Why I Write Poems

Thursday, October 25, 2012
5-7 PM
37-252 (Marlar Lounge)


Linda Gregerson will discuss her new book of poems, The Selvage, and her calling as a poet and professor of Renaissance literature in conversation with Forum Director David Thorburn and members of the audience.  

Co-sponsors: Literature, Writing and Humanistic Studies, Council for the Arts


Linda Gregerson is Caroline Walker Bynum Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. She is the author of five poetry collections: The Selvage (2012), Magnetic North (2007), Waterborne (2002), The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep (1996), and Fire in the Conservatory (1982) and has written two books of criticism. Gregerson was a 2007 National Book Award finalist and a recent Guggenheim Fellow.

William Corbett is director of student writing activities in MIT's Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies. He is the author of many works of poetry including, most recently, The Whalen Poem.

David Thorburn is Professor of Literature at MIT. His most recent books are the coedited volumes Democracy and New Media and Rethinking Media Change. Other writings include Conrad's Romanticism, and many essays and reviews on literature and television. He has been the director of the MIT Communications Forum since 1994.


A video of Why I Write Poems is available.


A streaming audio recording of Why I Write Poems is available.


A downloadable podcast of Why I Write Poems is available.


[This is an edited summary, not a verbatim trancsript.]

By Katie Edgerton, CMS

Photos by Greg Peverill-Conti

"From the very first time I read Linda Gregerson's poetry, I knew I was in the presence of a distinctive voice," said Forum Director David Thorburn, introducing what he called “a poetry reading with commentary.”

DT: In your early books, particularly The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep, you use a distinctive three-line stanza that I've come to think of as "the Gregerson tercet." I'd like to ask you to read a poem, and I’d like to test my belief that we lose a good deal if we must listen to one of your poems without being able to see the words on the page, spaced and lineated in such a concise and complex patterns. [Printed copies of the poems Gregerson read in this Forum were distributed to the audience.]

Gregerson read "The Resurrection of the Body," from The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep. "I like this poem because it breathes on the page," she said. "The lines colonize the page in certain complicated ways."

The Resurrection of the Body

For Caroline Bynum

She must have been thirteen or so, her nascent
               Just showing above the velcro strap

that held her in her chair.
                        Her face
               Translucent, beautiful

as if a cheekbone might directly render
                        a tranquil
               heart. And yet

the eyes were all dis-
               The mother with her miraculous

Smile, frequent, durable, lifted
                        the handkerchief—
               you know the way a woman

will? –her index finger guiding a corner
                        the body of it gathered
               in her dexterous palm—and with

such tenderness wiped the spittle
               at her daughter’s mouth. The faint

warm smell of lipstick—remember?—freighted
                        with love,
               and with that distillate left by fear

when fear’s been long outdone by fearful
               The mother would give her soul to see

This child lift her head on her own.
                        And down
               the hall in orthotics,

I couldn’t for the longest time understand
                        why the boy
               required a helmet so completely fitted

and strong—his legs were unused, his arms
                        so thin.
               A treadmill, I thought. Or a bicycle maybe, some

bold new stage of therapy anyway, sometimes
                        he falls
               and, safe in his helmet, can bravely

set to work again. It wasn’t for nothing
                        that I was
               so slow. Who cannot read these waiting rooms

has so far—exactly so far—been spared.
                        It was only
               While I was driving home,

my daughter in her car seat with her brand-
                        new brace,
               that I thought of the boy’s rhythmic rocking

and knew. Green light. Yellow. The tide
                        of pedestrians
               flush and smooth. And the boy’s

poor head against the wall—how could I miss it?
                        and what
               does God in his heaven do then?—the boy’s

poor head in its bright red helmet knocking—
               to be let in.

DT: What led you to develop this unusual stanza?

Linda Gregerson

LG: I published a book before The Women Who Died in Her Sleep that wasn’t written in this stanza form. Some of those poems were published in a poetry anthology, and I was honored to be included in it. But when I turned the page and come to my work, the text was all flush left, and the poems looked more or less like rectangles. I realized that the stanza form I had been using was misleading about the pacing of the poems. It made the poems seem airless. It was a betrayal of syntax--the opposite of breathing on the page. Today, most poets don't work in meter and rhyme, and syntax is all we have. I had made a botch of it, writing stanzas in that way. I wanted to have speedings up, slowings down, pivots. That's when I started to experiment with the stanza.

This tercet helped me because of its asymmetry. There's a pivot line in the middle. It gave me a resistance grid through which the syntax could move. I write into this stanza form, and for me that was absolutely essential. The stanza told me where to go. But after two books, I had to leave it because I knew the outcome too well. I had to leave it--sever myself from what had become a kind of life support.

DT: Your poems depend upon grammar. You're a deeply grammatical poet. Even when you eliminate grammatical elements from a sentence, the reader knows what’s missing.

LG: I love grammar. I diagram sentences. I'd make everyone do it at dinner parties, if I could have my way. I think of grammar as a social contract—it's a contract of expectations. A promise. I may transgress that contract, but the power of transgression only has its own torque if a reader has in mind the traditional forward momentum of syntax. A poet can play upon that. For instance, there's an expectation that comes from a delayed verb. There can be a tension. There can even be desperation. Grammar is always a vehicle for the emotional freight a poem can prompt.

DT: Your poems' spacing creates moments of pause where you wouldn't expect them. A kind of mystery or uncertainty is introduced. I suspect part of what you're doing is trying to make the reader slow down. I feel one of the things you're trying to do is follow a mind while it is thinking—and that’s something that a more simply lineated poem could not do.

LG: I'm thrilled to hear you say that. That’s part of what I'm trying to do. Form is a set of propositions that repeat with rough parameters. The most important thing about form is that it can make the unfolding of a poem a discovery process for the reader.

David Thorburn

DT: There's a cunning in some of your poems. Sometimes information is delayed, and you don't get the full answer until later in the poem. The reader has partial information, but often, there's a mystery that isn't fully answered until later in the poem.

LG: I try to be as direct as possible. I'm not trying to be coy. Narrative or implied narrative is an enormous part of lyric poetry, but storytelling in poems is rarely a matter of 'this happened, then that happened.' It's a matter of what's most urgent: in what sequence do you unpack events to make the most of them? Poems have both an emotional trajectory, as well as a cognitive and analytic one.

DT: Most of your poems take on immensely difficult and painful subjects in a tone of unsentimental respect. These poems seem grounded in autobiographical truth. One of the most powerful claims you make is that they seem to come out personal witness. The reader hears in those poems a claim of truthfulness. In a way, you’re getting at what it means to use a first person.

LG: When I invite the reader into a poem, I am showing the reader my stakes in the topic, and it's extremely important to me that the reader knows that those stakes are true. That's not a universal understanding among lyric poets, but it's true of my poems.

Gregerson then read a poem from Waterborne.

Grammatical Mood


There is, to her mind, only one.
                        Or only
               one that’s built to scale. Had they known

sooner. Had the only man to whom the CAT scan
               so much detailed information not

been out of town that week. Had those few sticky
                        platelets moved
               with just a shade more expedition through

the infant artery… The parallel life
                        will not
               relent. But look, we may say to her, Look

at them tied to their breathing machines, they do not
               (because of the tube you’ll say, you’re right, to you

the silence is dreadful). To you the vicious
               abides no counter-argument: the oxygen

that supplements their unripe lungs destroys
                        the retina,
               leaving the twice-struck child in darkness. What

must they think of us, bringing them into a world
                        like this?


For want of an ion the synapse was lost.

For want of a synapse the circuit was lost.
                        For want
               of a circuit, the kingdom, the child, the social

smile. And this is just one the infinite means by which
                        the world
               may turn aside. When my young daughter, whose

right hand and foot do not obey her, made us take
               the training wheels, and rode and fell and pedaled

and fell through a week and a half of summer twilights
                        and finally
               on her own traversed the block of breathing maples

and the shadowed street, I knew
                        what it was like
               to fly. Sentiment softens the bone in its socket. Half

the gorgeous light show we attribute to the setting sun
                        is atmospheric
               trash. Joy is something else again, ask Megan

on her two bright wheels.


                        To live
               in the body (as if there were another

place). To graze among the azaleas (which are
               to humans, beloved by deer; not everything

the eye enjoys will sit benignly on the
                        tongue). It must
               have been a head shot left her ear at that

frightening angle and the jaw all wrong,
                        so swollen
               it’s a wonder she can chew. Is that

where they aim, the good ones, when they’re
                        sober? At
               the head? At a doe? The DNR biologist is

saintly on the phone, though God knows he’s not chiefly
               to salve the conscience (I have

bad dreams) of a gardening species stricken by
                        its own
               encroachment. Fecundity starveth

the deer in the forest. It fouls the earth it
                        feeds upon.
               Fecundity plants the suburban azalea, which

dies to keep the damaged deer in pain. I mean


              For want of rain the corn was lost.

For want to a bank loan we plowed up the windbreak
                        and burnt it
               (you must learn to think on a different scale, they told

us that). For want of a windbreak and rainfall
                        and corn
               the topsoil rose on the wind and left. God’s own

strict grammar (imperative mood). I meant
                        to return
               to joy again. Just

give me a minute. Just look at the sky.

DT: Your poems are often pitched as conversations; sometimes you interrupt a poem’s momentum by addressing the reader directly. In doing this, the kind of connection you require of your reader is a particularly intimate one. Is that in your mind when you start a poem? Or do you feel more of a connection with the reader in some poems, rather than others?

Linda Gregerson

LG: Part of my reason is to make sure a poem doesn't continue in a single pitch of diction. It's meant to be informal and conversational, but it's also about breaking rhetorical momentum. That being said, I think it's possible for intimacy to be presumed upon. Having touchstone moments where gestures of the conversational can enter the poem is important to me.

DT: Embedded in our conversation are certain themes that recur in your poetry, for instance the lament about our physical life and the accidents we suffer. One of the most powerful ways this comes up is the reference to your own daughter. The concern about the body's frailty converges with the autobiographical. You’ve also written extensively about your family, and its history. Let's look at one of your ancestry poems, and one of my favorites – “Constitutional.”

Gregerson then read “Constitutional,” originally published in The Atlantic.


It’s a wonder they didn’t all of them die of the 
      sun those days. Remember 
Ole’s forehead and the backs of his hands? 
The fair-haired sons of Norway in their bright 
      Wisconsin fields, the map

of blessed second chances writ in tasseled 
      corn. (The damage writ 
in melanin.) I never could stand it, my father 
would say, by which he meant the morning 
      constitutional: the dose

of electric fencing Ole found was just the 
      cure for frozen joints. 
But joints be damned, the rest of it my father 
loved, he’d cast about for a portion I 
      could manage, maybe

Linda could fetch the cows. Poor man. He little 
      thought how quickly 
the race declines. Ourselves and our posterity. 
It all alarmed me: dung slicks, culvert, swollen 
      teats, the single narrow

wire above the barbed ones, commotion 
      of flies on the rim 
of the pail. We’re better at living on paper, 
some of us, better at blessings already 
      secured. The fence?

It was for animals. And insulated, quaintly, 
       with a species of porcelain 
knob. That part, at least, I had the wit 
to find benign, like the basket of straw-flecked 
      eggs. A touch of homely

caution in the liable-to-turn-on-us world. 
      Ordain and establish
And breakable too. An old man at his battery- 
charged devotions, double-fisted on 
      the six-volt fence. In order

to form. A measure of guesswork, a measure 
of faithful refraining-from- 
harm, let us honor the virtues of form. 
And all the dead in company, if only 
       not to shame them.