I’ve been thinking a lot this week about what makes a poet and what makes a poem. The problem with a lot of poets, white American poets at least, is that they have no subject and nothing to say.

In the early 1960s I was told by a professor that W.H. Auden said if he had to choose between a young person who loved language and a young person who had something to say, he’d choose the young person who loved language, the implication clearly being that the poet who loves language is the true poet. And this, supposedly, from the author of “September 1, 1939″!

I think this misunderstanding of Auden must come from his saying, A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language.” Auden said “before anything else”, he did not say “only.”

But there has always been a tendency in poetry, white American poetry at least, to try to keep subject and any kind of political commitment out of the poem. And it’s why we are now in a sorry state where white American poetry is thought to mean anything you want it to mean and where white American poetry is free of any political commitment. I keep saying white American poetry because non-white poets have never been enslaved to this cockamamie idea. This is what drove my now dead pal Joel Oppenheimer to say, “Poetry is not about language. It’s about something!”

Thus if all you have is an interest in language, you don’t have enough to be a poet. You’ve got to have something to write about, some passion and commitment.

I’ve been thinking about this this week because I wrote a poem this week, which without its subjects, my daughter and her garden, would be nothing.


Here it is:

Seventy-Two is Not Thirty-Five


I spent seven hours yesterday at my daughter’s house

helping her expand their garden by at least ten times.

We dug up sod by the shovelful, shook off the dirt as

best we could; sod into the wheelbarrow and off to the

pile at the edge of the yard. Then all that over and over

again. Five hours total work-time, with time out for lunch

and supper. By the time I got home I knew all too well

that seventy-two is not thirty-five; I could barely move.


I got to quit earlier than Nadine. She told me I’d done

enough and that I should go get a beer and lie down on

the chaise lounge and cheer her on, which is what I did.


All this made me remember my father forty years ago

helping me with my garden. My father’s dead now, and

has been dead for many years, which is how I’ll be one

of these days too. And then Nadine will help her child,

who is not yet here, with her garden. Old Nadine, aching

and sore, will be in my empty shoes, cheering on her own.


So it goes. The wheel turns, generation after generation,

around and around. We ride for a little while, get off and

somebody else gets on. Over and over, again and again.


More next week.


Sincerely, David Budbill

21 May 2012