“The words go just so far, then you come to meet them.”

On Saturday, March 16, 2013, I went to the Saturday University poetry session by Stephen Dobyns at Vanderbilt University. Below are my notes from the two-hour session, which consisted of a talk and then a Q&A, somewhat cleaned up for coherence (and with my comments in square brackets).


Language is a diminishment of thought. You have an idea, and you try to say it, but there’s always the knowledge that you’re not saying it right. Problem with language: torment and gift. We can’t really communicate emotion – we know what the other person means when they say they’re hurt/angry/happy/etc but we can’t really know the actual depth and nature of that feeling. Always an approximation.

Language is a diminishment. How do you counteract that diminishment? Metaphor.

Words come out of right side of brain (also: dreams) but syntax from left (also: reason, math, etc.). Words often start as metaphors (eg., threat = crowd of men coming over hill; supercilious to do with eyebrows; language comes from the word for tongue and speech comes from word for scatter – we scatter words in front of somebody). Right brain where you understand gestures, and right brain bigger in children until they start to learn language. [I was curious and did some googling and found this: The right brain hemisphere is dominant in human infants (pdf).]

Metaphor is an attempt to take a signifier of feeling (words like sad/hurt/angry/whatever) and make it accessible so we know the depth and nature of the feeling. Examples:

  • quiet as a crane watching a hole over the water
  • quiet as a house in which a witch has just stopped dancing
  • quiet as the thief the dog just bit

Different kinds of quiet. Use of sense detail so we can feel/understand better.

Or e.g. life candle-flame wind coming. There’s missing words in that example which we instantly fill in – lots of information in that little sentence. If you made an equivalent in discursive thought (life is precarious), you’d understand the logic of it but you wouldn’t feel it – metaphor makes you a participant.

Metaphors are like little stories. You visualize in it, and become a participant.

“The words go just so far, then you come to meet them.”

Art is made out of these types of metaphors. Poems are always communication and/or decoration. If a poem only shows you language and imagery (decoration) then it doesn’t work. If you say something, ten people who read it should have more or less the same idea of what you said, or it isn’t communicative and the poem fails.

Re line breaks – at any line break there’s a pause. Any change away from the default sentence has a lyric element. True objectivity is impossible, so your poems will always have some footprint of your experience, your perspective.

“The writer is coming to greet you in the same way the metaphor is.”

A poem doesn’t have to be formal but always has a relationship between stressed and unstressed syllables. Can’t help it – that’s the nature of the language.

We develop a sense of empathy, through metaphor and art. One of the functions of non-discursive thought is to teach us empathy and to teach us how to live in society. Very important. One other thing a poem will do is to show you the arc of your life and how to live. If there were only one poem that’d be terribly skewed obvs but with thousands of poems you get a picture. Art becomes a tool against self-deception. Any constraint on the poem (thinking about what editors might want) is going to mess up the poem. Poems show the arc of human emotions, too.

Much of my writing has been to please, and when I realized that I wrote Black Dog, Red Dog (now becoming a movie). If you’re censoring yourself in the poem, readers will see it and stop trusting you. A writer can choose not to write about something, but you can’t turn away from what you choose to write about.

Read us: “Sloth,” “Anger,” “Spite,” “Silence.” [“Anger” and “Silence” are here.]


Q&A from audience

Q – how did you stop censoring yourself to please others?

I pushed myself to write on uncomfortable subjects. I tried to stay away from political correctness. Worked summer at crippled children’s camp when I was 15. Wrote “Bleeder” about a hemophiliac there. I write a poem to find out what I’m writing about. If I let myself be constrained I’m not serving the poem but worrying about protecting myself from criticism.

Q – you want us to communicate but not to censor, so we have to pay attention to the reader but not pay attention to the reader (contradiction)

That’s a truthful paradox. The important thing is not to lie, not to write a form of propaganda. I don’t write a poem to please someone, but I hope they’ll understand it.

Q – what about editing, workshops, etc where somebody else looks at the poem?

The best thing about a workshop is to show you where alternative readings exist, by how they read it differently than you intend. I know the poem so well, things seem so clear, but in a workshop you can find out where it’s not clear. The class can spend time telling you their confusion.

Also, workshops can toughen you up.

Workshops can go wrong when people are nice to the poem so the author will be nice to their poem when their turn comes. A terrible thing.

Workshops cannot solve your poem’s problems but can help you know a problem is there.

You need frankness and courtesy, maybe with some gentleness but honest.

Q – writing process – thinking through feelings, as you’re developing that, how do you switch when working on other poems with different feelings?

I have to re-feel it.

Poems can move the reader in a nice way or in a dark way.

Q – what kind of socialization does a dark poem help – what does it accomplish?

We can’t pretend those things don’t exist. I have a 3 year old grandchild who they’d throw in jail if he was my size. He’ll look at you and smile and throw a glass across the room. He’ll be socialized not to do those things but they’re not gone.

We need a common courtesy to deal with each other. It’s grease to keep things going because basically we’re not very nice. You’re not evil because you have that temptation. Ideally a poem can help take parts of our unconscious and bring them into our consciousness.

Q – I’ve always written poetry to show something nobody sees. Do you write to communicate things you can’t say in your life?

You can choose not to write the poem, but you need to be honest if you choose to write it.

It needs to be credible.

Q – four aspects of the syllable?

Pitch: high noise (words like shrill, shriek), low (words like soothe, slow). You need to be aware of mood of words matching mood of poem.

Duration: speed needs to natch speed of actions being described. Eg “the sudden blow” in Yeats “Leda and the Swan” wouldn’t work as something like “an unexpected violence” because it takes too long.

Timbre: words you can hear, “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” Robert Lowell, begins with so much noise to show a drowning.

Stress: rhythm and beats.

You have a lot of choices for which word to use and English gives us many more choices than other languages.

Q – back to paying attention to reader, are you looking for clarity – you want us to get it, but can’t be concerned about whether or not we like it


Q – writing poetry to write about something personal without thinking about the reader – at what point do we need to think about the reader?

At some point in the writing, the poem stops being about you. Poems aren’t the same as autobiography. You have to give to the poem but the poem isn’t yours, in a sense. First drafts need to be written without that critical voice, and then after you can start working with it. Don’t let the critic in until the first draft is done.

Q – what is your editing process?

Most poems, I get a few lines in my head. Very often the first line I have will be the line I stay with. I start the poem and try to see what comes out of it. Try not to direct it. Then I’ll go through and see what’s missing, and what wouldn’t be clear to somebody who isn’t me, then I work on the structure of the poem, try to create some surprise and go from long to short to long to short to create tension and rest, so it goes back and forth between tension and rest. Maybe move lines around. The whole thing has to stay malleable. I don’t think a poem is done for about a year, sometimes longer. I have to develop a certain objectivity that may be developed by not looking at it for awhile.

A lot of internal rhyme, off rhyme, and taking a sound that declares itself and creating internal rhyme throughout or for awhile, one does this often without even realizing one is doing it. Obvs it has to seem as if it’s natural, somebody speaking, seem as if it’s effortless. Larkin does this amazingly well.

[If this seems like an abrupt ending, it’s because the Q&A ended abruptly. If you want more, he also talks about this stuff in Best Words, Best Order and Next Word, Better Order.]

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