Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Holiday Gift

Christmas day I spent with friends. We ate, all day, played Scrabble, read poems (not necessarily Christmasy), shared gifts and talked. Typical and lovely way to spend a holiday. My gift from that event was a book by Robert McDowell, Poetry As Spiritual Practice: Reading, Writing, and Using Poetry in Your Daily Rituals, Aspirations, and Intentions (Free Press, 2008). Lovely, appropriate, and challenging, because I don't restrict poetry to the realms of devotion. But I like the opening gambit, a discussion of the queasy feeling many of us have over the uses of poetry, our reluctance to announce our liking for it in the open space of public discourse: "We fear it is not practical, that it will somehow turn others against us, that it will impede our day-to-day progress." Yes! Exactly. Poetry has impeded my progress, or not impeded, but changed my direction, reset my goals, rearranged my mind. Knowing this about myself, I took up my pen and in this morning's journal entry, attempted one of McDowell's initial exercises, making a list of my definitions of poetry. Note the plural.

Here's what I think. I disagree with WC Williams; a poem is not a machine made of words. A poem is more organic, less clock, more leaf and stem. Nor do I see a poem as an expression of emotion "recollected in tranquility" (Wordsworth). Maybe that's because I'm not tranquil when I create. I'm intense, taut, waiting to see what finally appears on the page, and what comes is rarely what I expected. I do think poetry might be any or all of the following: a sharing of experience and insight through words arranged in a concise, musical form; sensory information captured in lines of coherent syntax, often arranged in lines that break purposefully, rather than hitting the margin and bending automatically; an expression of human experience combining images and metaphoric language in a new way. Do you see those two words in italics? I look for those qualities in my own work and find it in work that I admire.

Finally, I like the quote McDowell uses from Tom Lux: "We have to stop writing poems that make people feel stupid" (19). Right! Poems make us feel stupid when their language is too elevated, esoteric, or fractured to give us the information we might get from a more conversational diction, sane syntax, and a reasonably common vocabulary. Poems make us feel stupid when we look and listen for something new and can't find it; did we miss it, are we too insensitive to catch it, or did the poet neglect to tell us that she/he doesn't feel the need to include us in the discovery?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Craft v. Censorship

Poetry readings are risky. You might hear fabulous, fresh, imaginative, musical words--"the best words in the best order." Or not. You might also hear long, boring, vague, cliched things (I'm not sure what noun to choose here) that leave you leaning into your hand and paying close attention to the coffee mug in front of you. These alternatives illustrate the opposite ends of a poetry spectrum, the battle between free speech and hard work. What many new poets, and occasionally a few experienced ones, ignore is that for many in the audience, a poem is a work of art. As such, we appreciate the craft of the work, as we would admire the technique of a painting, the composition of a photograph, the balance and texture of sculpture. Because the raw materials of poetry are easily found--words and paper--the opportunity to try it costs little, and if one takes no risks, doesn't hurt a bit.

Ah, risk, yes, that's part of the boredom problem. If a poet takes no risk in putting together the images, sounds, structure, and importance of the piece, boredom results. We're listening to what we've heard before in ways we've already heard it; it is not, as Ezra Pound advocated, "news that stays new." Of course, the casual poet may not know that his/her work is all too common, because they haven't read widely, have little concept of the skills one needs to craft the news, think that putting words on paper and calling it poetry makes it so. I disagree. But--long, emphatic pause here--anyone brave enough to approach the mike, even after hearing a dynamite feature poet whose talent and dedication are obvious to all but the sleeping infant and maybe the mike stand, well, we owe it to hear the brave, the desperate, the egotistical, the newcomers, and the writers just having blah days. The minute we reject the merely inept, we become selfish, demanding to be impressed and entertained. We forget that each poet started with a weak grip, an unsteady step, little understanding, and an ego too big for the paper it's printed on.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Writing Groups Continued

In addition to the writing I do with my solitary partner, I often sit in on other groups. This weekend, for instance, a fine group leader, Carolyn Jennings, led a clutch of us through a series of guided efforts focused on the present holiday season. We wrote in short blocks of time and evaluated our own efforts with a series of questions meant to deepen our understanding of our language and feelings and ideas. At one point we were invited to share a character sketch with a partner, or not. I chose not. The sketch I had put on paper is bothersome, a bit of autobiography I've struggled to bring to light for years, a lot of years. And the child in that sketch defies my every attempt to understand her. Or maybe she defies my attempt to use her for my current purpose--to put into a poem the long shadow that she casts on my life. One of these days I'll share it, but not yet. I have to do more work around this image before I can push it out into the open.

One of the risks of group critique and sharing is the possibility that we let the piece out of our hands before we have realized it. We haven't the confidence yet that it will say something we want to say or to discover or whatever moves us to write in the first place. (Was there poetry in Eden, the First Place?) A fellow from another group I go to regularly found a wonderful article that addresses this problem: Help, I'm Going Hoarse! Don't Lose Your Voice in Critiques by Becci Clayton . As you'll see, she warns against taking all the advice we hear from other writers. If, as happened to me recently, a critique identifies a problem area that you already suspected, good. Listen and take it seriously. But if you find yourself resisting with every cell in your brain what another writer tells you to do, listen to yourself with equal intensity. Don't become a clone of someone else. Find the confidence to say, at least sotto voce, but this is what I wanted to write. And go on with your work.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Leaping Lizards

We all know, who gather here, that I've been writing for a long, long time. So why am I not smarter? I have a writing partner who consistently catches me making leaps in poems, especially toward the end of a piece, which can leave readers squirming. When he takes off his glasses and rubs his temples, I know instantly that I've done it again. I could beg off and deny the importance of his advice. After all, our styles differ hugely. He writes political, long, full of word play. I write short, mostly lyrical, image based. How can we ever agree? Well, we agree that readers/listeners matter, that we want to communicate and that we must accept an honest response from an honest audience of one. We agree that for us and many people we know that poetry matters. It rewards us, informs us, focuses our minds and hearts on something other than TV ads and holiday horrors. We share a community of many poets in our area, a wonderful reward for the time we put into writing.

I've done the writing program thing and find that writing with one partner is very different from workshopping a piece with a whole group. The response is more predictable, the embarrassment less intense when one of us fails. And then, there's that concept of failure to reconsider. A misstep, a leap into obscurity or verbal contortion is not so much failure as risk taking. We know that this art form demands time and attention, that we will keep writing and reworking so that the other has access to our creative work, rather than that we will have wasted money on an academic program. Ours is a loose partnership based on coffee and love of language, feeding on wit, intelligence and shared values. If a writer has a writing friend, she's lucky. Look what Pound did for Eliot!