Write Like a Child

I have exactly one academic-style talk that I give, and I’ve given it a few times, because I have exactly one thing that I know well enough and that I think is worth talking about at length. The talk is called “Poetry and the Subconscious,” and it basically riffs off of my favorite quote by Elizabeth Bishop: “The thing we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.”

I go on to weave through a couple dozen quotes from interviews with poets, and make the case that this is what all poets are really doing, regardless of means or motive or intent, or even the style of writing once they get there: They’re using tricks they’ve learned over the years to reach the meditative state the Buddhists call Samadhi—a unified state of mind in which there is no distinction between self and environment, no sense of time or place. Samadhi is becoming attuned to the fundamental interconnectedness of reality. It’s the dissolution of Self, the absorption of one mind into the total oneness of creation. It’s what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi famously calls “Flow” (though I’ve always felt his definition is a bit too restrictive). It’s what athletes call “The Zone.” It’s the source of surprise and wonder at our own spontaneity.

Only when the Self dissolves is the subconscious free to speak—and it’s the subconscious that’s the real artist; it’s the lower, ancient regions of the brain finally having a chance to communicate, after being silenced by the domineering logic of the cerebral cortex in our daily lives. Because the subconscious understands things abstractly and intuitively, and because the neurological pathways are so old—stretching back millions and millions of years—hearing a message from the subconscious a powerful and personal experience. We’re finally hearing deeper selves, in the voice of another.

All art, then, in my opinion, is a bridge of communication between two subconsciouses.

And the way to make art is through this state of “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration” where the consciousness fades away. Here’s a quote from one of my favorite books, Zen in the Art of Archery:

The right art is purposeless, aimless! The more obstinately you try to learn how to shoot the arrow for the sake of hitting the goal, the less you will succeed in the one, and the further the other will recede. What stands in your way is that you have a much too willful will. You think that what you do not do yourself does not happen.

That “willful will” is exactly what I try to avoid when I’m writing.

The most interesting thing is that this is a practice we all have to re-learn, as artists. Children do it instinctively. Again from Zen:

You must hold the drawn bowstring like a little child holding a proffered finger. It grips it so firmly that one marvels at the strength of the tiny fist. And when it lets the finger go, there is not the slightest jerk. Do you know why? Because a child doesn’t think: I will now let go of the finger in order to grasp this other thing. Completely unself-consciously, without purpose, it turns from one to the other, and we would say that it was playing with the things, were it not completely true that the things were playing with the child.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of children as poets. I’ve taught a few classes as a poet-in-the-schools, but any parent, I’m sure, can attest to the amazing powers of a child’s imagination, and the creative ways they invent new words and metaphors. It really does seem, sometimes, like the child isn’t playing with words so much as the words are playing with the child.

Adult writers can learn a lot from children, I think.

And so we’re trying something new at Rattle this year, and asking for submissions of poems written by children, for what we hope to be a stand-alone annual anthology. Unlike most anthologies of “children’s poetry,” this collection will be written entirely by children for adults. I think it’s worth listening to both what they have to say, and how they play at saying it.

If you have a young poet under 15, you can read the guidelines here. They’re pretty simple. The deadline for this year is September 15th.

Cross-posted to the Inlandia Blog

The Science of Poetry: A Prehistoric Telephone Game


Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on May 21, 2013, in the Inlandia Institute‘s weekly column. More from my series on “the science of poetry” will be appearing throughout the year.

“Who reads poetry anymore?” I remember asking as a know-it-all 8th grader.  “And what  is poetry, anyway?  The music and rhythms of language?  What’s the point of that?”  I see the same questions flash through the minds of strangers when I tell them I work as a poetry editor.  But the answer is easy:  Just sit in a circle.

Do you remember the telephone game?   A group of kids sits in a circle.  One whispers a phrase into her neighbor’s ear, and then the neighbor whispers the same phrase into his neighbor’s ear, and so on around the circle, until it returns  to the one who started it—but with all the original details comically confused.

Play it with a random phrase and it always works—the blue house becomes  a black blouse right on cue, and by the end none of it makes sense.

Then find a couplet of poetry to send around the circle, maybe Shel Silverstein, from his poem “Sick”:  “I have the measles and the mumps,/ a gash, a rash and purple bumps.”  The couplet survives whole, almost magically intact.

That’s the point of poetry.  Or at least one of the points.

Try this exercise:  Draw a line.  Label one end 200,000 years ago; label the other 0, for present-day.  This is the timeline of human history, dating back to the earliest appearance of anatomically modern humans within the fossil record.  Along this line have lived 10,000 generations of Homo sapiens, all with the same brain size and bone structure, all with some capacity for complicated thought.  The oldest of them is 100 times older than the Roman empire.  Think about that for a moment.

Now cut the line in half, and place a midpoint at 100,000 years ago.  This is when the FOXP2 gene, believed to be largely responsible for our understanding of grammar, first appeared.   Because this gene must have developed within a relatively stable linguistic environment, this is strong evidence that rudimentary language existed prior to this date.

Cut those halves in half again.  Each of these four new segments represents 50,000 years—the nearest is the dawn of the Upper Paleolithic.  Humans are transitioning from the common hand ax to an array of specialized blade tools for hunting, dressing meat, and working hide.

Cut that line in half, and we arrive at 25,000 years ago, just one-eighth of the timeline backward from today.  This is the period anthropologists call the “cultural explosion,” the sudden emergence of art.  All over the world, and in a relatively short span of time, human enterprise shifted from the entirely utilitarian production of hunting tools to all things ephemeral.  People began adorning themselves with bead and bone jewelry.  They began making musical instruments, and cave paintings, and burying their dead.  This suggests they lived rich social lives, with strong interpersonal relationships and increasingly complicated mythologies.

Cut that line in half again:  12,000 years ago, the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent.

Cut that line in half again: 6,000 years ago, the first proto-writing emerges in the form of pictograms carved into tablets and tortoise shells.  Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian cuneiform.

Cut that line in half one last time and we arrive at 3,000 years before present, the first appearance of the Phoenician alphabet, and a genuine writing system.

Now step back and look at this timeline.  It’s broken into 64 segments, and in only one of them—in only the most recent 3,000 years—did humans have the ability to fully record their thoughts.  To put it another way, 9,500 generations of human beings were alive in our prehistory, all of them feeling their own forms of love and lust, fearing death and disease and hunger, wondering about their place in the world, pondering the meaning of it all, making gods, offering sacrifices, praying for peace—with no way to pass on that experience but with words .  For so much of our history, the only tradition was the oral tradition.

And the oral tradition is the telephone game:  one generation whispering to the next, and whispering to the next, and whispering to the next, forever down the line.

So how do we save the stories that matter?  The details here might truly be life and death, might mean the difference between finding the herd of aurochs and starvation.  How do we make sure that the blue house doesn’t become a black blouse and ruin the ritual?

Meter.  Rhyme.  Repetition.  Consonance, assonance, inflexion.   All of these tools that poetry is trying to teach us.  This is why  our holy books are written in verse.  It was poetry that saved the things that mattered, before we had prose.

After Reading Fifty Poems From the Best Literary Magazines



Either I
have very

good taste
or very

poor taste
or there’s

no such
thing as

at all.


Most poems
are bullshit

pinned with

and pinafore
lit up like

a damn
beer sign

but this poem
says it’s bullshit

which means
it’s less

than at least

fifty poems
so print it

up somewhere
preferably paid

and give me
an award.

I’ll write ten more
for tenure.



In all seriousness
I wouldn’t

like one in fifty
of my own


Blue-Grey Place


every morning the same morning      the same squawk of
the ironing board unfolding      the clink of spoon against
bowl      his oatmeal like tar      sugarless      the same
voices spilling over it      midwestern dialects most bland
therefore most pleasing to that secret place where
proximity stands for comfort      repetition the golden

status quo of Good Morning America      a car bomb
rocked North Ireland overnight but first how to fold your
linen napkins into swans of origami
      and lying in bed
as the water ran      the swish of steam      his hand pressing
hard into Dockers      he’d complain to no one about the
pleats      about a woman’s work      the silence of the

house      what he wouldn’t give for a blowjob and a bagel
right now      or just a day off his feet      and down the
hall      in my dark room      under comic book sheets     
call it the shadow of his second-hand solitude      call it
prescience or longing      call it letting go      or grabbing
on to patriarchy      his villainy stripped away with my

presence      but for the first time      and every time      I
wanted to be him in forty years      I wanted his grey hair
and grunting acceptance      I wanted every day to begin
and end just like it did:      bright morning on the yellow
walls      warm steam from an iron      the day’s news a
garbled redundancy on a small screen of black and white