In Poetry’s Old Air, Marianne Boruch writes, “all the words in a poem both emerge from, and finally add up to silence, whatever beauty or terror that may mean.” Our own existence, Nabokov tells us in Speak Memory, “is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” In the end, we and all our words are only interruptions.
A poem always interrupts two silences: the writer’s, by her own urgent composing, and the reader’s, whether out of interest or kindness or happenstance. As solitary as writing can be, this relationship remains crucial. For me, to write is to need to hear myself and be heard by another, to be listener to my own memory and then listened to. Whatever memory, image, or feeling I have quarried from my mind emerges to be shared; I polish and shape these rough stones to skip across a reader’s unrippled silence.
In writing classes I was not taught to think about readers who sit or lie about, holding words close to their noses. I have sent so many poems into the world without once having envisioned their reader—my imagination so parched that not even the editor to whom I mailed off the pages crossed my mind. Instead, the poems traveled toward their unsuspecting recipient, all the while shouting back to me, their only audience. Any other such relationship would be diagnosed as codependent, with both parties advised to immediately quit the other’s company. As a composition teacher, I urge students to think of who their words will meet in the world. But as a poet, I had let myself get away with considering only the muse; when I stopped believing in the muse, then the self-generated and self-fulfilled urgency of my own feeling was the only ear to which I tuned words. For poets, it is not God or the Author, but the Reader who is dead.
If, however, my lips and fingertips brimming, I turn and face the reader, I am less precious about my memories and experiences. Facing the reader, I am suddenly cured of my own sentiment and wisdom. The reader, who already knows from her own experience whatever I have come to teach her, forces me to pressure language toward the strange and startling. If I struggle to make a poem something more than an inward-gazing attempt against loneliness and oblivion, I find the solution is the reader, who lets us write to her and might even choose to remember us.
As for process, I begin breaking the silence with sputtered lines, watery images, and jigsawed metaphors. Into my own silence I allow incomplete and unlovely things, all unfit for a reader until I have figured out what I am trying to ask. Again, the reader in me speaks: I want to read poems full of questions, not ones telling me how the world works or what answers they have come to. I want a poem that tears the world open a little and lets me peer at the guts. And you can’t look into the guts of the world without asking some questions. I remember, too, that the reader has spent a lifetime sculpting her mind’s own world of truth and beauty, for which the world the poet wants is no match and no solace. The world the poet sees, however, can be.
If I am lost with a poem, I think of the reader’s silence and start to carve into it. After that, the process of the poem is no more intelligible than our human crack of light. We are as lost as Nabokov, who laments, “Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap.” If the poem itself were to speak these lines, perhaps it would say that neither inspiration nor experience exactly fashioned it, its watermark—the poet’s mark—visible only in the light of connection with another.
The reader is not the enemy who demands this or that against the poet’s will, or who turns the poet into a slave of markets or trends. The reader in fact desires nothing more than to send out her call, which is ours, too: we both say, speak! The writer means, “Give me something to say now.” The reader means, “Give me something to say later, so I won’t have to chisel the silence alone.” Our response is the beauty and the terror.