Friday, October 22, 2004

Letters to a Young Poet (I)

I find myself saying the same things over and over when asked for advice on and/or criticism of else’s work. What I’m trying to do here is lay it all out in one place for easy reference.

These contentions are, if not truths universally acknowledged, then at least useful working theories, drawn from much reading, study, and practice. Everything I’ve said has of course been said by many others before me—notably and concisely by William Carlos Williams in the introduction to his 1944 collection The Wedge:

There's nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words... Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character...

When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them—without distortion which would mar their exact significances—into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses. It isn't what he says that counts as a work of art, it's what he makes.

What I know about poetry is a series of footnotes to Uncle Bill’s mighty lines. Let’s tip the bellboy, settle in, and start unpacking…

One: Machine (Four Easy Pieces)

  1. This is work.

    A man makes a poem—makes it, mind you. It doesn’t coalesce from the aether onto the page. This is an act of creation, not of stenography. All that stuff about inspiration and channeling and being a vessel or having your fingers plugged into the sky? Hippie bullshit. Sentiment. You’re building a machine, and there’s nothing sentimental about a machine.

  2. So why do people buy into this crap?

    Most egregiously: Why do writers who really should know better continue to perpetuate it? Because it’s self-protective; It lets you weasel out of taking ownership of, and responsibility for, your own work. But I’m here to tell you, there’s no escape. If your poem blows—if your machine don’t run—it ain’t nobody’s fault but yours.

  3. That’s not to say that Inspiration isn’t real.

    It is. But it’s much less important than you might think.

    True, sometimes (if you’re lucky) it feels like you’re taking dictation from Odin and Jesus and the Buddha, like your hands are white light carving letters of fire—but that feeling passes, and when it does you’re left with a mess of words and you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and build your machine. Inspiration without craft can be impressive, in the fashion of a junk-sculpture of gears and beams, but it doesn’t actually do anything. (Craft without inspiration is its own brand of pointlessness, but it’s not usually something that the beginning poet need worry about.)

  4. Who says a poem has to “do” something? Answer: The Reader.

    In writing for an audience, you’ve entered into a contract with the reader, and the first item in that contract is Don’t waste my time. (Wasting your own time, on the other hand, is forgivable. Just don’t expect anybody else to be interested.) If you want to engage a reader, you've got to give hir something s/he's never seen before, make hir feel a way s/he's never felt before. If you can’t do that, there are plenty of hard-working writers who can.

Much more to come...

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