To quote John Berryman, as remembered by Philip Levine: “You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you’re merely imitating yourself.” This was the point of departure for American poet Richard Robbins, who we had the pleasure to host at the Scottish Writers’ Centre on the 13th of February. How can we push beyond the boundaries of the impossible in poetry?
To commemorate our 10th anniversary, Robbins chose ten poems by other poets, including William Stafford, Louise Bogan and Philip Larkin, to demonstrate how each poem achieved the ‘impossible’. Marked by an X on the page, Robbins pinpointed exactly where each poem takes a turn from the comfortable and moves away from the familiar trajectory of epiphany, revealing each poem’s ground-breaking potential.
While Robbins admits that such an exercise is ‘presumptuous’, to deconstruct a poem in this way can be instructive and help inspire a poet to breathe new life into their work. While so much academic discourse is pessimistic in tone, focussing on the futility of language itself, Robbins turns away from this familiar trope and demonstrates that language still has the capacity to create something unique and powerful, if the poet dares to step out of their comfort zone.
Words by Rebecca Gaff
Photos by Clare Patterson