Beginner's Heart

William Blake's watercolor of "Age teaching youth", a Romantic representation of mentorship.  via

William Blake’s watercolor of “Age teaching youth,” a Romantic representation of mentorship.

So by now everyone knows it’s National Poetry Month. And I’m also writing poetry daily, as NPM coincides w/ National Poetry WRITING Month (NaPoWriMo). It’s a very happy month for me.

Today’s poem is by a poet who has been a mentor for me in both my craft, and in his thoughts. Jack Gilbert was a gifted poet — winner of several prestigious awards, and continuing to write until he died, in his late 80s. But there are poets I love for their craft (Mark Doty always comes to mind) and poets I love for what their craft translates: what they say, not simply how they say it. Jack Gilbert was both, able to reveal what felt like the world’s great secrets in a single line.

I’m sure this is another of those life metaphors writing continues to teach me, like age — as Blake noted — offers lessons to the young who will listen. I confess I haven’t always listened to my elders, unless they were/ are poets. Gilbert, for instance, helped me come to terms with the fact that writing poetry isn’t easy for me. I’m not prolific, and I revise far more than I draft. When asked on NPR why he only published four books of poetry in 50 years, he responded: “It’s not a business with me . . . . I’m not a professional of poetry, I’m a farmer of poetry.”

I love that. The gardener in me knows just how hard it is to prepare dirt, to sow seed, to cultivate & nurture & tend. Endure the vicissitudes of weather, the vagaries of predatory insects. It’s one of the best descriptions of writing — at least for me — ever. I’m trying to live a life where poetry can be harvested, as Gilbert did.

In the meantime, I’m looking at one of the books in his collected works, a book I bought before his collected works came out. A book I’ve given away several times. A book with lines like We find out the heart only by dismantling what/ the heart knows. And We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars. Or …Our lives happen between/ the memorable. 

Here’s a poem from his final book, The Dance Most of All. 

Waking at Night

The blue river is grey at morning
and evening. There is twilight
at dawn and dusk. I lie in the dark
wondering if this quiet in me now
is a beginning or an end.


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