What I’m Reading: How a Poem Happens

At the beginning of April I stumbled across several poetry-related websites, and one of my favorites was a blog called “How a Poem Happens: Contemporary Poets Discuss the Making of Poems.” The blog belongs to poet Brian Brodeur (who I had never heard of, not surprisingly, as there are about a million poets I’ve never heard of to every one whose name I recognize), and each post consists of a poem by a contemporary poet, followed by an interview with poet discussing how the poem came to be.

Poets tend to be thoughtful people (though I’m kind of making this up, since I’ve mostly only known poets through their poems, which I may simply have misinterpreted as “thoughtful.” Poets might not be thoughtful at all). Both Brodeur’s questions and the various poets’ answers to them tend to be interesting and articulate, not to mention often eloquent or revelatory.

Of course, this blog only really deals with one element of how a poem happens: it’s creation by its author, the process of its conception, the work that goes into its production, the techniques chosen to carve its particular shape out of the infinitude of language. There’s another way in which a poem happens, and that is the way in which a poem happens to you. This experience–of reading a poem on a page, or a website, or a poster–usually has very little to do with the author’s experience of creating the poem. This “happening” is the poem as it happens to the reader, not the poem as it happens to the writer, and one experience is usually so distant from the other that poets and readers usually only meet in their imaginations: the poet imagining his reader (one of Brodeur’s questions centers around this), the reader imagining the poet.

I can’t really say that one kind of “happening” is more valuable than the other, though to go only by the numbers, a poem is created just once (not actually true, since poems are often published, then further revised, then published again, etc…but I’ll generously let this inaccuracy on my part slide), and only by a single person, while poems are often read thousands of times, by thousands of different people. (The thought strikes me though that perhaps if all the poems ever written which no one read at all were added to the “Poet’s” side, the ratio would even out quite a bit)

How a Poem Happens” lets the two experiences occur in concert for a little while; you can read the poem and then read about it. See if your thoughts align with the author’s own ideas about the poem–just don’t feel bad about yourself if they don’t! “How a Poem Happens” doesn’t have to be how a poem happens to you.

If you’re interested, I recommend reading this poem and interview with poet Alicia Ostriker (who I hadn’t heard of either). I really loved her poem “Daffodils” and her answers to Brodeur’s questions, though I’ll admit it’s possible she just won me over by quoting Adrienne Rich (a poet I have heard of, at last).


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