Poetry is both beguiling and bewildering. It is incredibly hard to pin down poetry except to say, “I know it when I see it.” When I was first out of high school and wandering the back roads and railways of the country, I was convinced that poetry could only be the unfettered (and unedited) expression of who and what I was at any given point in time. I practiced a rambling unexpurgated style of poetry—a style that mimicked the freedom I was experiencing for the first time in my life. I filled notebook after notebook with long-winded rants and rambles. I convinced myself that every word was precious—too precious to alter or edit in any way. I hitchhiked through every state in the west; I wrote in the back of pickup trucks, along the sides of back roads and interstates, and by lonely sterno cans in makeshift camps. I can’t say that I created remarkable poetry, but I did pay my share of dues.
I carried more books than luggage, and I read with a passion I never thought possible, and I wrote constantly. I emptied my heart and soul and being as if it was my last gift to humanity, but, oddly, I never shared that poetry with anybody. I couldn’t let go of my old self completely. I couldn’t reconcile the simple Concord townie barely scraping through high school with the now thoughtful vagabond weeping with Odysseus by his ancient campfires. All I knew was that Odysseus had Ithaca to long for, while my kingdom was yet to be made. My panoply of Gods were the poets that came before me, poets who both tormented and mentored me in my own odyssey towards that kingdom where poetry lives in endless reign.
Aside from intuition, I had no idea where or how to start writing poetry. I wasn’t even sure “why” I wanted to write poetry. It was as if I had picked up a rough gem from the side of the road and recognized that it was not an ordinary stone. And so my first poems were rough and rambling. I was both hunter and prey searching for and escaping from an elusive self. Constantly transforming, I shifted between haiku like brevity and unending anthems. I thrashed in a sea of words like a drowning man manic and joyful for life. I cursed my teachers for not preparing me for this maelstrom, and I thanked them for leaving me untainted.
My new syllabus was the open road and whatever books that were handed to me by the fellow travelers and lost saints who picked up me up off the side roads and interstate on-ramps. They gave me the best of what they had, and I gave them back a naivete’ that must have resembled genuineness. Somehow they must have sensed that I did not want to just read; I wanted to be enlightened and transfixed, and so they filled my backpack with the giants of the beat generation: Kerouac, Whitman, Miller, Proust, Ginsburgh, Snyder, Brautigan, and Ferlinghetti. Older couples gave me Shelley, Wordsworth, and Yeats. In my homesickness for my hometown of Concord, I picked up a copy of “Walden” and some selected essays of Emerson. Whomever I was reading at a given time, I imitated in my writing. Looking back, I wasn’t as interested in what they wrote, but in how they wrote. It didn’t matter that I was not a great poet; I was happy to live like a poet—and that lesson has never left me.
Time and experience are relative. Though I was only on the road for a relatively small stretch of time, my life was set on a new course, and thankfully, an unwavering one. Still, all I know of poetry is that it has to be real; it has to spring from an examined life; it has to recognize the beauty and majesty of the most common of images and actions, and it has to be constructed and not cast like wild seed, sometimes laboriously, because that is the life of a poet. For both the poet and the hunter, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, but only the poet captures the bird just to set it free. Only the poet smiles as the bird soars from his hand. Only a true poet smiles at anonymity. The words have to be enough.
Out of the hundreds of thousands of words in our language only a few can make it on to the page, and fewer still can rightly be called a poem. This sea of sand is your starting point. Every moment is an opportunity lost or gained. The person who does not recognize this urgency is not a poet.
If you want to be a poet, live like one.