Monday, October 25, 2004

Letters to a Young Poet (III)

Having previously established the overriding principle that The hard work of poetry consists of making choices, we need to backtrack a little. If the choices you make in writing your poems should all serve the idea at the heart of the poem—that is, whatever it is that the poem is about—this rather begs the question of...

Three: Motive (A Question and Two Maxims)

  1. How do I decide what my poem is about?

    No, seriously; This is a real question.

    All your choices will be in the service of the poem’s overall effect—but how do you determine what that effect is going to be? Do you just choose an effect, and go for it from there? You could, but the results tend to be smug and unconvincing—like one of those frustrating religious arguments where the facts are manipulated to support a preordained conclusion. Better poetry follows something more like the scientific method, where the thesis is formulated after the period of observation, rather than the other way around. In practical terms, apply an observation you have doubtless heard before...

  2. Good writing consists of 10% writing and 90% rewriting.

    ...which applies to the question at hand... how, exactly?

    Remember a bit earlier, when I yelled a little about “inspiration”? I stand by that; There’s more to making poetry than just the spill of emotion. But that spill—the thinking-feeling-being stuff, the blowing-off of steam and the venting of spleen, the inner-weather reports and the shapeless observational prose—is the raw material of poetry, the ore from which you’ll forge the cogs and springs of your machine. All the important stuff happens in the rewriting, in the reconsideration of your initial emotional spill.

    Now, poetry’s pretty high up the food chain of expression, so it’s resource-intense. It takes 16 pounds of grain and 2500 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef; Just so, you will write (and later read through) many pages of empty, self-important or self-pitying piffle before you find an insight worth exploring. But those nuggets of ore redeem the great piles of dirt around them.

  3. Aim to discover, rather than decide, what a poem is going to be about.

    So you’re writing your stuff, your splenetic word-explosions—writing for the sake of writing, writing for the drawer, writing that is of interest (in this form, anyway) to no one but yourself. Good. Write your stuff. Write it in great quantity. And then read through it—it’s helpful to let a little time pass, so you can read with some semblance of objectivity—looking for patterns, connections, themes. That is where your poem’s “felt idea” comes from—not even so much from the actual words you’ve written, as from the invisible conceptual threads that connect those words to each other and to you.

    This may be a revelatory process. That’s good. If writing is, as we’ll discuss later, the art of telepathy, then the first mind you’ll learn to read is your own. And what you see there may surprise you.

Further up and further in...

No comments: