Saturday, October 23, 2004

Letters to a Young Poet (II)

Again, our guiding principle...

There's nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.
Two: Technique (Five for Fighting)

  1. If you want to write poetry, read poetry.

    Sounds like a no-brainer, yeah? Unfortunately, due to the prevalence of the whole white-light-from-the-mouth-of-infinity-spilling-from-the-writer’s-hand-onto-the-page myth, this staggeringly obvious notion has fallen out of fashion.

    Poetry is the only artform I know that almost everyone feels qualified to practice—indeed, I’ve known some who, because they don’t feel so qualified, worry that there’s something wrong with them: I am a thinking, feeling being, the argument goes, therefore I should be able to write poetry. Well, no—no more than having ten working fingers automatically makes you a guitarist.

    I’m not even talking about virtuosity, here, but about first-principles assumptions. If you want to make any sort of noise on a guitar at all, you need to know first what a guitar is, and what it’s for. Punk was D.I.Y., punk was “anyone can do it,” and to an extent poetry is the same deal; but for damn sure the punks were all listening to records and going to shows.

    Bottom line: If you don’t love the medium, why do you want to work in it? And if you do love the medium, why aren’t you reading any?

    It comes back the metaphor that guides us: You’re building a machine. If you want to build, say, an internal combustion engine, how do you start? You look at lots of engines, you take them apart and put them back together: you get inside the engine and get your head around it until you know how it works and how it fits together. Same with a poem. You cannot build the machine if you do not understand the mechanical principles.

  2. Mechanical principles?

    Rhyme, in all its varieties. The various meters, and rhythmic concerns generally. Enjambment. Figurative language—metaphor, simile, synecdoche and all that. Irony, which may not mean quite what you think it does. Allusion. Forms—sonnets, villanelles, haiku and such. There’s more, but that’s a start.

  3. But I don’t want to write sonnets! I don’t need to know all that stuff!

    You want to write in open forms? Free verse? Here’s the secret: for you, the mechanics matter even more—because they are all that separates your poetry from That Which Is Not Poetry. We can assume the sincerity of your feelings and the truth of your desire to communicate. But lacking any of the obvious signifiers of the craft, the question arises: in what way is your work a poem, rather than, say, a journal entry or a postcard with line breaks inserted more or less at random? Good mechanics—evidence of craft—let the work answer that for itself.

  4. In fact, study the forms anyway.

    Even if you never mean to write a villanelle, you should know how one works. Analyzing formal poetry is a great way to demystify the process; the blueprint of the machine is highly visible in the finished product. For that reason, I strongly suggest at least trying to write some formal verse, even if it goes into the drawer afterwards. Fitting a villanelle together like a crossword puzzle, feeling the keywords in a sestina lock like teeth in a gear, can leave you feeling emboldened just as staring at an E.E. Cummings action-painting can leave you overwhelmed.

    And, you know, Cummings knew and thought about the rules intensely; that’s why he was able to break them to such great effect.

  5. Yeah, but c’mon—Synecdoche? Enjambment? I can’t follow all that.

    Sure you can. We all use poetic devices in our everyday speech; analytical prosody is all just naming-of-parts stuff, a quantifying of things you already knew but didn’t know you knew. It all boils down to one simple principle:

    The hard work of poetry consists of choosing which words to use, and how to use them.
    Not what you say, but in how you say it—in what you make. our choices.

    Internalize that principle, and the rest is taxonomy. If you passed frosh biology, you can do this.

Still more a’coming...

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