Intensifying my life

I’m reading Stephen Dobyns book of essays on poetry; Best Words, Best Order (1996/2003). I enjoy it a lot, but there is this view in the first essay called Deception, that I find rather difficult to understand. In a discussion on the difference between the novel and poetry, Dobyns say:

So in my poetry I believe I deal with the existing world and in my novels with alternative worlds. If I feel badly about the world, dislike its people, feel pessimistic about its future, then I can’t write poetry. Fiction I can write any time, because it is not connected to my immediate feelings about the world. I don’t need to love human beings in order to write it.


My question is: Why can’t he write poems when he feels bad about the world? Isn’t sadness, sorrow and loss amongst the strongest sources of poetry?

Dobyns goes on to discuss the standard Romantic formula for how poetry gets written, and adds on a very fine and respectful view on the role of the reader:

One writes when one is unable to remain silent, and what one does is to make a small machine out of words that re-creates the same feeling in another human being, any time, any place – meaning that without the reader, there can be no poem.

It can even be argued that it is the reader who makes the poem, because if the ideal reader cannot re-create the emotion of the poet’s words, then no poem exist.


I love how he here brings the reader into the completion of the poem, but I still don’t understand why he, as a poet himself, has to be happy and optimistic about people & the world to write?!

do you?

But if I feel hostile toward the world and dislike its people, I can’t write poetry – there is nothing I wish to say to the reader on the other side of the page except Go Away!

For me, writing a poem is to engage with the world, writing a novel is to escape from its immediacy


I might make a minor case into a central theme here, and you could rightly ask: why am I so interested in why Dobyns can’t write poetry when he is in a melancholic mood …

In my next post I will follow a different thread in Dobyns very fine book of essays.

… in poetry I am intensifying my life …


19 Comments Add yours

  1. lgzpoetry says:

    Really loving what you do here man. Great to have found this blog!

  2. Kim says:

    i don’t understand, either. maybe it gets too close, maybe it frightens him? he’s actually talking about disconnection.. :

    “..because it is not connected to my immediate feelings about the world.”

    he is actually escaping. i’m not sure how i feel about escape when talking about art. literature. poetry.
    i feel more connected to those who explore fear and pain (as well as the beautiful things in life) in literature (or art). when writing fiction, there should be some sort of connection with the words, the feelings. at least, that what i expect when i read.

    1. Sigrun says:

      I thought I felt more connected to fear and pain too, but I must admit I find Dobyns’ points very fascinating, and I really like his way of writing.

  3. Harold Rhenisch says:

    It’s even more amazing if you keep in mind that his poetry is storytelling in long prosy lines with little relationship to the poetic shapes in which they are placed. The distance between fiction and his poetry is not great, so it’s a distinction he’s making himself, I think: in the narratives he calls poetry (other people might call them narrative nonfictions), he says he deals with stories about the world around him; in the narratives he calls fiction (other people might call them narrative fictions), he says he deals with stories that he has made up. That shouldn’t be taken at face value, because the poems are fictions. It is all very American, really, with roots in transcendentalism, or perhaps solidly in Whitman. Or, to put it another way, whereas Pound replaced intellectual argument and vocabulary with images, Dobyns is replacing it with narrative (and replacing the metrical poetic traditions with it as well). Another fiction writer (and a most excellent one) who wrote poetry was Raymond Carver … and his poems are similar: narratives, in lyric mode, and in prose rhythms and lines. One difference is that Dobyns has a good handle on the difference between narrative in lyric and narrative in fiction. Perhaps he is saying that he can only write about the world in a secular-moral-spiritual way, if he has hope; when he doesn’t have hope, he writes entertainments, which he calls fictions. Given that he’s an American, this hope is just as much hope in the world as hope in America. It is also likely that it’s hope in the secular-moral-spiritual way and in narratives for the common people. It could also, simply, just be a comment on the Cold War. Or one on his poetic mask, or point of view, which is rather imperious. I think the little fictions he has written are quite powerful. In Europe, I suspect they would have been called that, fictions. In America, they’re called poems, instead. I’d say the man has been wrestling with the strong cultural forces that have squeezed him into that divide. The mode has been abandoned. In its place are now simplified narrative voices, intensified enjambment of narratives to replace intellectual and spiritual argument, or rejections of the path and evangelic concentrations on metrics — ie. a return to pre-Whitmanesque American poetics. In all of this, I’d say Whitman is the key.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Interesting, I do have to read much more of him to be able to understand what is to be taken for face value, and what’s not.

  4. Lovely poetry, and I appreciate his honesty. It takes guts to say you’ve given up on the world, although I myself try to live in hope–it’s not possible for all, and some days it is a real battle. I wonder the opposite of what you are asking: how can we go on and work and write and create in world that is so fractured? So, if I am reading him right, it is possible that his feelings of hopelessness and depression–and accompanying fatigue–block his writing. I find that to be a somewhat sane response.

    1. Harold Rhenisch says:

      So, does that book have a date for that first essay? My guess is it might be in the Reagan Era.

      1. Interesting point! Looks like it was written during the late Clinton era…Bush gained power in 2001. So perhaps his comments reflect a certain forboding of the times to come? (depending on his politics of course)

  5. Another thought – is writing essentially a hopeful act? If so, how can you write when you have no hope?

    1. Sigrun says:

      Interesting thought! I will ponder upon it.

  6. I suppose many other poets would disagree with Dobyns. I happen to be reading The Notebooks of David Ignatow right now. He had to leave the world of “light, air, sunshine, prosperity” (and his father’s expectations) and exchange it for filthy boardinghouses and unemployment in order to find the freedom to write poems. He says, “And now as the years have gone by and with them some of the bitterness I understand proudly that this and this alone is the true home of writing. Light, air, sunshine and prosperity, while they exist, are in no need of being written about, not while dirt and disease and anger exist side by side with them. And I believe this is the habitat of such writing from time immemorial, and so it has come to stay in me until I die, for I am if nothing else a repository of illnesses and abuses. I am a reflection of my upbringing in its deadly monotony, loneliness and abandonment in the midst of good things. I cry out for health, wealth, love and joy from time to time in a voice thick with tubercular frenzy and as quickly subside into my illness, the world’s illness in reality. I only cry from the swamps with each downward movement of my body, until my lips are covered.”

    1. Sigrun says:

      Yes, exactly – as if light and air and comfort lulls one into not writing because one no longer experience the pain of life in ones own body and heart.

  7. KM Huber says:

    My, what intriguing comments for this most thoughtful post. I suspect that whatever answer there may be to your question lies within the insightful comments. I offer only that what any writer brings to writing is rarely what the reader receives for the transformation of thoughts into words is never quite what was intended. Marvelous post, Sigrun, and wonderful comments.


    1. Sigrun says:

      Yes, the world is really full of good readers & writers, and I am so happy that some of you take the time to visit my blog!

  8. I attended a conference at which Dobyns spoke, shortly after he published this book in 1997 (and I am glad you have discovered it! It’s a thought-provoking and well-written set of essays). He talked a bit on the differences between how he views/composes poetry vs fiction, though the book has a fuller elaboration.
    I happen to agree with him that I need to be in at least a neutral frame of mind to write poetry; I cannot write poems when I am depressed. But I know other writers–I love it that Ignatow was mentioned in the replies here–who respond differently.
    I don’t write novels, but I read them to escape. Yes. Escapism. And that is decidedly NOT why I read (or write) poetry. When my mood is clouded and pessimistic, writing seems so futile, I don’t want to share my thoughts with the world–or the imagined reader/audience–and, furthermore, I tend to dislike and doubt myself when I am pessimistic. So I do not trust myself to write the “best words.”
    Some of my poetry is very sad, or a bit tartly cynical. But I cannot write from there. I can only recapture some of what I felt when I was angry or sad or disheartened…using some objectivity that the space between the emotion and the actual writing allows. Does that make sense?

    1. Sigrun says:

      YES Absolutely – and thank you so much for this marvelous reflection upon writing. To me it sounds like you think very much in the same way as Dobyns here. Maybe it’s a myth that great poetry is created out of despair, I’m not saying that it never is, but maybe there is a kind of romantic image linked to the poet as a melancholic which isn’t entirely true.

      1. Oh, definitely a stereotype. Like most stereotypes it has some small resemblance to life…studies show that artists and esp. poets are more inclined to depression than the general populace. But more inclined does not mean 100% by a long shot.

        It’s a romantic notion that poets are melancholic sorts. I would say that poets might be more sensitive or attuned to the melancholy aspects of life–more observant of them, perhaps more aware of how varied the expression of, say, grief can be…thus they can muster those observations in order to write them believably.

        Most of the poets I know are very funny people, wry, observant, often bitingly sarcastic but also deeply reflective and, in an odd way, realistic. They get that the world of human experience can be crappy and also divine and they see how hard we try to control our lives. Which is sometimes amusing, sometimes desperate, and sometimes sad.

      2. Sigrun says:

        Dear Anne, some years ago I read a very good book on art and melancholy by the Swedish philosopher Karin Johannisson:

        In her book Johannisson discusses the relation between melancholy and creativity, and looks closer on the similarities and differences between melancholy and depression.

        Hopefully the book will be translated – I think you would have liked it.

        All the best! S

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