Today I’m concluding my conversation with Robert Benson (www.robertbensonwriter.com), whose books include Between the Dreaming and Coming True (HarperCollins), Living Prayer and The Game (Tarcher), That We May Perfectly Love Thee and A Good Life (Paraclete), The Body Broken (Doubleday), Home by Another Way (WaterBrook), and Digging In: Tending to Life in Your Own Backyard (WaterBrook). He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
LeAnne: Your definition of the word poet is broader than most standard definitions. How do you define it?
Robert: A poet to me doesn’t just rhyme things. It’s not just a person who works in a certain form. In the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads—William Wordsworth was given credit for having written what Samuel Coleridge probably wrote in the Preface—but at any rate, in the Preface it says that a poet does not see or hear things that nonpoets do not see or hear. It’s just that the poet has the ability to recall what he or she has seen and heard and then recreate it in some way so the nonpoets who didn’t notice it can see or hear it again. And then there is some chance that they can actually notice what they saw and heard.
Being a poet is not about a particular medium. It includes painters and singers, essayists and novelists and landscapers, as far as I am concerned. Teachers and preachers and priests and nurses are poets. If Annie Liebovitz the photographer is not a poet, I don’t know who is. I gave my wife her book for Christmas. It’s breathtaking. If Beethoven was not a poet, I don’t know who is. One does not have to be an artist who works in a particular medium to be called a poet. Poetry becomes a much larger thing and therefore the definition of a poet is a much larger thing.
LM: Let’s talk about your latest book. What are some of the things you’ve learned from Digging In?
RB: My two younger children came to live with my wife (their stepmother) and me when they were 12 and 14 (7th grade and 9th grade). And we had this back yard that had nothing in it. And we had these two kids that we had seen every other weekend for years and taken them on vacations. It’s not like we didn’t know each other or ever spend any time with each other. But we had a way of being together when we saw each other every other weekend and then suddenly we were going to be together 24 hours a day, more or less, so we had to learn everything about each other almost all over again. We had to have structure and rituals and habits and routines. Digging in for me involved all of that. It’s not just about building a fence and building a garden—it’s about building a life together.
I learned that everything I really cared about was in my own back yard. I learned that the real world wasn’t out there someplace, it was in my own yard. Everybody that I loved, everything that mattered, everything holy was all in my own back yard. And I don’t think I ever noticed that before. You know there’s a tendency for all of us to think that the real stuff, the good stuff, is out there somewhere. It was fun to discover that what really mattered to me was about 12 feet from my back door. That’s what I loved the best about it. Also, I discovered my daughter is the hardest working yard worker in the universe, that my wife can actually talk roses into blooming, which is an extraordinary talent, and that my son is really smart and really fun. I learned a lot about patience, a lot about waiting. It was fun.
Coming up next: culture expert Dick Staub