Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Writing with Authority

Recently, during a poetry workshop that I was conducting, someone asked what the term “writing with authority” means. We’ve all heard phrases like “he writes with authority” and “she brings the poem to closure with authority,” but I wasn’t sure how to define the term. When in doubt, Google! I found a number of related articles about writing prose but virtually nothing for poetry. When I Googled “writing poetry with authority," I found a site listed in which I could “find my inner poet” and another at which I could order a book called Shades of Authority: The Poetry of Lowell, Hill and Heaney for a mere £50.00. There were others, but not what I was after!

I did, however, find a Nikki Giovanni interview in which she stated: “The authority of the writer always overcomes the skepticism of the reader. If you know what you're talking about, or if you feel that you do, the reader will believe you.”

That was more like it! Of course, (slap to the head here) who would know better than poets? Accordingly, I asked some of my poet friends what “writing with authority” means to them. Here are their responses (for which, many thanks).

From Renée Ashley (author of Basic Heart)

Authority? I've never thought about it! If there is authority in my writing voice—and I thank you for thinking there might be—it is likely because I am not tentative when I write. I write to find out what I think, and what I think I know. And because writing is a private and exploratory activity, because it's so utterly concealed at the point of composition, I'm able to unleash my arrogance. A writer needs arrogance. It may be the stabilizing force in the authority you're sensing. Of course, a writer needs humility as well. Arrogance to get the work of getting words onto paper done and humility to look at what you've written, to re-vision and re-form (any hellish number of times) and then to expose it to the air of some unsuspecting reader who, in all likelihood, already knows at least a hundred writers who are better at writing than you will ever be. It's paradoxical, I know. You have to remember that: there will always be writers who are better at writing than you are. But you also have to wholly forget that while you're writing. My mother would call this having the balls of a brass monkey. If she's right—and she would tell you with great authority that she's always right—the secret, for me, could be having and trusting my monkey balls.

From Barbara Crooker (author of More)

Stephen Dunn was quoted on The Writer's Almanac on June 24, 2010 as saying, "I've since learned that if you get it right for yourself, it often has resonance for others." That's what I'm trying to do as well, write as honestly with as much skill and craft as I can for myself. Then if it also works for others, wonderful. I've never thought about my writing in terms of "trust" and "authority," but if my readers find this in my work, then that's icing on the cake. . . .

From Penny Harter (author of The Beastie Book)

To me "writing with authority" means that I trust my own process enough to believe in it, lose myself in it, and craft each poem the best I can. I agree that a poet's best work ought to have "skill, proficiency, polish, grace, and linguistic refinement" – and that those are qualities that encourage a reader to trust the poet and the poem. (Although, judging whether or not a poem has those qualities can be subjective on the part of the reader. "Skill" at what?, for instance.)

But when I am writing, I'm not consciously striving for those qualities; the process is all one piece, almost like a trance – as it is for many poets – and if those things happen, wonderful. Of course, when revising and editing, yes – I hope to refine what I've done in earlier drafts, polish it, etc. But again, that's less deliberate and more just going with what feels right and best for the given poem, in a kind of white heat, until I'm satisfied with it.

From Diane Lockward (author of Temptation by Water)

Writing with authority, in my opinion, means writing with conviction, as if you really mean what you say and know what you're talking about. It's not stopping to say "in my opinion."

When a poet writes with authority, there's a sense of control of one's topic and every element of craft. The poet can write delicately about a delicate subject, but that control is there working quietly and unobtrusively in the background. If the speaker in the poem seems tentative, uncertain, troubled, baffled, that's the speaker, not the poet. The poet has skillfully created that illusion.

I'm thinking of Jane Kenyon's "Having It Out with Melancholy." The speaker, in this poem clearly the poet, is writing about being crushed repeatedly by depression. And yet, every step, every line of that poem is written with authority. The poet knows what she is talking about and writes without hesitancy, even as she confronts and confesses what has done her in.

From Peter Murphy (author of Stubborn Child)

A deacon in the church of negative capability, I write what I know while also trying to write beyond the limits of my knowledge and imagination. I am most successful when I discover something I immediately recognize as true. But I am also surprised. How could I be so stupid not to have known what is now so obvious? That's when I realize I have something to say, and start crafting to make it interesting to someone who does not know or care about me.

From BJ Ward (author of Gravedigger’s Birthday)

The authority I admire in someone’s poem is the capacity to shelve the world for the poem’s duration—a span that might last beyond the actual reading of or listening to the words.

Any reasonable intellect will accommodate or at least consider various points of view—even antipodes. In a poem with authority, the poet has brought us in to the world of the creation. It is a poem so beautifully wrought—even seductive—that we forgo our duty to question while in its presence. As Frost said, there is a “momentary stay against confusion.” Just as an authority in our workaday world is what we turn to in order to settle an argument, a good poem has that kind of credibility as well—either temporarily or, in the best cases, in an enduring manner. Of course the credibility of a fine poem has a kind of supremacy in my mind that most civil authorities do not.


What do I think? Writing with authority is part mechanics and part voice. It's about honesty—what the poet gives to a poem and takes from it. It's the way a poet “owns” a poem and commands a reader’s attention. Some of that is choice, some of it depends upon skill, some of it is pure gift (and, of course, I write that with authority)!


  1. This is a fantastic idea. Such thoughtful and thought-provoking comments from some of the finest local poets (whom I've heard read in the Carriage House Poetry Series).

  2. Muy sincerest thanks to all the poets who shared their reflections on "writing with authority."