“How can you ever be sure / that anything you write is really / any good at all?”

One of my students, Roberta Flynn, invited me to attend a lecture by Paul Mariani, a poet and biographer of poets who teaches at Boston College. Mariani began by reading W. S. Merwin’s poem about studying poetry with John Berryman. (You can listen to Garrison Keillor read the poem here.)

The last seven lines of the poem state in the simplest terms something that no poet should ever forget, but it’s something that all of us forget all the time:

“I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write”

It seems to be an occupational hazard: a poet’s desperate need to be assured that his work is “any good.” I suppose it comes of working at a trade that doesn’t pay, in a culture where money is the mark of success.

Mariani told us an anecdote about his father’s reaction to his writing poetry. They were riding to work together in his father’s truck, and his father pulled over to the side of the road and turned off the engine. He had something important to say: “I hear that you’ve been writing poetry.”

“Well, yes, a little. Not a lot. It’s not something you need to worry about.”

His father turned the key in the ignition and started engine running again, and said, “All right. Well—you’re still my son.” And that was the end of the conversation.

A workingman who is hopeful to see his son get ahead in this world is bound to look askance at poetry. No good is likely to come from that direction. Robert Frost himself admitted that “Poetry spoils you for everything else.”

For all that, it was obvious that Paul Mariani was grateful to have been given the gift of poetry. And he really did see it as a gift—a “grace,” he called it. His deep gratitude was evident in his selection of  poems to read —poems by Dante, Hopkins, Eliot, Levertov, Naomi Shihab Nye, and only a couple of his own. It dawned on me that the expression of gratitude shows itself as generosity. If you’re deeply conscious of having received a gift, you’re ready to give what you can to someone else.

The poet who remembers that his art is a gift might be able to shake the desperate need to be told he’s good at it. He could be more like Gerard Manley Hopkins’ kingfisher:

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

Then he wouldn’t have to worry so damned much about getting anyone’s approval!