Yanyi is a writer and critic, author of Dream of the Divided Field (One World 2022) and The Year of Blue Water (Yale 2019), winner of the 2018 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. His work has been featured in or at NPR’s All Things Considered, New York Public Library, Tin House, Granta, and A Public Space. The recipient of fellowships from Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Poets House, he was a curatorial assistant at the Poetry Project and holds an MFA in Poetry from New York University.
In March 2019, I decided to write tributes each day to women artists who had influenced my work. I chose Linda Gregg on March 5: “In the past few months, I’ve painfully and meticulously read through each of Linda Gregg’s books, some for the first time. […] There’s something spiritual in her verse, her intensity of seeing. As I write into my next book, I am indebted to her work.” The timing remains notable for me. It was about two weeks before Gregg died on March 20.
Many griefs come with an artist’s passing. For any admirer, one is the end of their artistic development—there is now only going back, not forward, in their work. But for me, there was also the loss of a teacher I never got to meet. Gregg’s poems reminded me of not only my love for poetry, but also a kind of poetry I wanted to bring into the world. To read her poems was to hear a language I could understand but not speak (a common experience, incidentally, for second-generation immigrant children). I wanted to learn, in her own words, what she cared about in writing. In illuminating her philosophy, I thought, perhaps I would find a way to know my own.
My curiosity led me to Emory and, eventually, the Short-Term Research fellowship that allowed me a month into her world. I was thrilled to find many answers not only in her unpublished talks and essays, but also in teaching materials: handwritten notes on students’ papers from Iowa in the mid-to-late eighties and reading lists she distributed to students.
Of the essays Gregg published in her lifetime, not many are easily available today. Yet, “The Art of Finding,” a practical manifesto published in 2006, has somewhat of a cult following. “Too often in workshops and classrooms there is a concentration on the poem’s garments instead of its life’s blood,” she ends in its opening paragraph. The art of finding, for her, is the search for a “luminosity” that makes a poem important rather than merely publishable; birthed rather than manufactured. “The poet must have craft, but he/she must also locate the substance, the art within the poem.”
For Gregg, that luminosity came from the concrete details that made a poem and its “resonant sources,” which she describes, ultimately, as “the vital force that fuels your poems.” In the essay, she speaks of poetic forces like Lorca and Hopkins, but also of the landscape and wildlife from her northern California childhood, which infused all her poems that came after.
In “The Art of Finding,” how those personal sources became poetry remain only lightly drawn. In “How Life Becomes Poetry,” one of her unpublished essays, she makes direct connections between her published poems and memories from her childhood:
“I was made of that world: horses, moon, red-tailed hawks, the smell of summer, the Calling Tree, tall dry grass on the mountain hiding us from everybody, Louise and I carrying bones down to bury in our secret place, a huge blue heron caught in the woods by the creek and fighting to escape—filling the night above my head with the sound of limbs breaking. If I didn’t put it into my poetry, all of it would stay invisible.” (“How Life Becomes Poetry,” pg. 2)
Perhaps one imagines an artist looking at a scene and making an image like the shutter going off on a camera. For Gregg, the image was not something to be made. It already existed. It is the difference between speaking about it and speaking from it—between a stranger observing a home and the person living in it.
“When we live truly with things, they are different in our poems than when we make them up; and they will sometimes exist there even when we speak of them very simply.” (“How Life Becomes Poetry,” pg. 3)
“[Living] truly with things” marked Gregg’s images with that intensity of seeing I felt in her work those years ago. In that way, the resonant sources and concrete details she outlined as the two ingredients for luminous poems were often one in the same. The image recorded was also the life lived.
The life lived was a rich one. She was meticulous and ambitious with her own work: she often kept yes, no, and maybe piles of drafts. Instead of personal diaries, I found notebooks turned sideways for long lines or prose that would begin a new work. Her correspondence with Jack Gilbert throughout her life included reports of her active reading and writing, books she was reading or the art she saw. Perhaps most significant to me, as a reader who knew her only through jacket covers, was seeing her in photos throughout her life with friends, loved ones, and other poets.
I am just at the beginning of reviewing my materials from my fellowship at Emory, but I am looking forward to writing more deeply about Gregg in the coming years—what did she mean when she talked about the sacred? Love? What was her childhood like, growing up at Forest Farm? How did she develop as a poet from the beginning of her life to the end? And what did she mean when she spoke to Henry Lyman for Poems to a Listener in 1994, when she said that “[i]t is lit, it is loved, by being named?”