Michael Lavers, Professor of English at Brigham Young University, Utah.
Michael won the Bridport Prize poetry award in 2020 with his poem Low Tide.
Watch his Masterclass or read below.
Michael Lavers is the author of After Earth, published by the University of Tampa Press. His poems have appeared inPloughshares, AGNI, The Hudson Review, Best New Poets 2015, TriQuarterly, The Georgia Review, and elsewhere. He has been awarded the Chad Walsh Poetry Prize, the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize, and the Bridport Poetry Prize.
Together with his wife, the writer and artist Claire Åkebrand, and their two children, he lives in Provo, Utah.
In recent years I’ve noticed myself repeating a few select quotations—to myself and to students—more than any others. These quotes are reminders of what poetry should be, how it might get written, and why we should not get discouraged by inevitable failure. They contain wisdom not only about how to write, but how to live.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
His essay “Self-Reliance” contains what I see as two complementary injunctions. First: “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.” An exacting judgment, but an inspiring one as well. It reminds me to set my goals high, and convinces me that poetry, even if we are not believers, is necessary for our survival as a species; that it is no less than a celebration of the beauty of the universe, and a source of necessary wonder and awe. Great poems don’t get written accidentally. All poets who have written lasting poems have had the courage and daring to attempt to write lasting poems, to wrestle with awe.
Of course, with aims this lofty, one must grow accustomed to failure. Hence the need for courage, and for Emerson’s second injunction. In describing a hypothetical young man discouraged by failure, Emerson reminds us that this man “has not one chance, but a hundred chances.” When a poem fails (as most of mine do), and when the few successes get rejected (as most of mine do), I try to remember I have not one, not a hundred, but thousands and thousands of chances. Just keep writing. A large stack of failed poems is the necessary price of the few worth preserving. Here I’ll sneak in a related quote by Wisława Szymborska. When asked why she had published so few poems, she said: “I have a trash can in my home.”
In an 1862 letter to T. W. Higginson, Dickinson explains her request for feedback by saying “The Mind is so near itself – it cannot see, distinctly – and I have none to ask -” If one of the greatest poets in English could not tell which of her verses was alive and which needed more work, we can forgive ourselves for being similarly uncertain. Our minds are too close to our own work to be its best judge, so get outside help. This is why I’m in a writing group, trading poems with people I trust. Inevitably they point out all the ways in which a draft I think is great could still improve. Or the ways in which a draft I think has failed may have some potential I didn’t notice.
So find people to ask, and be humble enough to let them help you make your work better—if Emily Dickinson felt she needed feedback, then we all do. And if no such people are available, put the poem away and wait. Then come back and read it with fresh eyes. My later self always makes improvements my former self wasn’t capable of because he can see the draft more objectively. How long should we wait? I don’t know. As long as it takes us to forget the poem entirely. A few months might do the trick. Longer might be better. Horace suggested that to gain the necessary distance we should put work away for ten years. This seems like a lot to me, but then again, he wrote some of the best poems we have, so he must have been on to something…
Dickinson shows us that mystery and uncertainty are unavoidable. But in a 1939 essay, Frost argues that they are not only unavoidable, but a necessary and desirable part of the process. He writes: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.” A great poem “can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.” This means that to write a poem is to never quite know what you’re doing. If we don’t learn to live with this discomfort, we’ll be incapable of the kinds of surprise Frost extolls.
What does this look like in practice? It could mean a hundred different things: starting a poem by asking a question we do not know the answer to; forbidding ourselves to end on an image or idea that feels too easy; pushing a thought farther, and then farther again. For me, it means I strive to write mostly for myself, to give the writing its own value as a means of thinking or discovery. It means embracing what Emerson calls “whim,” the willingness to follow any idea I find interesting. And since I can’t know which thread will culminate in a poem worth preserving, I have no choice but to trace down as many threads as I can, starting many drafts, abandoning some, never quite sure which experiments will work and which will not.
As a poetry teacher, I often wish I could give my students a list of ingredients and procedures, a recipe which if they follow will result in a great poem. But I can’t. No such recipe exists. Nor do I really want it to. The lack of any recipe is what makes poetry valuable. The awe we feel in the presence of a great work of art is similar to love, and cannot be reduced to a formula. This irreducibility is one reason poetry—and love—are beautiful and necessary. The three authors above show us the way. I hope they help you as much as they’ve helped me.