How to be a poet

This entry is part 39 of 39 in the series Manual


Write from a place of deep fear, which the authors of the Old Testament rightly considered the beginning of wisdom. Turn your poems into cunning traps and instruments of fraud. Writer’s block is primordial and best left uncarved; create only in its shadow.

Prize your digressions. Revise nothing, and put all your poems into books that self-destruct after a single reading. Wallow in idleness. Treat inspiration as a sworn enemy.

Practice abstinence; it’s the only way to know what love and hunger are really all about. Find something absurd to believe in and cling to it as passionately as Pound clung to fascism or Neruda to Stalinism. Watch a lot of television.

“First thought, best thought”: get it down and go do something useful, like cleaning the toilet. In lieu of reading, listen to audiobooks. Write about what you don’t know and didn’t think you cared about. Stay in your cave until you start seeing beasts on the walls.

Cultivate suspicion and distrust toward the universe — after all, it is out to kill you. If you must be sociable, avoid poets, for they are boring at best and petty at worst. Hang out with artists and musicians instead.

And for god’s sake, learn HTML.

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15 Replies to “How to be a poet”

  1. “Write about what you don’t know and didn’t think you cared about. Stay in your cave until you start seeing beasts on the walls.”

    I believe, with a passion of a Pound or Neruda, in writing what I don’t know. I learn more by writing than by reading, which is merely a means of revision.

    I love poetics: all that emphatic and categorical nonsense. I love nonsense. Nonsense works (he asserted).

    “Writer’s block is primordial and best left uncarved; create only in its shadow.”

    THAT is the best thing I’ve ever read on writer’s block.

    And the cave thing — gotta try it.

    1. Peter, it figures that you would agree with the most via negativistic of my advice! The uncarved block thing is of course taken straight from Zhuangzi and Laozi.

      Needless to say, the right advice for one writer might be exactly the wrong advice for another.

    1. LOL. I’ve actually thought about trying to hire myself out as a website designer for writers, but the problem with that business model is that writers tend not to have any money. And should really learn how to do it themselves. :)

  2. Seriously, though–you’ve made some lovely observations about the need for occasional perversity/contrariness in the creative process. And I love that.

    Dave, you almost make me want to take up blogging.

  3. This post lives up to its name: Negativa. And look how interesting the poetic advice came out! Now, I have to read Brewer’s blog, too. (Not that I don’t want to; but I like the negative lead; via negativa.) I read you, Dave. (:– }) Literary Blogs, at their best, might be literature in a hurry. Or they could reveal one’s most honest brand of stupidity. There’s the challenge in writing blogs. The clear-eyed would recognize the latter soon enough and stop. Then again, the “medium is the message.” Then, what? Well, back to book publishers, editors, and other businessmen, and Gutenberg. What’s wrong with painstakingly slow literature?

    1. To me, online self-publishing (or micro- and nanopress publishing) isn’t about greater speed, but cutting out the middleman. I also take issue with the dictum that the medium is the message. Like most of McLuhan’s assertions, it sounds attractive but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

  4. Love it! In my opinion, most important advice is shake loose from conventional thinking, which this piece does. I’m glad I learned HTML, but feeling rather annoyed with the necessity to use it to post anything that doesn’t strictly align left. Can someone come up with an easier markup language for poetry?

  5. Good link to feature!

    Only an hour ago I was invoking Emerson’s hobgoblin, “foolish consistency,” in talking about poetry. And here it is again. Opposite ideas are often quite happy to take up residence in the same head and both be true with no resolution needed. Negative . . . capability.

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