Poetry Burnout


I’ve definitely got poetry burnout so I’m taking a couple of days off writing to let the wells
refill, and just brainstorming anything that comes into my head. I’ve been listening to the
Faber Poetry Podcast for new perspectives, and reading Frank Bidart because he’s so
wonderfully different to so much of what I normally like—these long winding narrative
poems, sometimes biblical, some about Russian ballerinas, all beautiful. There’s something
very radical about an openly gay poet writing a traditional-sounding biblical poem in the 60s.
And every now and then there’s a line like this:

my hands wanted to touch your hands

because we had hands.

(“In the Western Night”)

It just breaks my heart with how simple and yet moving it is.
I’m also re-reading Hera Lindsay Bird’s Pamper Me to Hell and Back, because it’s like
taking a shot of absinthe as a palate cleanser. I’m worried I’m losing the sense of humour in
the poems I’ve been writing lately. I hope Hera and Frank O’Hara will help me recover it.



James lent me his copy of Jorie Graham’s The Dream of the Unified Field, which I already
read some of earlier in the year, but he also gave me the titles of a few specific poems he
wants me to read. He thinks there’s multiple points of connection between Graham’s poems
and what I’m doing, namely the use of nature layered with personal relationships, and the
way she structures her ideas. Graham is definitely an ‘ideas poet’, by which I mean there’s
always some deeper meaning going on, something further to get to—the images / scenes /
descriptions in the poem are never the main thing. This is where I think we differ, in that I
often do want to prioritise physical objects and description over abstract ideas. Particularly
with nature poems, I think it’s important to value the aspects of the natural world in and of
themselves, not just symbolically. However, I do admire the way she seems to always push it that little bit further ideas-wise. I think maybe there’s room for me to do both, if I can figure
it out.

The poems he most wanted me to read are:
“Reading Plato”
“Two Paintings by Gustav Klimt”
As well as more of Erosion.

“Reading Plato” I like, particularly in how the title signals at something that isn’t
otherwise in the poem textually but opens up a really interesting reading of it—connected to
Platonic philosophy and ‘the allegory of the cave’. Moreover, the poem has layers of truth
and reality to it—the speaker’s friend is making lures for fishing, out of deer hair. The lures
look like flies, enough to trick the trout (or salmon? I don’t know enough about fishing to
know), but they are made by a man, out of a land mammal. “Meanwhile // upriver,
downriver, imagine, quick / in the air, / in flesh, in a blue / swarm of / files, our knowledge of
/ the graceful // deer skips easily across / the surface.” It’s not the deer that skips across the
surface but our knowledge of it. That degree of distance, of removal between the thing and
the perception of it, is so important in this poem. We see the deer, in its life, in its death, we
see the men “trying to slip in / and pass // for the natural world,” we see the flies-that-aren’t-
flies, dancing, we see the fish charmed by what they take to be real. It’s incredibly clever and
incredibly difficult to figure out how one might replicate it.

“Fission” does a similar thing—we start in a movie cinema with the speaker watching
a film, seeing the light of the film projected onto the screen, the girl “greater-than-life-size”
on the screen, lying “almost nude on the lawn,” we see the speaker see a man see the girl on
the lawn, we see her go from being unseen to knowing she is seen. Then the house lights
come on, and we see the interior of the cinema, lit up, the film on the screen still barely
perceptible under the brighter lights. A man runs in and calls for the attention of the audience,
the film is muted—but still, significantly, visible—and then he says the president has been
shot. We are suddenly grounded in history; we see the whole context of the world around the
cinema. While this seems like a lot, it takes its time to get there—Graham doesn’t rush
through anything. We spend half a page with the barely visible girl on the screen once the
lights come up, “such // white on their flesh in / patches—her thighs like receipts slapped
down / on a silver tray.” We come back to her after the announcement, with all the weight of
history suddenly upon her: “there is a way she lay down on that lawn / to begin with, / … /

there is a way to not yet be wanted, // there is a way to lie there at twenty-four frames per
second—no faster—” and the plot carries out, the cop car, the chase, all seen through the lens
of the president’s assassination, through the eyes of the speaker watching on a screen.


More on Jorie Graham, I watched an interview last night that James sent me a link to,
between her and Robert Hass (whose work, it’s worth noting, I have never read—though
maybe I should now). The whole interview was really riveting, and funny at times with how
convoluted and complex Graham’s questions were, that really just completely stumped
Hass—early on, she asks a very long complicated question and he looks around for a bit and
then looks at the audience and says “All of this sounds, well, it just sounds like, what’s

However, there were a couple of particular things they discussed that I felt very close
to in my own poetics, around the description of nature in poetry, the moral and political
connotations of nature in poetry, and the ability or failure of poetry to represent the thing it is
describing. Hass says:

We cannot have an elegiac relationship to reality. It’s not good to have an
elegiac relationship. It’s crocodile tears to be a human, especially in America
and using the amount of energy we consume, and eating up biosystems by
the millions.

That elegiac relationship to reality is the way poetry often is, where it treats nature and the
world as something beautiful and detached to be described—a way of writing about the world
that acts like it no longer exists, that life is not still occurring right now. Hass says he started
out like that when he started to write poetry, and it’s a morally fraught way to write. We have
to write about the world (especially the natural world) in a way that acknowledges and
prioritises its current existence, and thus the damage being done to it. Also, that “it’s
crocodile tears to be a human”—what a heart-hitter.

Hass also talked about translating Polish-American poet Milosz, who saw the German
occupation of Warsaw in WWII—saw great suffering and violence—while many of his
contemporary poets were still debating incredibly abstract ideas about language. Hass says of
Milosz, “he passionately believed that language could not represent reality, and that it was
nevertheless the best you could do and you had to keep trying.” This is something I fervently connect with, and even further, I’d say that language cannot save reality, but it is nevertheless
the best we can do and we have to keep trying. The idea of carrying on in an impossible task
for the sake of at least getting as close as possible to the goal is very moving. A poem cannot
call the world into being, as Heidegger says—if you describe a cat, it does not conjure a cat,
only a description of a cat—but if you get as close as you can to the real thing it is still worth
doing. Milosz’s poem “Campo dei fiori” describes the burning at the stake of Giordano

when Giordano
climbed to his burning
he could not find
in any human tongue
words for mankind,
mankind who live on.

Already they were back at their wine
or peddled their white starfish,
baskets of olives and lemons

Even Giordano, in the poem, finds at the vital moment that language fails him. And the poet
declares this, while at the same time writing it down—two acts at odds with each other. We
cannot find in any human tongue words for mankind, but we have to keep trying.


So, I read Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle, finally. I know every single person
ever doing their MA in poetry probably reads this book, but really I can understand why.
She’s incredibly articulate on the methods and obstacles and reasons and madnesses of
writing poems—it’s helpful to have somebody who openly admits to not knowing what
they’re doing, but clearly does it very well, alongside you while you struggle through the year
of not knowing what you’re doing. I particularly like how she writes about poetic tropes that
maybe have become so common people roll their eyes at them—I know I’m a little hesitant
to put the moon in poems now because it’s become almost clichéd (though when I was
younger I wrote about the moon relentlessly and without shame). And she never calls them
tropes or clichés, and she always manages to find a new angle on it—how poets responded to

the moon landing, how metaphor changed, how the realisation of the moon as something
physical and within human reach changed the poetic vision of it, without making it any less
Romantic. I love when she writes about Neil Armstrong hoping someday someone will go
back up there and erase his footprints, and even more, the astronauts who describe looking at
Earth from the moon changing their whole perspective on life, and humanity—how whole we
are, how interconnected. It makes me wonder how life would be different if every single
person could see Earth from that viewpoint. But then, we can, in photographs. The
photographs fail us somehow.

I have a lot of respect for Mary Ruefle giving lectures in which she semi-regularly
declares how much she dislikes giving lectures, and speaking about writing, and writing
about writing. She says, at some point, she thinks it would be better off if we were all just in
our rooms quietly writing. But I’m gradually coming to be comfortable with the time that I’m
not writing, and realising that no matter how much I want to I cannot write all day every day.
I’d bleed myself dry. I can’t come up with fresh idea on fresh idea over and over without
putting something back in, refilling the well. One of the best ways to refill that well is
reading, and reading things like Madness, Rack, and Honey, which is both poetic and full of
stimulative and interesting ideas, and focused on the process of crafting poems, is perfect for
that. In reading this book over the past week I’ve jotted down a full page of notes—thoughts
to pursue, images that have come to me, questions I want to answer—that I can then use to
turn into poems. You can’t build something without any materials, and these words and
images and ideas are the materials. Of course, there are a lot of times where I get too caught
up in the prose and just get stuck in reading, without making any notes, but I’m learning to
accept that as well. It’s still a refilling even if I can’t see the outcomes as I’m doing it.
One of my favourite lectures in the collection is “My Emily Dickinson”, because of
course I’m a sucker for Emily Dickinson, and I’ve written about her myself before, in an
essay (that didn’t turn out to be very good) about her, Mary Oliver, and Dorothy
Wordsworth, as women poets unmaking themselves in nature, and the feminine tradition of
doing so. So, reading this lecture by Mary Ruefle about three reclusive women writers, one of
whom is Emily Dickinson, felt like I was reading the alternate and much more successful
version of the essay I wanted to write. The lines she draws between the three, often without
naming them, are so poignant and moving that it seems to illuminate something vital about
the whole history of women writing in English. Moreover, the admission at the end that
Ruefle hasn’t really written about her Emily Dickinson at all, because her Emily Dickinson is
hers, and private, ignites a small moment of recognition in my Emily Dickinson, and also my

Emily Bronte, and then even my Mary Ruefle. We each have our own little relationships with
writers like this, whether we read them while young or meet them later, whether we’ve read
everything they’ve ever written or are only just getting started—it’s an intimate and personal
thing, somebody’s readings of and memories of the poems by a writer they love, particularly
I think when there are other connections such as gender or youth or a sense of isolation. I’m
quite happy mentioning gender as one of those because it does seem to me like women
treasure their Emily Dickinson more than men do. The Billy Collins poem that Ruefle talks
about, “Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” is not a poem of somebody treasuring
another’s poems. It’s a poem of voyeurism, of objectification, even of a strange fixation on
that which is secret and intimate. I have the same instinct Ruefle has—to re-dress Emily.


Ash Davida Jane is a poet and bookseller from Wellington. Her work can be found in Starling, Sweet Mammalian, Mimicry, Food Court, -Ology, Sport, Peach Mag, and Mayhem. Her first book, Every Dark Waning, was published in 2016.

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