Bread Loaf, 1982: Two Views
by William Heath

Politics & Writing
John Gardner

Everyone should be interested in politics.  
Last year we had a shooting war between 
two unions over who should harvest 
the lettuce, then the government 
dumped the lettuce in the ocean.
People are dying while we are trying 
to think how to become great writers.
Publishers, readers, the powers that be
don’t like writers turning to politics.  
It’s low class in America to be political.
It’s not elegant to be serious.
The New Criticism studied clockwork, 
neglected what was being said.  
Language in its most sophisticated forms 
carries lies, “mankind” is a loaded word.  
Our speech has got us by the neck.
Your choice of subject implies 
a set of values. To be a great writer 
you must feel greatly, you can’t write 
cheap political shit, but if you’re not 
writing politically you’re not writing,
but your politics when you begin
a work of fiction ought not to be
the politics you end up with.

Ars Poetica
Howard Nemerov

The middle of the poem is less interesting.  
That’s why we have an index of first lines.  
We ought to have an index of last lines.  
Write a good first line and last line, 
nobody reads the rest anyway.
Start with simple things, “mobled queen” 
is good. Listen, the line will whisper 
what you need to know to continue,
how it wants to be said. The great 
advantage of form is that it helps you 
to forget what your “message” is.  
Editorials by poets are not necessarily 
better than editorials by editors.
“A poem should not mean but be.”  
I learned that by editing a review,
reading lots of poems that didn’t mean 
anything—but there they were.
Some contemporary poems make you
want to divide poetry into two camps—
and then burn them both. The trouble 
with free verse is it doesn’t tell you what 
to do. Normally you divide the line 
according to the grammar and all 
the tension is gone. Poetry is 
melodiousness, the possibilities 
for variation are immense. If you don’t
have a line and a stanza there is 
nothing to vary. A poem requires 
either lilt or balance or drive.
First you must put it together brick 
by stupid brick, then make it 
sound as if it were effortless. 
I told Robert Frost “Spring Pools” 
was about growing up, making choices, 
settling on a mode of life.  He replied, 
“I was writing about capillary action.”
Poets like to ask big questions, 
then go on to other things. “Did she 
put on his knowledge with his power?”  
Well, did she?  Probably not.
I only steal other people’s lines
to support my habit.

William Heath has published two books of poems, The Walking Man and Steel Valley Elegy; two chapbooks, Night Moves in Ohio and Leaving Seville; three novels: The Children Bob Moses Led (winner of the Hackney Award), Devil Dancer, and Blacksnake’s Path; a work of history, William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest (winner of two Spur Awards); and a collection of interviews, Conversations with Robert Stone. You can learn more about Heath, his life and work, by visiting his website:

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