“I can write in iambics if I want to—but just now I don’t know my own mind quite well enough to say what I want to in them.”
– Letter to Donald E. Stanford, November 20, 1933
I have been thinking about this passage from one of Elizabeth Bishop’s early letters in One Art (FSG 1994). She is, to some extent, defending herself, explaining her views on rhythm after receiving comments on some of her poems from Mr. Stanford. It describes a familiar feeling we all have when trying too hard to write in form; jamming words in where they might never have gone or writing about ‘delight’ or ‘the sea’ or any number of other overused iambs. It’s fascinating, though, how she puts it: I don’t know my own mind quite well enough. It’s a figure of speech, in a friendly letter, but she was a very careful correspondent and it’s worth thinking about why she chose this phrase. What does it mean to know one’s own mind, and how do the thoughts of one’s mind get translated into the language of the poem?
Sometimes we set out with an intention, we know exactly what we want to say. (I’m going to write a poem about the way the sun glints off the Chrysler building on a winter afternoon, and how the beauty of the world humans have created is different from the beauty of the natural world.) And sometimes we don’t, we start with a line or an image and let the language take us where it wants to go. (The sun glints off the Chrysler building.) The latter definitely works better for me, especially if I am trying to write in form. I don’t always know my own mind, if that means knowing what I am trying to write about, or what I want to “say”. But if all goes well, I will turn off the critical thought process and just allow the language to come. Maybe it will come in iambs, or some other regular rhythm, and maybe it won’t. (The sun glints off that silver scalloped spike.) Either way, it will be a course I couldn’t have plotted, and it will say something, maybe even something I didn’t know I wanted to say.
Bishop was 22 when she wrote this letter, still in college. I like her honesty. We can all write in iambics if we want to, but that isn’t the point. The point is the language itself, unconstrained, saying what it will.