- The gradual intrusion of self-consciousness is one inevitable side effect of an education in art. To read ten poems, or a hundred, is one thing. To read ten thousand is another. As we internalize more of the tradition and become progressively less shielded by our ignorance, we realize how local our upbringing has been, how much there might be to know, and perhaps even, sigh, how limited our talent.
- When a person takes the step toward learning more of craft and its history, more of artifice—when, for example, a person crosses the threshold of an MFA program—she chooses to end a childhood in artlessness. She gives up some of their innocent infatuation, the naïveté, the adolescent grandiosity, maybe even some of the natural grace of the beginner.
- This initiation into knowledge will infect the learner with the virus of self-consciousness. As a consequence of learning of the existence of the poems of W.H. Auden, or Marianne Moore, or Louise Glück, your writing may suddenly seem horribly simplistic, crude as crayon drawings on Masonite. Now the poem, even as your are making it, seems stiff, clumsy, and obvious. Now your work may become, in compensation, coy and encoded. ...Yet that very knowledge, which can inhibit and choke, can also inspire and challenge. Self-consciousness is the necessary border crossing of craft, skill, and even of poetic ambition.
- Self-consciousness in writing, as it does in life, opens up a kind of delay between impulse and action, between thought and word. That pause—as these examples show—offers the opportunity for calculated intensifications and angularities that would never occur in “natural,” uninformed speech.
- Self-consciousness in art is a little like the use of radiation in laboratory experiments; while it can produce truly valuable genetic variants, it can just as easily lead to frightening mutations. Getting the dosage right is tricky. Holding a microscope up to language, to meaning itself, there is the danger of falling through, down into the infinite space between words.
- Self-consciousness often provokes an overexertion of cleverness. But intelligence, when used well in a poem, never makes the reader feel less smart than the writer, or left behind. Rather, it gives the reader the exhilarating pleasure of being smart in concert with the speaker.
- The goal of the healthy artist is not to be crippled by the weight of literacy, not intimidated into a kind of aesthetic conservatism, not to be engorged with fancy self-protective mannerisms, but to be selectively informed and empowered by knowledge. This development of sensibility could be called the acquisition and use of taste.
- To learn what a poet needs to know is to become an initiate; that initiation imposes burdens as well as powers. We have the obligation to make real poems, to contribute to the living, evolving heritage of poetry. To make that contribution requires not just skill and desire, but a kind of discriminating insight into the deep structures of poetry. This resourcefulness surely must spring from the union of learning and bold inventiveness.