Maintaining Poetic Fluency

A poet must develop fluency in poetry through constant reading and practice. A poet must also maintain that fluency. As with any language, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Is poetry really a language unto itself? All I can say is that poetry is a different way of communicating than prose and everyday speech. For example, compression and ellipsis, figurative language, sound patterning, and non-linear movement of time are poetic devices that can distract in prose. And as a language undoubtedly influences the mindset of the speaker, so it is with poetry, which is as much a way of seeing the world as it is a way of talking about it.

Once gained, to maintain poetic fluency is ongoing work. One is neither born with it nor struck with it in lightning-bolt moments of inspiration. Knowing this, I try not to let too many days go by without making at least one poetic decision. Writing a poem is really a series of poetic decisions. But when I am not actively working on a poem, this can be as simple as writing one line or a single image. It can be copying out by hand in my notebook a poem I like written by someone else, and pondering the poetic decisions that poet made. It can be deep readings of poems, during which I ask questions: Where is the high point, the crisis, of the poem? Can I capture it and examine it like a firefly in a jar? How is the poem’s energy generated? Is there action and contrast? Does this poem move me? If I am unmoved, why? Can this poem or something in it become the jumping off point for another?

Image: Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation, 19th c.

The Light and The Dark

“What looks at first like a confrontation turns out to be a connection.”

I like how Nobel Prize-winning poet Tomas Tranströmer talked about his poetry:                 

My poems are meeting places. Their intent is to make sudden connections between aspects of reality that conventional languages ordinarily keep apart. Large and small details of the landscape meet, divided cultures and people flow together in a work of art. Nature meets industry, etc. What looks at first like a confrontation turns out to be a connection. (Quoted by poet and Tranströmer translator Malena Mörling, here:

These frictions and affinities generate energy.

With this in mind, enjoy two poems by Tranströmer: 

“After a Death”: Once there was a shock / that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail. …    

“Outskirts”: Men in overalls the same color of the earth rise from a ditch.

(Photo by Marcin Ryczek)

Translating Emily Dickinson

Last week, the University of Massachusetts Translation Center and the Emily Dickinson Museum hosted an online event featuring two translators who have taken on the difficult but rewarding task of translating Emily Dickinson into their native languages: Adalberto Müller and Marcel Riera i Bou.  Müller, an associate professor of literary theory at the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, has recently finished translating Dickinson’s collected poems into Portuguese (see links, below).  Riera, a poet and editor, has translated a comprehensive anthology of Dickinson’s work into Catalan.  It was a fascinating discussion. Here are some highlights from each speaker’s remarks about translating this unique American voice.       

Adalberto Müller  

It took 7 years to translate Dickinson’s complete work into Portuguese.  Müller got into the habit of translating one to two poems a day.  Now that he’s done, he said he “doesn’t know what to do every morning.”  He was completely drawn into her poetry, joined the Emily Dickinson International Society, and visited Dickinson’s home museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. He found it an extraordinary experience to be in the presence of her everyday objects:  “In the museum, we can feel the proximity of her life in her garden, her clothes, her room… This is so important for a translator.” For Müller, it is crucial for a translator to know not only the text, but the context.  

“Poetry is what happens between sound and meaning.”  Müller emphasized that it was very important to capture the sound as well as the meaning of the original; this is a subtle balancing act.  To not honor Dickinson’s play with sound and rhyme would be “to kill the poem.” 

Dive deep into the work.  To translate a classic, one must become thoroughly familiar with it, including the many translations that have come before.  This familiarity can only enrich a new translation.  As part of his process, Müller read all the great previous translations of Dickinson, not only in the target Portuguese, but in German, Russian, and Spanish.  The translator must ask the question, “how can I do the translation now, considering the translations that came before?”

Dickinson is an important poet for this moment.  Müller reminds us that she “lived in a moment of great divide in America,” and that part of her project was to “break down walls and barriers.”  Despite her circumstances, Dickinson had a cosmopolitan worldview, somewhat unusual for her place and time.  She was aware of issues taking place abroad, and referenced other countries and locales in her work.  Importantly, Dickinson was a founder of modern poetry, and deserves this recognition.  Müller considers this a social justice issue: “It is more important to translate female poets right now.”

Marcel Riera i Bou       

Gaining a deeper understanding.  Riera first encountered Dickinson’s poetry in English as a reader whose interest was piqued.  Wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the poems he was reading, he made copious annotations in the margins, which eventually led to the translation of entire poems.  He called translating Dickinson into Catalan “the most difficult thing I have ever done.”  

Interest grows.  After he had prepared a number of translations of Dickinson’s work, Riera approached an editor to discuss publication.  The editor was dismissive, believing there would be no market for such a volume, miscategorizing Dickinson as “old-fashioned and elitist.”  Eventually, however, Riera convinced the editor to publish a soft-cover collection of about fifty translated poems.  This generated enough interest that the editor agreed to put out another volume, this time of a hundred poems (“but still soft-cover”).  After that, a volume of two hundred poems was authorized —  “and in hard-cover,” Riera chuckled.           

Just look at the difference.  Riera spoke about some specific challenges a Dickinson translator faces. “I can never manage to make things as brief, in a Latinate language, as Dickinson does in English.”  Riera put a Dickinson poem up on the screen (“My life closed twice before its close”), a perfect example of how Dickinson says so much in so few words.  He read his translation aloud, which was displayed beside the original.  The visual difference alone was striking, the lines in Catalan often twice as long.         

About those dashes—.  Other challenges for the translator are Dickinson’s sometimes idiosyncratic syntax, punctuation, and grammar, which include extreme compression and ellipsis.  Indeed, the act of translating lays bare the very bones of a poem’s being.  Riera credits this process with sharpening his own writing skills.  

Dickinson in Translation: Amherst Arts Night Remote, 11/5/20

Presented by the Translation Center of UMass Amherst and The Emily Dickinson Museum

Featured speakers: Adalberto Müller and Marcel Riera i Bou


Event details 

Müller’s volume of translations

Riera’s volume of translations

“My life closed twice before its close” by Emily Dickinson

The Emily Dickinson Museum

The Emily Dickinson International Society

The University of Massachusetts Translation Center

Poetry Reading Review: Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith via Zoom, sponsored by the Smith College Boutelle-Day Poetry Center on 10/21/20

How wonderful to have Tracy K. Smith read her poems in your living room.  While in-person poetry readings are special — the poet projecting from podium or stage, the feeling of community with fellow audience members, the excitement of shared experience — there was a real intimacy to this online reading which was captivating.  

Smith kept her gaze outward toward the listener as she read, something not always possible when reading pages from a podium at an in-person event.  And despite the digital distance between the poet and audience, she easily established a shared space.  

Smith’s selection focused on recent pieces, several of which are found poems (see links below).  “I make use of what’s around me,” Smith explained, “what startles, illuminates, and consoles me.”  Working with historical texts, the poet had an epiphany “that history, which I felt was behind us and represented closure, suddenly felt undone, in progress, and very, very near.”  A deeper examination of our past, with fresh eyes and insight, can shed light on our present predicament.  Hers is a process of uncovering the text beneath the text, by paying close attention and hearing other, hidden voices.

For example, while she worked with the Declaration of Independence to create the erasure poem “Declaration,” Smith said the historical text “presented facets of itself I hadn’t recognized before.”  The resulting poem, stitched together from phrases several hundred years old, speaks to today’s continuing struggle for Black lives and equal justice under the law.  Smith then read “The Greatest Personal Privation,” a found poem mined from the family papers of Charles Colcock Jones, a mid-19th century slaveowner and minister.  Out of letters composed a century and a half ago that exhibit an acceptance and promotion of enslavement comes something new, spoken in the voice of a slave.  

Smith read several other found poems, the starting points of which were an essay by Woodrow Wilson that celebrated Robert E. Lee and the correspondence of Helen Plain, president of The United Daughters of the Confederacy and Klan sympathizer.  The cumulative effect of the found poems was indeed a startling sense of history’s nearness and all its unfinished business.  

Smith then read “Rapture.”  An after-image of the last lines, which depict a woman lifted up and carried away, stays with me.  In “The Wave After Wave is One Wave Never Tiring,” the poet wonders whether movements for justice ever end, or are instead crucial parts of one long, arduous movement.  

She read a new poem inspired by a recent news article about the mysterious elephant die-off in Botswana, titled “The Elephant in the Poem.” There are silences written into the poem, missed beats that stand in not only for the noun “elephant,” but the elephants’ very vanishing.  

Lastly, Smith read a few selections from her forthcoming volume of translations of Chinese poet Yi Lei, My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree.  A line from the translated poem “Black Hair” stood out: The story of black hair is my story.  Smith explained that the image of black hair in Yi Lei’s poem has to do with youth, sensuality, and aging.  But the translator’s voice is unmistakably there, too, coming from beneath the text, or perhaps even nearer, in chorus with it.  Pay attention to the multitude of voices around you, Tracy K. Smith encourages.  Train your ear to pick up hidden frequencies.  Turn up the volume.

Links to poems and books from this reading:               


“The Greatest Personal Privation” 

“Rapture” & “The Wave After Wave is One Wave Never Tiring”

About the poet Yi Lei, with 3 poems translated by Tracy K. Smith

My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree, by Yi Lei & co-translated by Tracy K. Smith (forthcoming 11/2020)

Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith 

Eternity: Selected Poems by Tracy K. Smith

Poetry Reading Review: Thomas Lux

I went to see Thomas Lux read the other night at Smith College.  I hadn’t read much Lux before, so I didn’t know what to expect.  I figured it’s the last night of summer and the chill of fall is in the air, so why not go to a poetry reading?  It was a whim, so I was surprised to discover a voice I’m eager to explore and learn from.  I learned something, too, about how poems actually unfold as they’re being spoken—I experienced them in a physical, concrete way I seldom do at readings.  It was enough to keep my hands warm in the chilly air on the walk across campus back to the car.

It had something to do with the way Lux read.  He was focused deeply on the poems, the experience of them.  I witnessed a poet not reciting poems, but living them.  They had flesh and breath.  He read them slowly and naturally, with a certain amount of emphasis for flavor, but without affectation.  He held the book with his right hand, his left hand often moving freely with the sound and action of the poems.  It gave the poems body.  Sometimes by accident he’d knock the microphone—no matter, it only underscored how ridiculous and unnecessary microphones are.

Lux read exclusively from his forthcoming (2016) collection, To the Left of Time, which contains poems that are mostly odes, he said.  In the poems there was hay dust flying, and all the little cuts that get your arms when you’re haying and which sting suddenly hours later when washing up. There were swords settling at the bottom of river beds and kids venturing out onto untested ice.  There were those pigeon-holing high school aptitude tests and the summer job painting fire hydrants red, the summer everyone asked about your bloodstained clothes.  What struck me is that Lux is in perfect control–of voice and pacing, syntax and image.  There’s nothing extraneous, nothing to distract.  Every word lands just right.  A spare directness is elegantly braided with more complex mysteries.

I’m looking forward to the new collection, and I look forward to becoming better acquainted with Lux’s oeuvre.  Here’s a brief introduction to Lux and his work.  Here’s a poem he read at Smith from the forthcoming book: “Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming.”  And here’s “Empty Pitchforks” from New and Selected Poems 1975-1995.

Poetry Resources

I am sometimes asked to recommend resources for students of poetry and for poets looking to hone their craft (or pull out of a rut).  Collected here are just some of the books and links that I have found particularly helpful over the years for myself and my students.

Starting Out:

“Advice for Beginning Poets” from Wesley McNair’s Mapping the Heart: Reflections on Place and Poetry

The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser

Creating Poetry by John Drury

Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio

Any Time:

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield

The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo

Claims for Poetry, Donald Hall, ed.

A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, Friebert et al., eds.

The Art of series by Graywolf Press:      

     The Art of Description by Mark Doty      

     The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach    

     The Art of Attention by Donald Revell      

     The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt

Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, Michael Thuene, ed.

Leaping Poetry by Robert Bly


The Practice of Poetry, Behn and Twichell, eds.

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp (exercises for artists in all genres)

General Writing Advice:

Writing With Power, Peter Elbow

If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland

Poetry Anthologies, etc.:

The Oxford Book of American Poetry, David Lehman, ed.

The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (two volumes), Jahan Ramazani et al., eds.

The Book of Luminous Things, Czeslaw Milosz, ed.

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics


Poetry Daily

Verse Daily (Academy of American Poets)

As always, the best education for a poet at any level is to consume poetry widely – in journals, books, online, and at readings.  To write poetry, one must also read and listen to it.

Image: Learn, Learn, Learn by Evgeni Katsman