We Begin in Gladness by Craig Morgan Teicher
Can any book, especially one as succinct (befitting a poet) as this one, explain the myriad factors that spark the production of a poem? Regardless of the precipitating factors, the key element, according to acclaimed poet and critic Craig Morgan Teicher, is perseverance. “The staggering thing about a life’s work is that it takes a lifetime to complete.” In this collection of perceptive essays, Teicher samples the processes of such diverse poets as Sylvia Plath, francine j. harris, W. S. Merwin, and others.
The title comes from William Wordsworth’s poem “Resolution and Independence”: “We poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” This “old, sad stereotype about poets… beckon[s] poets to their undoing.” Plath and others may be key examples of the stereotype, but Wordsworth, also among others, lived a long and productive life as Teicher points out. Poets do not fit a fixed mold. “Poetry makes its case through each poet’s sensibilities; it is never impersonal.”
A poem arises through the poet’s internal conversation, according to Teicher. The poet “speaks” (i.e., writes some words) then reflects on the message and how it is being conveyed and how it might be received. Editing, further “conversation,” and rewriting produce a finished product. Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” is a prime example of this “call-and-response” process. While poets may begin in gladness, “often they begin in darker states—poetry tends to arise as a way forward for those who have something to say that is painful and unutterable by other, more practical, more direct means. So, if not in gladness, hopefully poets begin in anticipation, with the knowledge that discoveries lie ahead” if they just listen to the words of their internal dialogue.
While biographers and critics have “tended to orbit a few topics” related to Sylvia Plath, including her suicide and mental illness, Teicher posits that the seven years between 1956 and her death provide “a unique example of rapid, surging development of a poet’s art.” Her first book, The Colossus and Other Poems, enables the reader to “pinpoint the moments when her art surges forward….” She wrote every day and “churned” her writings until they became “fulfilled poems.” She wrote and rewrote until she had something she felt relatively pleased with, although that product was not always the best it could be. Her attempts to win the Yale Younger Poets Prize, for example, were a succession of failures, but she continued to revise and submit old poems along with newer ones. Beginning to end, she “treated nearly all her subjects with the same unwavering intensity, which manifests as a kind of poise.”
Teicher has produced an important examination of some of the factors that contribute to one’s becoming a poet rather than a writer of fiction or nonfiction, and how that becoming is a process in which the endpoint continually moves. His point of view is persuasive and supported by abundant illustrations filtered through a diverse variety of poets. We Begin in Gladness is also a revelation of Teicher’s personal journey toward becoming a poet. His commentary provides each reader an invitation to and an appreciation of the power of poetry which is so much more than the sing-song doggerel of our youth. Even those who have no use for poetry can, with just a bit of effort, find something here that, perhaps, will elevate their view of the power of poetry. It is, after all, the one literary form which has been around forever.
Craig Teicher is a poet with three collections of poems, and writes about books for the New York Times Book Review and NPR. He works at Publishers Weekly has taught at Princeton and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.