Asim Khan is a poet and photographer from Birmingham. His work has appeared and is forthcoming in various online and print journals. Link to blog: www.photoetric.co.uk
Consider, for a moment, the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) that undergoes, along with millions of its kind, vertebrate-like long-distance migration; travelling up to 4000km from its various North American milkweed farm fields to reach the warmer, overwintering grounds of either California or Mexico. Only those monarchs born in late summer or early autumn make this migration; they are fourth generation monarchs, capable of making just the one round trip. These butterflies of passage live for 6-8 months, compared to the three non-migratory generations with a life expectancy of roughly 6 weeks. Despite the passing of these three previous generations, those born with the impending threat of seasonal chill instinctively know to follow the route laid out by their ancestors, using their sensitive, sun-compassing eyes to navigate their way across the planet. This homing instinct, unison of the insect brain to the solar system, is carried on a river of genetic information flowing from butterfly to butterfly. Only the fourth generation monarch will know the reality of the eucalyptus trees of the Pacific Grove or the oyamel firs of Mexico, and the journey endured… Consider then the poet, scattered across a literary landscape of sorts, who knows only to write, through a possession of language, why then, as an intelligent, complex being, are they often resistant to the journey that lies ahead?
Depending on how this letter reaches you (or if indeed it ever does), I will have to assume that you are either a practising writer or someone who is considering whether it is a practice worth attempting. This places you in a position similar to when I first set out. A position that can be one of hesitancy or doubt; or, maybe more rarely, one of self-assuredness and poise. And although we have not met (only now as shared consciences), I regard you as I should have myself then, a poet… It seems pertinent to refer to you in this way. You may be resistant to such a word and claim, but I ask that you take a breath, let the thought rest as though on the sternum, and contemplate: what does it mean to be a poet? You might not believe it is worthy of such depth, but I invite you now to think about this, carefully. And truly, you should not feel impelled to do so because I ask you now, but because it is a question you have often already asked of yourself.
I think back to instances in my childhood where words provided me with a solitary comfort and an inner sense of worth. This nascent grasping at vague and unfamiliar things led to scrapbooks, chapbooks, field-journals and countless saved-yet-never-to-be-re-opened Word documents. It elicited from me a commitment to expression, thought and voice. I wrote and read because it was a way of approaching apparent complexity with the hope that the terminus was that of clarity. Put simply, writing and reading dictated my manner of being in the world; I could sense its importance and momentum. This developing awareness necessitated from me the virtue of empathy, the importance of sharing and communication between a reader and writer. It is this literary sense of belonging, coupled with a love/respect for language and a selfless drive to create that defines my conception of a poet. It is why I refer to you as a poet. That from childhood, you too have long sensed that writing was your focus, and art some sort of goal. That you can describe to me moments in your life where writing has provided you with an aesthetic bliss. I know this because: you are smart – you consider yourself and the world constantly. I know this because: you are curious – you are still reading my words up to this point. I know this because: you are cautious – again, you are smart. I know this because: poetry is everywhere and you were once everything.
You may disagree entirely and have contrasting reasons for your writing, but even if this doesn’t sing true, you are thinking what it is to be a poet, what differentiates you from such a term, what values you place on your thoughts and ideas, and the potential of your words. However, do not linger on this. Although meditative exercises like this are important occasionally, the real importance, as you already know, comes from writing; before, during and after. This requires dedication and an education of will. Whether you believe you are a poet or not, you must write, and what you write should always aspire to be poetic.
To approach poetry seriously is to be bombarded with the work of your contemporaries (living and dead). It is to engage their conscience, breathe life into their voices, and explore their context. And like a child, you will come to see poetry in every object, shape and structure. You will come to regard your role like that of a scientist making sense of natural forms, revealing the truths of the world that are overlooked by others; often failing in your practice, yet, always striving. You will sharpen your awareness, form your own philosophy, and come to regard all that I have said as nonsense and pretence and paradox; a step to overcome. You must push yourself to your literary limit. Nothing is ever compulsory, yet if you are to take away anything, you must apply yourself fully. This, again, is where dedication and commitment come into play, and how badly you want it. There are no prerequisites, no prior qualifications, no scholarly understanding is needed. Poetry is organic, in that it thrives on the diversity of the input and the variety you have to offer, whatever your background may be. If you detest poetry or are disillusioned by its relevance, I urge you to challenge others with your ideas in an intelligent and creative manner. If you already love poetry, be prepared to stretch your imagination to an asymptote of annihilation and loathing. At times it will pain you to write, but you will come to realise that you cannot live without it. What you learn from yourself during this time will prove invaluable whatever direction you go. Poems are invocatory forms, and as is often repeated – one must always be a poet – even in prose, conversation or appreciation. Make of this what you will.
I know how this must appear, as though I am some crazed preacher sermonising the virtues of my religion: poetry; but if you were to strip down the language and the passion, I think, you would find someone like you, who is often unspeakably alone at times – reaching out. I don’t want this letter to appear false or dogmatic. My intention, my documenting this, is poetry. My starting point was only to engage you, because I was lost when I first set out, and thought there may be others too. And it’s about not knowing where the words will take you: a turning point, a revelation, a surprise along the way, and then sharing this with the reader, exposing just enough so it appears like magic/myth, but although submerged, is very true and real. And, as may be the case here, it is about failing. Poetry is infinite; it is all encompassing.
This is not a letter addressing your confidence, it is recognising your path as a writer, acknowledging the discipline, commitment, inward bravery, and at times, loneliness required to make the journey, and the importance of the journey, and the destination being one of community, like now, with you reading and giving life to my words. This is my message to you, it is what I learnt in the first steps of my migration, and although it would be easier and less cruel to dissuade one from such a path, I ask, depending of course on your commitment, that you pass on what you learn to those who follow you, and realise your journey ahead, the external and internal threats you face, and share your experience, so others may find their own way, continuously: adapting…
Borges, J.L. The Riddle of Poetry: Lectures on Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Woodberry Poetry Room, 1967. Sound Recording.
Clare, J., Robinson, E., & Powell D. John Clare. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 1984.
Emerson, R.W. Essay. Boston. Houghton, Miffin Co, 1883.
Rilke, R.M., & Harman M. Letters to a Young Poet. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 2011.
Skelton, R. The Practice of Poetry. London. Heinemann, 1971.
Smith, Z. Fail Better. Guardian, 2007. Link below.
Zhan S., Merlin C., Boore J L., & Reppert S M. The monarch butterfly genome yields insights into long-distance migration. Cell. 147.5 (2011): 1171-1185.