In Dublin recently, an exhibit opened celebrating the work of Seamus Heaney, the Nobel laureate and Irish poet who died in 2013 at 74.
The exhibit features Heaney’s desk – a board atop two filing cabinets, as unassuming as a carpenter’s bench. Among his papers is a manuscript of “When all the others were away at Mass,” a popular Heaney poem about an intimate moment between mother and son while she peels potatoes. It was part of a much larger draft that Heaney gradually refined to distill the poem to its powerful essence. “In a way, it makes me appreciate how it happened,” Heaney’s son, Mick, told The New York Times. “He worked a lot. He was at that desk many hours.”
It’s a potent reminder that writing poetry can be a tough slog, requiring some heavy lifting. That reality seems obvious when we think about novelists or biographers, since the length of their creations makes the effort self-evident. Poets, though, typically write shorter works that can look deceptively simple – as if they’ve been uttered, not composed. As with any form of genius, the better the poet, the easier it looks.
In “We Begin in Gladness,” Craig Morgan Teicher assigns himself the task of explaining how poets teach themselves to write their best. His title comes from a couple of lines by William Wordsworth: “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.”
Teicher, himself a poet, points to Wordsworth’s observation as an example of our tendency to think of poets as a bit touched, tuned to mysterious voices they transcribe on the page, their work created by compulsion rather than craft. He laments “an old, sad stereotype about poets: that, perhaps, writing poems and looking too long at the trials of the human mind and heart in a troubled world beckons poets to their undoing.”
While he concedes that poetry has its share of anguished sorts (Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Randall Jarrell and John Berryman come to mind), Teicher points out that “many poets – Wordsworth was among them – live and write into ripe old age and have the chance to author what can be remarkable literary product.”
That term, "literary product," perhaps takes Teicher’s argument further than he intended. Heaney’s humble work station aside, we like to think of poetry as something grander than a "product" – a higher thing than, say, a pair of boots or a smartphone. In carefully considering its technical concerns, Teicher acknowledges that poetry, though the result of concentrated effort, is also shaped by the ineffable. Reading "We Begin in Gladness" brings to mind E.B. White’s observation that poetry can’t be fully explained. “A poet," he wrote, “dares be just so clear and no clearer; he approaches lucid ground warily, like a mariner who is determined not to scrape his bottom on anything solid."
Teicher’s best insights, in fact, are ultimately about poetry’s connection to the sublime. "A poem," he notes, "is something that can’t otherwise be said addressed to someone who can’t otherwise hear it. By this definition, poetry is deeply impractical and deeply necessary."
Here’s another Teicher gem: “So much of life happens inside our heads, where other people can’t see. Language is the fundamental bridge between inner and outer worlds, between people, even neighbors, who are always road-blocked by their skulls. Poetry is how we pay attention to that bridge, how we make sure it doesn’t fall, how we maintain it, fix it when it gets rickety. As long as people communicate, there will always be poets.”
If one is moved to sample such bits of brilliance selectively, it’s perhaps because “We Begin in Gladness” can feel somewhat fragmentary. The essays that form each chapter originated in various literary journals, so the book is less a sustained argument than a series of appreciations. Teicher details the artistry of Heaney’s “Clearances," a sequence of sonnets that includes "When all the others were away at Mass." There are also considerations of Robert Hayden, W.S. Merwin, William Butler Yeats, Delmore Schwartz, and Lucille Clifton, among others.
He mentions that before her death in 2010, Clifton wrote a final poem that rather presciently touched on what might endure when she was gone. Her parting work, “In the Middle of the Eye,” expressed “her lifelong choice to keep her eyes and heart open and her pen moving,” Teicher writes. “This is what poets sign up for, though few uphold that contract to the end. The best of them can’t ever die.”
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”