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A Poet-Lady Thinks About Her Work

Dear kindhearted poet-lady, the letter begins. It turns out to be a thank-you note in answer to one from me, and its sender is a friend of many years. Although I hope to be kindhearted, I am like Mary Oliver in her wonderful poem, “Messenger,” no longer young and still not half-perfect.

Further, in this note I am addressed as poet-lady, and this pleases me so much that I will think of it several times in the coming days. Poets have to take on faith that what they are writing is poetry, the same as composers do in regard to music, and painters do in regard to their art. From time to time we require a bit of reassurance from outside ourselves, even if we say we do not care what people think of our work.

Here is a poem about writing poems. It contains a definition of poetry attributed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, writing in 1827: the best words, in their best order.

The Serious Work of Poetry

From the doorway of a breaking
day, I see all down the misty street
a row of lights, and the enormous
nimbus of each of them entangled
in branches of the nearer trees.

So do I imagine that what a poet
does is send out words one by
one. They step from this halo
of light into that one, the bravest
words bearing the weight of their
various etymologies and emotions,
while the best of them,
in their best order,
dance.