On Poetic Insight

I listened to a good friend and a fine poet lecture on teaching writing a few weeks ago.  I was impressed especially by how she goes about teaching.  Her pedagogy is very similar to mine, and I chalk that up to the fact that we are both poets, who happen to teach.  But it isn’t about where we are similar that I would like to speak.  It is about where we differ.

The poet friend I mention above concludes, somewhere in the middle of her lecture, that one can’t teach insight.  In other words, when teaching writing, one can’t teach a student writer to have an insight.  Of course, this may be true.  But one might lead one to an insight.  One might point out this or that, and have the student suddenly see, what is indeed there to be seen.  That is, only if it is there to be seen and the student be willing to see it.  I come to this conclusion because of my own experiences with writing, and in particular writing poetry, which I believe provides the most opportunity for insight.

In my last post, which was written during a few especially dark weeks for me, I posit that my recent experiences with a poetic sequence has led me to the conclusion that self-knowledge, even for the most earnest seekers – and for good or ill, I count myself as one – is difficult at best and might be impossible.  I would like to revise this understanding now.  The problem for me wasn’t that the poems weren’t speaking.  In fact, they were.  And if they repeated themselves it was because I refused to listen.  The insight, whatever insight there was to have, is there to be had.  It shines now, for me, because I have eyes to see it.  When I consider, too, how gentle that voice is, how patient, too, I feel somewhat ashamed.

I have been fond of saying that every moment is an opportunity for grace.  An opportunity to wake up.  And I believe this to be true.  It oughtn’t be remarkable that a man suddenly realizes this or that about himself, or God, or the world.  It is remarkable that he doesn’t.  That he isn’t always running about with his hair aslant and his eyes wild.  This is why, for me, the idea of teaching insight seems the most reasonable of pedagogies.  What else is there for a good teacher to do, but say: Isn’t this something?  A poem is both a record of an insight, and an opportunity for insight.  A man might learn as much about himself by reading another poet’s work as he would be reading his own.  And a teacher might reveal for his students what is there to be seen in their work and elsewhere, if he dares.

It is understandable to grow impatient with the process that leads to poetic insight.  I suspect to be done truly and well one may have to wait the length of one’s life to get it all. I think it was Rilke who claimed that, perhaps, it comes at the end, some word returns, which you have been speaking from the time of your conception until now.  I know what mine is.  And I will say it here, though soon I will forget it again, and have to be reminded over and over.  The word is the same word the wind announces, when it throws the trees about, and the word the trees repeat back to the wind.  The birds in my yard have it on their tongues.  I listen, and hear.  It is: Yes.

I had been saying, No.  And as long as that was my word, I might only catch glimmers and snatches of the truth.  Perhaps, it is because I waited so long to see that everything today seems so bright.  My heart is unburdened and, though still a little cracked, shot through with light.  It may be truest of long poems to say that their greatest effect is the lengths a poet is willing to go to resist what is inevitable.  And perhaps the longest, most fulfilling lives come to the same conclusion.  I hope so.  But even if I’m wrong, this is a chance I’m willing to take for one poetic insight.  So what if it comes again and again and again.

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