On Patience and Poetry

By Josh Martin

On Friday, March 29th, I had the privilege of hearing two poets whose work I greatly admire read in front of a beautifully-packed ballroom: Tess Gallagher and Ilya Kaminsky.

While their readings were almost transcendent in their delivery (especially Kaminsky’s, whose voice is imbued with the rich history, violence, and rhythms of Russia), the discussion after the reading actually proved the most fruitful for me. One topic in particular especially resonated: the role of patience in the writing of poetry. Ilya Kaminsky, a much younger poet than Tess Gallagher, answered first, arguing that poetry is something that should not and cannot be rushed. In fact, when Kaminsky’s second book debuted in March 2019, fifteen years, fifteen, had passed between this book and his first book of poetry. Fifteen.

In this age of mass production, of poets churning out book after book after book as if manuscripts were Fords rolling off conveyer belts in Detroit, in this age where if you are not first than why even bother, this amount of time passing for a poet imbued with Kaminsky’s genius is mind-boggling. And yet, perhaps Kaminsky is right in maintaining that good art needs time to absorb all of its flavor and spice. Deaf Republic, Kaminsky’s second book, is a work of pure brilliance, a work that cannot be created without, well, patience. Though most of the poems are short, each line is rhythmically perfect, almost spiritually animated. It does not take much examination to note that each and every one of Kaminsky’s lines and breaks have been pored over the way one might examine the intricacies of an atom through a microscope.

Patience. The word almost seems cliché. And yet in our society, especially in the poetry world, patience is not a virtue lauded. Patience does not sit well with presses who are making what little money there is off the backs of big name poets who put out a book a year (a lot of these turn out to be complete crap, by the way). Patience also does not sit well with young writers everywhere who are made to believe that if “artistic brilliance” does not hit before thirty, then they are failures that need to take up business or law. As I finish my dissertation and want, desperately, to get my first book out, listening to a poet as brilliant as Kaminsky talk about the necessity of patience in poetry was tremendously refreshing. Whenever I feel like a failure because I have not produced enough quickly enough, I will think of the number fifteen. I will also think of Horace who I believe said every poet should write then put their work away for nine years!

While I don’t think I have that much will power, the point is clear: one cannot rush a poem. Poetry requires patience. If you read and are attentive to the world, everything else will fall into place.