Maxims and Observations Before the Razor of "Bovine and Defenseless"

Click here to read “Bovine and Defenseless” by Charles Rafferty.

Compression is achieved by leaving things out — useless details, obvious emotions. This is why I prefer espresso. Its blackness tells me there is just enough water. The following advice and observations have guided the creation of my tiny worlds:

1. Don’t regard any maxim too highly. Its opposite is equally true. If you haven’t heard it yet, that’s because no one has stated it cleverly enough. Consider this an assignment.

2. Every good poem has form. To say otherwise is like saying some water doesn’t have temperature.

3. On setbacks: You can’t sing with a broken jaw, but you can learn to play the piano.

4. The impulse that begins a poem is almost never strong enough to finish it. You must be willing to let go of what ceases to be useful—like laying down your walking stick when the crags turn into plains.

5. Some poems fail because of just one word — as troubling as a hornet on the railing of a crib.

6. One vase lets you see the scum and filmy water that power the bouquet of goldenrod. Another one doesn’t. Which is better? Beauty or the beauty that tells us where it comes from?

7. When compiling a book, it is best to start with a large pile of poems—the survivors will need something to rise above.

8. To have successful poems over the long haul, you must be the kind of person who dusts the furniture when there is no hope of visitors.

9. Poets collect themselves into schools for the same reasons as fish: safety in numbers, a flash in the shallows.

10. On lacking inspiration: The pearl diver comes up with nothing almost every time. And still he goes down hugging a boulder, his prybar at the ready.

11. On publication: A first book is like gristle coughed onto your plate. Getting it out lets you keep breathing, but nobody wants to pick it up.

12. On rejection: It is the favor for which we never think to ask. It is the chance to make things better.

13. To complain that poetry is too accessible is to complain that the streets are too efficiently plowed after a sudden and devastating February snow. A good poem tells us the way.

14. A purist is someone incapable of progress.

15. We must continue to write even when the poems are shitty. Stabbing at dirt will polish a knife.

16. Every pearl began as irritation.

17. She recited the prayer by rote, making him think her soul had a bar code.

18. The predictable occurrence of stressed and unstressed syllables becomes more pleasing when the pattern is violated, here and there. We prefer a bouquet with a few broken petals for the same reason. We don’t guess for a moment it might be fake.

19. The thing that is most accessible is not always the best material for a poem. There’s a reason the pyramids were not constructed of sand.

20. On listening to poetry that I know is not: The wind can howl in the midnight pines but morning will find them standing.

21. Details should be chosen as carefully as if you were covering up a murder. A poem is a lie you must make the world believe.

22. There is a difference between the predictable and the probable, between the vague and the mysterious, between deviation and variation. The poet must learn when each is acceptable. Reading widely helps.

23. Exclamation points are too often a cry of wolf. I prefer people to scream when they are actually on fire.

24. Some poems end like surgery—the problem solved, the pain a memory, the stitching so tight that nothing leaks. Other poems end like a diagnosis.

25. We respond to clichés the way we respond to form letters and junk mail — something the writer didn’t bother to craft, a kind of boilerplate for the soul.

26. Having too strict a meter can be like having the bass up so high on your stereo that you can’t make out the harpsichord. Too loose a meter can be like static.

27. There are no five-leggers. Nature prefers symmetry.

28. Of course, poetry should strive to substantiate truth in particulars, but it is possible to be too particular. Think of the person who gives crowded directions. He risks our safe arrival by making us read through the intersections.

29. About sestinas: In all but the best, the uninitiated finds them vaguely repetitive, the expert finds them predictable.

30. Too many poets still use “heart” to mean the seat of love and desire and passion. This is archaic. A heart should show up in a poem only as something that beats beside a surgeon’s blade. When we hear the word misused, it’s like watching a man put on a hat so long out of style it’s laughable. We turn away.

31. On the need to write every day: No one can shoot a nickel off the back of a galloping ox with just one bullet. The most one bullet will get you is a dead ox.

32. On mistakes: There is a kind of progress we make when we trip and fall forward.

33. The eye can see only by continuing to blink. This is an argument for stopping work when a poem gets stubborn and ceases to improve. Time in a dark drawer is always time well-spent.

34. The critic has the blueprints, but the poet builds the palace.

35. On my former aversion to prose poems: I used to think of them as mules — sterile hybrids. Now, I see the prose poem as a euglena — that cutthroat survivor with a foot in two kingdoms.

36. There are works that I’m ashamed to have not read, and there are those that merely embarrass me. This is the difference between the greatness of the past and the enthusiasm of the present.

37. Certain scenes are awkward because the characters don’t play well together — they are like dolls of different scales pushed into the same tea party.

38. The painter with chopped-off hands will learn to sing better than the writer with inherited pitch.

39. A good book should stay with you at least as long as your average tick bite. Reading it should make you itch.

40. In a forest, the best poets think of axe handles and violins.

41. On revisions: Don’t treat first drafts too preciously. Nobody carves a log before pushing it into the fireplace.

42. Distancing yourself emotionally from the subject matter of your stories is important. But there’s a point at which the faces grow indistinct and we cease to have any stake in who dies or falls in love.

43. On the popularity of confessional poems: The mirror always answers.

44. The painter would make different choices if he began instead with a black canvas.

45. On poems that refuse to get finished: It can be like carving your initials into the sea or digging up the shadow of your favorite spruce.

46. I’m the kind of person who takes more pleasure in the novel he burned than he does in the novel he’s trying to finish. The former, at least, provides a good anecdote at a cocktail party.

47. On the critic who tries to advance the careers of his friends by writing favorable reviews they don’t deserve: The dog is the planet to his fleas.

48. On the charge of strangeness: The world is my materials. I won’t apologize for my materials.

49. On ambition: Climbing the mountain doesn’t bring the stars any closer.

50. Extra syllables at the end of a poem are like a squeaky piano stool as the final notes of a symphony try to evaporate.

51. The dictionary is an anthology of one-word poems, footnotes included.

52. A sonnet is a jail that lets us in.

53. On the influence of dead poets: The wake of a swan continues long after it has taken flight.

54. Trusting a poem is our first mistake. Living as if we had not read it is our second.

55. That a poem means is more important than what a poem means.

56. On obscurity: Poets in America are fourth magnitude stars, and everyone’s night vision has been ruined by sitcoms and football.

57. On the growing number of people claiming to be poets: The tiniest flowers have no fragrance; America is full of tiny flowers.

58. When I was young, if a poem wasn’t about being with a woman, it was about being apart from a woman — and all the great merits of either circumstance.

59. On writer’s block: We need not fret about our occasional lack of inspiration. The guitar player needs to take a day off to let his calluses thicken and heal. A man needs a nap before screwing his woman a second time.

60. On reading the lines I wrote when I was high: After the sunset, the pollution goes back to looking ordinary.

61. Stories either start stable and become strange, or start strange and become stable. The ice is always melting or hardening.

62. In defense of sonnets: The piano is an old instrument, but we can play new songs on it.

63. On the charge of prettiness: Yes, the bell of the tulip is pretty, but it cannot rise without some dirt beneath it.

64. The critic concerns himself with the parts of a poem the way a disreputable mechanic wants every piece to shine and be new. The poet simply wants the goddamned car to move.

65. Nature poetry should be more than verbal postcards. In any glorious arrangement of mountains, we must find at least the shadow of a man.

66. The poet transmutes the world into sound the way a bluejay turns trash into a nest.

67. Don’t let your admiration of traditional forms override the notion of suitability. If the form doesn’t correspond to the subject, the poet will be accused of trying to fit a puppy inside a ringbox, of delivering a diamond inside an aircraft carrier.

68. The will to criticism: It’s just the urge to have answers at a particularly severe cocktail party.

69. We like listening to known liars. It’s the pleasure of hoping they’ll trip themselves up. A poem must proceed with the liar’s bravado. In this sense, a poem should leave the reader frustrated.

70. On failed poems we can’t stop revising: There’s nothing so steady as a half-sunk canoe.

71. On finding no one to publish a poem: It feels like a five-dollar bill with too much taped and missing.

72. The worst poets treat their poems like puzzles — something merely to be figured out. In the most dire cases, they withhold several pieces, hiding them in their breast pockets, forcing us to come to them with questions we would rather not ask.

73. Poems can fail in two ways: boredom or confusion. Boredom stems from too small a grasp — the ordinary sand grain in the palm of a hand. Confusion stems from extravagance — the attempt to palm a city. Given the choice, I prefer my poems to fail always by confusion.

74. On self-promotion: A car can rev its engine just as loud whether the trunk is full of gold or horse shit.

75. We are awestruck by actual sunsets, but embarrassed by their photographs. This is a proof that some beauty defies translation.

76. On the need to take a break from the daily routine of writing: If a garden goes untended long enough, even the weeds come into flower.

77. During the initial draft of a poem, when we are knocking on every door we come across, there is that moment when a peephole goes dark, and we know that the door must be kicked in.

78. On inspiration: Sometimes, the girl is brought out of the marble by a single hammer tap.

79. On our steadily fragmenting culture: At the rate things are going, someday even Jesus will require a footnote in the Norton Anthology.

80. On ambition: I won’t be content to be called the American Shakespeare. I won’t be satisfied until Shakespeare is known as the English Rafferty.

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