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.
* * *
There have been changes taking place lately—changes for the better. The first happened when the temperature unexpectedly dropped about 15-20 degrees over the weekend, making St. Louis a lot more pleasant than it has been since we arrived. In the brisk air I suddenly transformed into the most productive version of myself. On Saturday I finished painting our dining room chairs as well as a bookshelf. I hemmed a curtain and even mended Elsa’s favorite blanket, which has been steadily disintegrating since she first became attached to it as an infant.
I have gotten these and many other tasks accomplished in the last several days. Yesterday I began painting our living room. We finally settled on a deep, dark blue and I am so pleased with the color. Even though only one wall is halfway done, I caught myself just sitting in a chair staring at the blue. I don’t think I will get tired of looking at this color, or regret the choice, and that makes me happy.
In the beautiful weather, we also went on an excursion as a family to Forest Park and visited the Jewel Box, an art deco greenhouse. Jeff and I both agreed that after having the beautiful garden at Dumbarton Oaks as a part of our life it had been too long since we had been in a garden.
Then Esme started first grade yesterday (Tuesday), and it feels as if a big milestone has been passed: the first phase of this summer’s end. For now, Elsa is still home with me but in a few weeks she will begin preschool every morning Monday through Friday. And she cannot wait. While Esme was bashful and reluctant to embark on first grade in her new school, Elsa, when accompanying me to drop Esme off, begged to be left there and was all but making herself at home in Esme’s classroom. She is very eager to start school. Truthfully, when I brought Elsa back home and it was just the two of us again, like it was last year in DC during Esme’s kindergarten year, the house felt unnaturally quiet. The presence of Esme at home is like a wire buzzing with energy. Elsa picks up on it and they both go buzzing around, usually driving me crazy. I don’t think that I realized to what degree Esme constantly talks to me, but now that she is in school again I remember how my life had a much different quality to it when she was in school last year. For better or for worse, things are just a lot more sedate without her around.
I just want to add here that Esme is delightful and at times hilarious and quotable. Jeff was talking about something making him nervous the other day and Esme said: “Oh, kind of like when I feel nerves at night that you, mommy, and Elsa are going to leave me. Well, part of me is sad and part is happy.” When asked why she would be happy if we left her, she said very matter-of-factly, “Oh, because I’d be able to do whatever I want.” Another time we were talking about her back-to-school clothes, and I asked if this year I could buy her some pants (last year I did and she refused to wear them). She said, “No. I don’t like pants because they don’t look good on me. I don’t like jeans because they’re not comfy. I don’t like sweatpants because they sweat, and I don’t like yoga pants because I don’t even know how to do yoga yet!” And a comment at breakfast the other day: “Elsa and I are both princesses, but Elsa is a princess who doesn’t know how to chew with her mouth closed. Right? Right??” And then (I overheard her telling this to Elsa, very authoritatively): “Tooth fairies are rich. Because they have so many teeth.”
So in the absence of this and similar constant commentary while Esme was at school yesterday Elsa and I went out into the back yard and I wrote in my journal for an hour while she played by herself in the wading pool. It was just so quiet without Esme, and I was surprised to find myself feeling sad at the loss of her constant interruptions, questions, and comments, which usually end in, “Right? Right???” She repeats this as many times as necessary until I respond with a satisfactory, “Right!”
This put me in touch with the reality of what the quiet of my mornings is really going to feel like once Elsa starts school as well. Yes, it will only be a few hours. Elsa’s little “school” only goes from 9:00 to 11:45. But in some ways I know that because it is such a small span of time, and that the silence and feeling of being alone will be so abrupt and such a contrast to the constant din of the rest of my life, that I will have no choice but to take it seriously and handle it as if it is something precious.
When we moved here, I considered this a new phase of life in the most generic sense: new town, new house, new job for Jeff, new schools for the girls, etc. But lately I have been digging deeper and recognizing that there is also another slant to the story, if I choose to read it that way. In my life I have been a student, then a student again, then an employee, then an employee again, and again, and finally a mother to small ones, who are each year getting less small—in that order. All of these are quite handy excuses for not taking art seriously. It is the first time in my life that I feel absolutely poised to take my abilities– as a loner working alone– and my time seriously, to guard both jealously.
Suddenly, a full time job is not looking as appealing. And yet, I feel certain that if I got a phone call offering an interview, I would go almost automatically. Because it is difficult to choose the amorphous and the uncertain over the structured and the certain. It is difficult to take artistic inclinations seriously.
What do I really want?
There is a large part of me that has always wanted and still wants what is safe: an imposed structure that would pre-determine how I must use my time and how I would channel my energy and abilities. No, unstructured free time and the whole idea of seeing where my artistic inclinations might lead me if I really work at it, taking myself seriously, is not a safe place for me, but for the first time, I think that I am ready to experiment with this kind of courage, and I am old enough to understand that it will take the accumulation of many days of work that may not appear to be leading anywhere in particular. But what will happen if I go to the library or my desk at home every day, block the internet from my computer and just write for two hours? In a month? In a year? I think this is a serious proposition. Right? Right???
|At Forest Park, and talking.