Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: ‘Self Portrait with Reader,’ by Kelli Russell Agodon


Notes on “Self Portrait with Reader

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This poem first attracted me because of its lovely, spare form—25 short lines of free verse organized into tercets, couplets, and single-line stanzas. But as with other poems discussed this month, what really draws me in is its intimate, compassionate tone and the speaker’s wise but also vulnerable voice. She communicates authority without arrogance and counsel without pedantry so that when I read the poem I feel understood, nourished and supported.

Even before seeing the author’s notes I understood this poem to be about the need to be vulnerable when making art. But I also came away with another take on the poem, one that reflects one of my current preoccupations—why isn’t enough just to make art (write a good poem)? Why the need to read it to others and perhaps to publish it—and that first line (“To create is not enough) really resonated with me. I’ve always felt a poem needs to be completed by the act of being heard and received by a reader or listener, and I agree with this speaker that we must hold our art in our hands and show it to others, even if the showing makes them “look away.” This cherishing and not flinching from showing our work even when others recoil is a fundamental act of affirmation not just of our art, but of ourselves.

When the speaker in this poem says “Disappear if you have to,” she seems at first to be addressing the people who turn away when she displays her art. But she’s also talking to herself (using what some call the “first-person you”), enjoining herself either to affirm her art—and self—or risk disappearing. The opposite of affirmation may be negation, but failure to affirm your art effaces it and the self in a way that avoids taking responsibility for that act, enabling you to blame the disappearance on something else (in the poem, an “earthquake”). Asked in an interview once what to do when writing a poem will, for a certainty, hurt another person, Sharon Olds said something along the lines of this: to write a true poem that hurts someone commits a small murder but not to write it commits suicide. Of course, it’s possible to write a poem and then just consign it to a drawer, not make it public. But, as I understood Olds’ response, we must at least write the poem, and there are times when we also must take the next step of sharing it, even when to do so may discomfit or hurt other people.

The poem’s notion that the things we create will live after us, “the hearts we hold will continue/beating even after we leave here,” is a beautiful thing. But it does not answer the question of the poems in the drawer. If never read, will they live on? This is, of course, another version of Berkeley’s formulation about whether a tree falls in the forest if no one has heard it fall.

So, how do we decide which poems to share with the world? For me, the key lies in the word “hold” in lines 3 and 23.  If we believe in what we have created, we will be able to accept and embrace it, and walk the streets with it; that is, share it more broadly. We’ll do this even if to do so makes a mess (“what you hold/drips onto the floorboard”) and even if it does not give anything back to us, say in the way of direction or sense of purpose. And maybe it does not matter who sees and who doesn’t see the work, just that we carry it with us as we go about our lives, that we hold it and not hide it. Which reminds me of something I heard Martin Espada say at the North American Review bicentennial conference last summer—all writers need to have “poet’s courage” to say the hard truths, the ones that may make others dislike or shun us. Another of my teachers, the wonderful writer Susan Griffin, once told me that the work—authentic, true work—creates its own pressure to get out. The artist’s job is to try to work in ways that feel true to herself and then be attuned to her intuitions about it. In other words, we should trust the work to make the decision. If it’s powerful and true, it will clamor to be let out and will be heard. In Isak Dineson’s words, writers must write everyday with hope but without specific expectation, and in the plain, wise and compassionate words of this poem, artists must hold their art in their arms while they travel “hopefully” and with conviction, “even / if you have no idea where to go.”



Read more of our popular Poetry Sunday columns here.


Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at For more information visit


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