The Mirror of Craft

Claire Millikin


Graham Greene, speaking in the person of the protagonist of the End of the Affair, describes book reviews that praise the author’s “craft” as accurately reflecting a book that is hollow, without soul or pulse. He goes on to say that exquisite craft is what’s left when an author’s soul is not in the work. And one can think of work by seminal American poets, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman as rather roughly crafted, misspelled, strangely thrown rhythms, eccentric rhymes. Or of Tennyson, whose ear has been considered too perfect but whose intellect, so we’re told, was lacking. And yet if one turns the mirror the other way, one can say that Dickinson’s and Whitman’s craft was—as contemporary poet Wayne Koestenbaum describes his method—reckless, a steeping and a disciplined forcing of the mind to go down to the depths. In fact, Tennyson’s In Memoriam is hardly a polished work of craft without soul, but an obsessive reiteration seeking the surface of implacable loss, rife with implausible contrasts and jagged imagery.


The pulse of the work, as Nabokov used the term, is always below the level of craft, not to perfected but opened. And yet craft can be mistaken for the pulse. Craft mistaken for pulse is a kind of borrowed sorrow—poems that trade on cultural terms of grief and do not engage anything unique about the poet’s experience or knowledge. Such poems can be exquisitely crafted. But it is the crazed privacy of Dickinson’s “ample” bed that haunts us, the eerie personality of Whitman’s mourner—craft almost photographic in its play with chance. And hearing Dickinson’s poems—or those of Whitman, Tennyson, Koestenbaum—one knows that nothing has been honed away through craft. No, the lines have been lifted out of some personal depth, traces, cuneiform, wild. Privative surfaces pulling down the excessive mirror of craft.

Claire Millikin’s new books of poetry are After Houses: Poetry for the Homeless (2014) and Motels Where We Lived (2014). She will be giving a reading at the UVa bookstore, October 30th, 2014, and at The Bridge, in Charlottesville, November 7th, 2014. Claire's most recent for in North American Review is from issue 297.1 from winter 2012.

First Illustration from Volume 6 of The Yellow Book, "The Mirror"

Second Illustration by Camilla Perkins who is an Illustrator. She derives inspiration from encountered oddities, whether human, flora or fauna, and since graduating from the University of Westminster in 2012 she has worked with various clients to produce brightly coloured, heavily patterned and unique images. She lives and works in Brighton. For enquiries and commissions please email: