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How to be a poet

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For the most part, I want my blog posts to be my own words – my own thoughts and ideas. But every now and then, as happens, you come across something written by someone else, and in the overwhelming, satiated silence that follows you think, What else is there to say? Wendell Berry’s poem ‘How to be a Poet’ is one such piece of writing. So I’m going to make an exception and have his poem – his own brilliant words – be the predominant feature in this month’s blog post.

I will add only two things. Firstly, I have thought at length about this poem. I have read it, re-read it, and read it again. I hope you will, too. It’s worth doing. Secondly, if I could share one other thought about how to be a poet (yes, in all my vast wisdom), I would say, Learn how to wrestle. To write poetry, for me, means to wrestle with words, to wrestle with the truth, to wrestle with laziness, to wrestle with failure, and to wrestle with the fear that everyone will think what you’re writing is laughable and pathetic. Those are my two cents. Here are Wendell’s:

How to be a Poet
By Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.


In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare famously presented his Elizabethan audience with what at the time was a highly innovative motif: a play within a play.  In 2010, Christopher Nolan’s film, Inception, explored the perplexing possibility of a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream (within a dream?).  Intertextuality follows the same paradigm: it regards the concept of a text within a text.  What exactly defines an intertext is, to a large degree, quite nebulous.  However, an example of what an intertext is not would be if I wrote the following:

Such optimism and hope recall the words of T.S. Eliot, “And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

This is a quotation, a verbatim reference attributed to the author.  An intertext has similar roots but is somewhat more discreet; somewhat more wily.  Compare the example above to this – an excerpt from an e-mail written to me by someone very dear to my heart, the beauty of which almost knocked the wind out of me:

I remember, suddenly, sweetly, the peace and the sparkling air of your last night the FIRST time we met, sitting there on my porch swing, feeling warm next to you, feeling right next to you.  All shall be well, said the night sky.  And the frost said, All manner of thing shall be well.  And my heart echoed All shall be well and All shall be well.  And the Spirit said, All manner of thing shall be well.

This is an intertext.  And a brilliant one at that, if the reader will excuse my bias.

But why am I writing about intertextuality?  For one, because intertexts, especially when executed well, have a certain enchantment to their subtlety and hiddenness; there is something delightfully surreptitious in their creativity.  Perhaps more importantly, though, an inclusion of an intertext is, by its very nature, a recognition of what has gone before.  It is, in a way, a respectful acknowledgement of the literature from which it has come (although we are not to assume that an intertext is always respectful.  An intertext can also be employed as a form of parody).  This recognition of past literature is, in my view, essential for a full appreciation of both writing and reading.  As Wendell Berry wrote in his essay, The Responsibility of the Poet, “We can only write poetry because poetry has already been written.”  And it is, of course, the same for all forms of literature.  Just as you and I have come to this exact moment in time because of generations upon generations of marriages and births, so also has the literature of today (old or new) reached us only through the millennia of what has preceded it.  Intertextuality, then, affirms literary lineage.

Returning to the point I made in the opening paragraph, the reason why defining an intertext can be so problematic is precisely because of this lineage: in every book can be found traces of another book, if not multiple books.  An intertext, therefore, could be quite accidental.  But this is not problematic to the theory of intertextuality itself; indeed, it is the very premise of intertextuality.  And this is the point I want to make: intertextuality demands we recognize that a book is not a self-contained work, despite its definite beginning and final full stop, despite the fact it is bound, encased, opened, and closed.   It is, if you think about it, quite a striking and profound idea; to suddenly think that a book – so tangible, so set in stone, is in fact, metaphyiscally speaking, fluid.