Advice to a Rhinestone Cowgirl; How Not to Write a Poem


Ask The Paris Review

I’m young, poor, and unemployed in New York. I have no family connections, and my friends are all similarly destitute. I want an inspirational text; are there any novels about sympathetic social-striver types who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps without losing their friends and their souls in the process? —Camilla D.

Funny you should ask. All day I’ve been walking around with the Glen Campbell song “Rhinestone Cowboy” stuck in my head:

I’ve been walking these streets so long

Singing the same old song

I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway,

Where hustle’s the name of the game

And nice guys get washed away like the snow and the rain …

One identifies. As Glen says, there’ll be a load of compromisin’ on the road to his horizon: I worry that this tends to be the case. And even though I know you don’t want me to tell you to read Lost Illusions, you must read Lost Illusions, if you haven’t. It is spooky how often some detail of Balzac’s Paris will remind you exactly of New York—like seeing your own face in a daguerrotype. A very louche daguerrotype. The hero does lose his friends and his soul. Plus his illusions. But you can handle it. I believe in you!

(Plan B: Breakfast at Tiffany’s?)

A girl has demanded I write her a poem, but I’m not really familiar with poetry (save Neruda). Could you suggest a few poets to get me up to speed before I embark on this endeavor? —K., London

What an exciting—and daunting—commission!

Whatever you do, don’t do what I did. In sixth grade (“first form”?) I brought home a used anthology entitled Romantic Poetry, assuming there would be something suitable for a valentine. It was like reading Ulysses for the dirty parts. Skip the Romantics, is my advice. Ditto the Cavaliers. The old let’s-do-it-while-you’re-still-hot gambit has had its day. (Can it ever have actually worked?)

I don’t imagine you want to mess with meter and rhyme your first time out. No sonnets. Anything that sounds like Elizabeth Barrett Browning will scare her off. Anything Dark Ladyish will insult her. The seductive powers of poetry, in my humble opinion, are overrated. Poets may tell you otherwise. Poets lie. When they pretend to be writing about love, they are usually writing about sex or death, or more often sex and death.

Your man Neruda is a love poet, for better or worse. I take it he doesn’t inspire you. Elizabeth Bishop wrote good love poems, but very quiet. D.H. Lawrence liked Robert Burns as a love poet, but to write in brogue strikes me as a “high-stakes move.” (That’s writing program jargon for a boner.) If you are tempted to write an e.e. cummings poem, think how you’ll feel in the morning.

If I wanted to write a love poem with a minimum of moving parts, I might try to make it something like Margaret Atwood’s greatest hit, “You Fit Into Me”:

You fit into me

like a hook into an eye

a fish hook

an open eye

Dark. Furious. Grateful. Most of all it makes no promises. Promises are to love poems as chopped herring is to gelato. “Till all the seas gang dry, my dear” only works on an Al Green level—you can hear the smile between the lines. It’s so cheerful it is, as the Germans say, inkonsequent. Frank O’Hara wrote many good love poems, thanks to his affectionate fickle good nature, so for that matter did Kenneth Koch. You might try his New Addresses, just to get you in the mood. Charles Simic has written good love poems. August Kleinzahler has written good love poems, as did his master Basil Bunting, but they are all too clearly the fruit of long study and native genius. Ditto ditto all the poets who occur to me tonight.

Here is a good love poem by Frederick Seidel, “October,” read by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Start at 5:38.

If you really like the girl, then look into your heart and write what’s there. And don’t listen to Muddy Waters. The moment I realized I would never be a poet I was eating a grilled cheese, ham, and potato chip sandwich in a bar, after a long day’s work on a poem, yes a love poem, with the poem still in my head, and someone walked in and punched “I Just Want to Make Love to You” in the jukebox and plunged me into despair. (By chip, of course, I mean crisp.)

K., have you considered the guitar?

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