No one likes poems about the poet’s children unless
the kids are absolute wretches because
poems that praise the poet’s offspring are usually
thinly-veiled hymns of praise to the excellence
of the person who raised them, and actually I can’t
think of any poems that talk about how horrible
the poet’s progeny are, though that would certainly
be refreshing, wouldn’t it? The thing I want to say
about my own kids is that they taught me how to write:
when I was a young father, we didn’t have a lot
of money or a lot of space, so I learned that if
I couldn’t write when my boys were playing
around my feet, I couldn’t write at all, and now
I feel as though I could write on an assault beach
as the bullets whiz past my ears. Art happens
awfully fast when you’re reading or listening
to music or watching a play: “Sometimes—
there’s God—so quickly,” says Blanche DuBois.
But making art is another matter altogether. Ever see
Sargent’s portrait of Mrs. Edward Darley
Boit? It looks so spontaneous, though it took thirty
sittings to complete. “Great things are done
by a series of small things brought together,”
said Van Gogh. And George Saunders says
you have to build empathy slowly in a work of fiction:
first you write, “Frank is an asshole.” Okay,
but how do you know he’s an asshole? You write,
“Frank is an asshole because he barked at the barista.”
Right. But why did he bark at the barista?
And you write, “Frank is an asshole because
he barked at the barista who reminded him of
his dead wife, Maria.” Andrea, abbia pazienza.
That’s what Michelangelo wrote to his student
Andrea Quartaresi on a sheet of paper with three
drawings of eyes by the master at the top and,
below them, his pupil’s amateurish attempts
at copying them by the pupil. Andrea, have patience.
Sit by yourself. Look out the window.
Don’t even look out the window if you don’t want to.
“Why is it that knowing how to remain
alone in Paris for a year in a miserable room teaches
a man more than a hundred literary salons
and forty years’ experience of Parisian life?” says Camus.
It’s because you’re never lonely
in your miserable Paris room. Your masters will
find you there; they’ll circle around you
like children at play. Come, you great writers.
Come, Mary Shelley. Come, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky,
James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf. What good
company! And you, William Blake, who said,
“Without minute neatness of execution,
the sublime cannot exist.” Let the poem
be the sum of everything, including the poet
and his children but also all parents and all children
as well as those who are childless or had parents
or children and lost them. Let the poem be
a four-year-old boy or a six-year-old girl,
applying him- or herself, pressing carefully,
rounding things out, sticking out his or her tongue
as she or he concentrates. Feed the poem
and read to it at night. Teach the poem to drive fast
but also to be gentle and listen to other poems.
Let the poem be what it wants to be.
Should the poem go away to college, let it choose
whatever major it likes—don’t make the poem
study Accounting if it doesn’t want to! Let it
be playful, if it can be, and if not, not. Let the poem
write all poems that are as yet unwritten.