Francis Raven

Home | The Last Issue | Submissions | Achieve: 2004-2009 | Essays

Her books include two volumes of poetry, Shifting the Question More Complicated (Otoliths, 2007) and Taste: Gastronomic Poems (Blazevox, 2005) as well as a novel, Inverted Curvatures (Spuyten Duyvil, 2005). Her poems have been published in Bath House, Chain, Big Bridge, Bird Dog, Mudlark, Caffeine Destiny, and Spindrift among others.

The Practice of Poetry

I've often said, as a joke, that I'm the opposite of a perfectionist,
but I'm not entirely sure what that means.  I suppose it means that I
am "committed to the process" of writing to the extent that this is
opposed to the final product.

Normally we practice in order to get better, but when someone says
they have a law practice, you aren't supposed to think that the
partners are practicing for a final performance of The Law.  Our
practice is what we do.  Thus, two meanings split, two meanings that
are set within a poetic practice, which is a dialectic between the
artist's experience and the artist's goal.  Practice is a negotiation
with the actual to expand the range of the possible.  That is, poetry
is a practice that precedes its final cause in itself.

A back and forth in place.

In poetry you have to be a beginner with the knowledge of the expert
("an improved infancy"): you move from infancy to adulthood in the
same instant and call that poetry.

You have to move back and forth.

"Reflective practice is…a continuous process from a personal
perspective, by considering critical incidents within your life's
"Reflective practice is simply creating a habit, structure, or routine
around examining experience."
    —from a pamphlet, "What is Reflective Practice?"

Hence, there is a back and forth between the givenness of life, the
facts, and our personal experience of them.  There are actual things,
things that have occurred, and we need to find our place within them,
but we need to do it reflectively; thus, our groping is our practice.
We can't become a fact ourself to ourself.

This is the essence of practice: an oscillation between the mastered
and the unknown.

We can't control the outcome but we can protect the process.

According to Miriam Nichols, "in a process poetics
form unfolds behind the poet as he moves through a poem or a life,
rather than in or before her as an origin or a thesis to be
explicated. Only as the poem approaches its end--the end of the poet's
life in the case of the life-long poem--does the form begin to emerge
and then only fully for others, rather than the one who has lived it
to its end and will never see the whole of it. Hence the readerly
quality of process poetry (the writer reads her own writing), and the
absence of devices that distance or ironize; the poet is finding out
as he goes along, as it were."

Yes, the outcome is sold out of our hands.

Of course, this means that, in some respects, provisionality is in the
service of an even more ambitious greatness.

I find myself opposed to the heroism of modernity, to its finality,
but not to its aspiration.

Of course we make mistakes.  Who we were yesterday is, and always will
be, quite embarrassing.  I'm still getting better at everything I do.
Another way of saying this is that I'd like to feel that I will always
be getting better.

Until you are older and more established (and this point keeps getting
pushed further and further into the distance) it will always seem like
if you stopped now your work will have meant nothing, but if you
continue there is always the possibility.

They say, practice makes perfect and that means that that which you
are practicing is not yet perfect.  That's right.

"Viewed most generally, a 'reflective equilibrium' is the end-point of
a deliberative process in which we reflect on and revise our beliefs
about an area of inquiry, moral or non-moral.  The method of
reflective equilibrium consists in working back and forth among our
considered judgments (some say our "intuitions") about particular
instances or cases, the principles or rules that we believe govern
them, and the theoretical considerations that we believe bear on
accepting these considered judgments, principles, or rules, revising
any of these elements wherever necessary in order to achieve an
acceptable coherence among them. The method succeeds and we achieve
reflective equilibrium when we arrive at an acceptable coherence among
these beliefs."
—Norman Daniels "Reflective Equilibrium"

So we are not in equilibrium yet?

As Michael Palmer writes in "Notes for Echo Lake 3," "And if each
conversation has no end, then composition is a placing beside or with
and is endless, broken threads of cloud driven from the west by
afternoon wind."

No, moving between water and vapor, clouds, as we are moving, moving
between, always not quite there yet.

What I want, as an artist, is to keep being an artist.  Certain events
give us standing in this arena: publication, fame, gallery shows,
sales.  But these are all external, they guarantee nothing.

They all only give us the standing necessary to proceed (a word also
encompassed by 'process').

We need standing in the court of art: of course, nothing will give it
to us for sure. John Berryman famously said to Merwin that if you need
to know if a poem good or not, maybe you shouldn't be a writer.  There
is no certainty, but we can offer it ourselves by knowing what we will
do tomorrow: we will continue.

I have what it takes to keep practicing.  That's just what continuing
might mean.

In an interview the poet Robert Sheppard said,
"Poetics exists for oneself and for others, to produce, to quote
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, in the best definition: 'a permission to

"I have never viewed poetics as 'a permission to continue writing."
—Rachel Blau DuPlessis, The Pink Guitar

In negation, what is said causes another to say the opposite and claim
that's what you said.  It's not like when somebody mistakes your name
they're all adamant.  They don't insist that you have another name.
They give up.  I wish more people gave up

            when I said

The artist is practicing for the finale while completing it.

"You might write to us here.  Out week of honeymoon is over.  Lord, it
was lovely.  But this—do I like this better?—I like it so much.  Don't
tell anybody.  This is only for the good to know.  Write to us."
—DH Lawrence to Mrs. Hopkins

Practice is then a promise.

A promise always concerns the future, but in the case of the type of
practice that poetry is, the future is now and later.  Some for now
and some for later.  It stretches the concept.

Practice stretches us.

In Hume's famous essay "Of the Standard of Taste" he fittingly
outlines how a standard of taste is possible.  He believes that the
"true judge of the finer arts" possesses five attributes: "strong
sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected
by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice" (Paragraph 23).  These
five attributes are each separately necessary and jointly sufficient
for a person to become an ideal critic.  He then goes on to write that
the agreement on aesthetic issues between critics with these
attributes is "the true standard of taste and beauty" (Paragraph 23).

If we, as artists, are also to be critics of the art we practice, our
critical faculties must be enabled to be improved by practice.

Thus, practice is philosophically grounded.

However, Schlegel often separates poetry and philosophy more than
Novalis does, as in "Poetry and philosophy are … different spheres.
For only try to combine the two and you will find yourself with
nothing but religion" and "Where philosophy stops, poetry must begin."
And further, "Philosophy too is the result of two conflicting forces
– of poetry and practice."

Katharsis as the practice of emotions.
Emotional practice.
Aristotle is agreeing with Plato that poetry arouses the emotions of
man and that these emotions must be kept in check.  However, Aristotle
also believes that one of the best ways to control one's emotions is
to allow them to be purged by way of the motion of the tragic poem.
Or as Richard Janko writes,
Taking tragedy as an example, the cathartic process works as follows.
By representing pitiable, terrifying and other painful events, tragedy
arouses pity, terror and other painful emotions in the audience, for
each according to his own emotional capacity, and so stimulates these
emotions as to relieve them by giving them moderate and harmless
exercise, thereby bringing the audience nearer to the mean in their
emotional responses, and so nearer to virtue in their characters; and
with this relief comes pleasure.
The process of katharsis 'trains' our emotional responses so that we
may react appropriately in pitiably or fearful situations.  An example
of this would be seeing a play about someone whose mother dies.  The
experience of seeing that play, in some way, helps you with your
emotions when your own mother dies.  But if this is true it means that
morally there should be artistic representations of the emotions dealt
with by marginalized groups of people for if these don't exist those
groups will be denied the benefits of katharsis.


Where the cedar leaf divides the sky
I heard the sea.
In sapphire arenas of the hills
I was promised an improved infancy.

Sulking, sanctioning the sun,
My memory I left in a ravine,-
Casual louse that tissues the buck-wheat,
Aprons rocks, congregates pears
In moonlit bushels
And wakens alleys with a hidden cough.

EXEGESIS OF PASSAGE: "describe the experience of the visionary voyage,
promising 'an improved infancy' – i.e., rebirth, a return to
innocence.  Memory described scornfully in the second stanza, is left
—Monroe Kirklyndorf Spears, Hart Crane.

LIFTING IT TOWARDS US: "Hart Crane was promised an improved, not a
perfected infancy, yet what a peril it is to lose sight (of course I
mean this literally) of the infant's perfect eye.  Without innocence,
experience can only repeat itself."
—Donald Revell, The Art of Attention.

The craft question: how do we get to our own improved infancy, where
we are beginners but with more skill?  That is, as infants we are
totally dependent on a parent, but as poets we must become that
parent: alpha and omega or our own lives, and if not lives, then art.