How To Be a Poet
(to remind myself)
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill-more of each
than you have-inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgement
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensional life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
A few weeks ago I was listening to a podcast, which included recordings of Wendell Berry reading some of his own poems, ‘How To Be a Poet’ among them. I love the sound of his voice. It is deep and sonorous, with a Kentucky drawl. He reads in a languid manner, as though he wants to be sure that every one of his words has dropped firmly into his listener’s minds. I was on my way home from a late afternoon visit to the farm where my horse lives, and the sun was setting. His voice was the soundtrack to a view of open fields and fencelines, silhouetted against the fading light.
This weekend I attended the Franschhoek Literary Festival for the first time, and had the opportunity to listen to a number of poets read their own work. I attended only two sessions all weekend that were not poetry related. Mostly I was cocooned in ‘Protea 2’, a small room in the Protea Hotel, where many of the poetry events took place. It is hard to explain what that was like. Anyone who has spent time at a workshop or retreat, immersed in the opportunity to soak up hours of something you care about or love, knows what I mean. I listened as poets and authors talked about the music of words. They answered our questions and shared their stories. But for me the part I loved most was hearing them read and perform poems, their own and those of others.
I bought some collections and had them autographed. I met real life published poets, and found them to be kind, approachable and down-to-earth. I came home with a sense of fresh appreciation for the joy that poetry brings me. I also felt encouraged to keep writing and learning my craft.
The last session I attended was one in which writers talked about their ‘secret lives’. Hundreds of people packed the hall to hear writers talk about their habits, challenges and quirks. It was a fitting way to end the weekend. What struck me most were the words of Deon Meyer, in answer to a question about what it was that he loves about doing this kind of work. He said that it was meeting people all over the world and hearing about what his books have meant to people. He told a story about a woman who came to a signing and presented a cheese she had made for him, and another about a man who shared that Deon’s books had helped to bring him and his daughter closer together. He spoke with real feeling. I loved that, I loved seeing how much he cares about what he does.
I feel privileged to care about something so much, and to be able to make it part of my life. I think that pouring your energy and time into what makes your heart sing, is a worthwhile thing to do. And I believe that when you do, you help ignite and kindle that flame of delight for others.