Why I Write

By B. H. Fairchild on 4.06.09

Difficult to know why one writes.  More difficult to know why one writes poems, especially with a background such as mine—machine shops, oil fields, small-town Kansas—where boys did not grow up to write poems.  There is such a thing as falling in love with language, which happened to me as a child without my being aware of it, and this leads to a reading or a writing life and often both.  There is also the endless work/eat/sleep routine of blue-collar life, which can make one search for some point to it all and then eventually to locate it in literature, where life always comes to a point.

Finally, when I was attending college and returning home each summer to work, there was that division between the life of the mind and the life of the body, and the crucial discovery that poetry embraced both of these, that it was the art of embodiment, the thinking mind bodied forth, the only way we have of speaking about experience without diminishing it.

Photo by thejcgerm on Flickr

I was drawn specifically to the writing of poems because, growing up among skilled laborers and artisans, people for whom the precise making of a thing was vital, I had a natural admiration for precision.  And to come upon poetry, the most precise form of the thing that I as a child had fallen in love with, the making of it was irresistible.

In an anti-poetic culture, the makers of precise sentences were my earliest influences: Ernest Seton Thompson and Robert Louis Stevenson, then later, Hemingway in the short stories, and Katherine Anne Porter and James Agee and many others.  Once I got to college, it was the usual bunch of poets: Shakespeare, Donne, Keats, Dickinson, Yeats, Frost, Eliot, etc. James Wright, William Stafford, and Richard Hugo showed me that my own life among lathes and oil rigs and the people who worked them, which I thought inappropriate for the grand thing called poetry, was in fact the thing itself.  And I recall some years later standing in a bookstore reading a poem by Anthony Hecht called “The Grapes” and knowing again that this was why one fell in love with language and poetry, and read it, and gave a large portion of one’s life to writing it, or at least trying to.

I think that what I’m looking for in poetry is a kind of ultimate clarity such as one finds in Chekhov’s story, “The Student,” or Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose”—that is, instead of an obscure path to an obscure place, or an obscure path to a clear place, a clear path to an open, luminous, transparently clear place that no one ever dreamed was there.  There is no conflict between clarity and mystery.  “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is at once the clearest and most mysterious poem I’ve ever read.  It’s easy to be mysterious about mystery.  The difficult thing, the beautiful thing, is to be clear about mystery.  That, too, is why I write poetry.

Editor’s Note: It should be duly noted that the full title of this essay is:
A Post-poststructuralist Interrogation of Authorial Agency in the Cultural/Biological Production of Literary Texts, or, Why I Write”. It was reduced to simply “Why I Write” by the editors to satisfy space constraints but only after much vigorous debate.

topics: Columnists