How to Be a Poet

I was staying in a hostel in the middle of a long hike on the Appalachian Trail when I came across Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”. It was clear and revolutionary. When I returned home after the hike, I read through other work by Berry on the Internet. I came across his poem, “How to be a Poet.” The poems featured the same contained, clear voice, “How to be a Poet” addressed “(to remind myself)” rather than as overt advice to other poets.  At the time I was thinking little about poetry, as a prose writer. Instead, my thoughts were occupied by the incongruity between the mindfulness of the peaceful, deliberate life that I felt I had been living on the trail and the scattered, fast-paced state of my consciousness and lifestyle at home. It was habit and lifestyle that “How to be a Poet” spoke to. Berry writes, “Breathe with unconditioned breath / the unconditioned air. / Shun electric wire.” The poem made me yearn for my life without walls or electricity.

I am now making my way through poetry workshop and I could use instructions on exactly how to write poetry that is good, and correct, and fresh, this poem does not provide those answers. Instead, it starts, “Make a place to sit down. / Sit down. Be quiet.” The poem refuses to honor my assumptions about poetry being written in a mystical, impossible process. It even denies the assumption that poetry is about language. Berry’s advice centers not on words, but instead on the behavior that is conducive to writing poetry. His advice is holistic and simple. In fact, Berry does not say anything about language directly until the last stanza. He writes, “Make a poem that does not disturb / the silence from which it came.”

One Reply to “How to Be a Poet”

  1. Great idea for a post. I’d love to hear others’ knowledge of poems which serve as (strange) instruction manuals for writing poetry. Here’s one I’ve known for a while, and keep coming back to, by the late James Tate.

    Teaching the Ape to Write Poems

    They didn’t have much trouble
    teaching the ape to write poems:
    first they strapped him into the chair,
    then tied the pencil around his hand
    (the paper had already been nailed down).
    Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
    and whispered into his ear:
    “You look like a god sitting there.
    Why don’t you try writing something?”

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