
just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice
 
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally
 
it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop
 
he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England
 
as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry
 
he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention
 
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
 
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
 


         There is a casual, conversational tone in this poem made up of ten quatrains (or four-line stanzas), but there is also a beautiful, muted urgency that drives a reader from line to line and stanza to stanza, right to the end. Perhaps the absence of punctuation creates this pacing and the informal tone.
 
         The first line is a perfect hook—I will tell you what he told me. When we hear this familiar sentence in conversation, don’t we always lean forward, drawing closer, eager to hear something secret or almost secret, some key to a mystery? Don’t we all want to hear something we didn’t know? From that moment on, we’re as eager to hear what Berryman has to say as the young Merwin was. Even Merwin’s description of the war evokes the perception of a simpler time and place where things seemed clearer, somehow more easily graspable. Get on your knees and pray to the muse, right there in the corner, he tells the aspirant, and he means it.
 
         Then come the advices, as the Irish call them, from the great poet to the apprentice. Hold on  to your arrogance for a time, the elder counsels, or you’ll become vain.
 
         This is the uncompromising, passionate mentor at his best. Then comes the practical advice
 
         as for publishing he advised me
         to paper my wall with rejection slips
         his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
         with the vehemence of his views about poetry

 
followed by Merwin’s precocious insight.
 
he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

 
Finally, Berryman responds to the one question that every young poet desperately wants a mentor to answer: how do you know if what you write is any good? Berryman’s answer?
 
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write
 

To some, this may sound discouraging. A writer friend who teaches in an M.F.A. program told me recently that he read this poem to his students and they didn’t like it at all.
 
But I believe that Merwin, and by reverse descent Berryman, speak to a liberation inherent in art. The truism connects to the earlier point about vanity. If you write to be famous, if you need to know that your work will last, then you shouldn’t write. Writing honestly is all about shedding preconceptions and attachments.
 
This is what that letting go looks like, Merwin says (and Berryman said). It looks like the undiscovered country. It looks like freedom.