“For the Young Who Want To,” a Poem by Marge Piercy

phlogiston
1730, “hypothetical inflammatory principle,” formerly believed to exist in all combustible matter, from Mod.L. (1702), from Gk. phlogiston (1610s in this sense), neut. of phlogistos “burnt up, inflammable,” from phlogizein “to set on fire, burn,” from phlox (gen. phlogos ) “flame, blaze” (see bleach). Theory propounded by Stahl (1702), denied by Lavoisier (1775), defended by Priestley but generally abandoned by 1800.
“phlogiston.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. 07 Jun. 2011.

There really isn’t much more I can or should say about this poem, except that it is one that a favorite teacher and mentor of mine once read to me. It is splendid advice to the young or unpublished writer about not losing heart. But it is also a reminder that doctors are not doctors because they read about medicine; pilots are not pilots because they read the flight manual, or even 150 books about how to fly. “A real writer really writes,” the poet says, and so for me this piece becomes not only an encouragement but an indictment for those who dream but don’t do. Would you want a mechanic to fix your car if he has read all the specs, and memorized the names of the parts, but has never gotten his precious little hands greasy on a car before? A real poet might not be published, but she has most certainly written poetry.

Ok, ambiguous rant over. Here is the video. I hope you enjoy it.

“For the Young Who Want To”
by Marge Piercy

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Marge Piercy, “For the young who want to” from Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982). First appeared in Mother Jones V, no. 4 (May 1980). Copyright © 1980, 1982 by Marge Piercy and Middlemarsh, Inc.

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