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Poetry and the Fairer Sex

September 27, 2011 | 11 Comments

Dear Mr. Keillor,

I attended your talk at the National Book Festival in Washington Sunday, at which you said "The only good reason to write a poem is to impress a woman."  While I totally agree that this may be a good reason for a man to write a poem, can you tell me the "good reason" for the beautiful poetry written by the fairer sex?  Perhaps the reason I cannot muster a halfway decent attempt at poetry is because this reason evades me.


Poets tend to claim very high motives for themselves, Sara, as you know if you ever read interviews with poets. It's a religious passion that moves them, a mysterious restless urge that comes upon them and won't go away, an electrical current in their souls, a powerful twitch ----- really, it's God blowing in their ears. They claim powerful mysterious motivation to cheer themselves up, knowing that nobody much cares about their poetry. Maybe, if they're in the Top 40 Living Poets, a teacher will make her students read their work, but otherwise nada. Maybe an independent bookstore will stock their books, but not many people wander over to the poetry section, and most who do don't stay long. It's discouraging. What I meant by what I said is simply: I don't want to write a poem that will go unread, and one reader is enough, so I'll write to that one, and if I can impress her ---- she who knows me much too well already ---- then this is not a bad poem at all. And there's no point to writing a bad poem. There are enough of those already.


If poetry is "God blowing in their ears," I'm wondering if God whispers to poets a new Koran or a new Ten Commandments, the kind of thing that Must Be Communicated, ASAP; can one evaluate the import? Is God using the Inside Voice or the Outdoors Voice when he conveys poetry? Is there an implicit obligation to do one's best with this breath, or is one to "attend" and be amazed and no more?
It could seem intrusive to bring in an otherwise nonparticipant voice into the "group" of humanity, but maybe poetry in this sense is exactly those things that do not have "currency" in the day-to-day flow, and excuse their intrusion by being crafted, coded, sculpted to try to earn a place regardless.

I think Kurt Vonnegut answers Sara's question quite well in A Man Without A Country (p24): "The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something."

And here is what I created for Sara Who Can't Muster a Reason to Write:

Writing Is Caring For Self If Not Others

Write to remember
Write to forget
Write for love
and write for regret

Write it to burn
Write it to share
Write it because you care.
Write to Learn

Write to learn
Write to grow
Write it first,
and then you'll know.


Like many writers, I've gone through seasons of lush flood and bone-dry scab, each offering sustenance and hinged on love of one kind or another. GK's 77 Love Sonnets remains a yummy source of inspiration for me as does the idea of touching one reader (akin to the late night radio host, finding that one restless soul). Triggers for the wellspring of mind can arrive in the most surprising manner.

Hilary sums it up beautifully:
"Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward."

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion...medicine, law, business, engineering - these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love - these are what we stay alive for." - Robin Williams

I am 48 years old and just started writing little poems for the first time. I have nothing to do with it;they come from my big left toe.Fourth graders, and the child within me, are my divine inspiration.

Thank you for the beautiful, Hilary.

Here's the difference between Poet and Audience:
Poet: "I don't want to write a poem that will go unread..."
Audience: "I wish it had."


What gave me great pleasure hearing your poem was not the detail of gender – one can imagine a culture where women tend to be the wooers and write more poetry that appeals to others than men do – so much as your claim that how we write is influenced by what we think the other will feel about us by reading our poem. That might seem to be obvious to all, but it is not.

About a thousand years ago 31-syllable Japanese poems were divided into the ushin (have-heart/mind, i.e. poems coming from the heart) and mushin (no-heart, i.e., written purely for play). Needless to say, the former were valued as deep and the latter seldom written down to preserve as they were considered shallow for lack of feeling. The only problem is that many of the most amusing poems in Japan’s ancient anthologies are love poems. Even today, scholars in Japan are on the whole not amused by the most playful of these, with more puns and other wordplay per line than English-language speakers can dream of. They consider them as clever and artificial and even Chinese (absurd for Japanese folk songs are often witty), anything but natural and sincere(?) Japanese. What they forget is that poets made those absurd similies and hyperbole and puns in order to express their pain and love in a way to amuse the intended reader and attract him or her to them. For that reason, one could even argue that many if not most of the more clever poems, though silly on the face of it, come from a deeper well than the elegant understated boring ones. And, we need not stop at poems directly written about love. One could, afterall, indirectly attract the other party with witty poems about other subjects.

So saying, Hilary, your Write to Learn is a masterpiece reminiscent of the best of Piet Hein’s grooks (perfect to be introduced on the show). Surely it made Garrison’s heart thump as hard as it did mine.

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