Poetry Writing Help
What is Poetry?
William Wordsworth famously defined poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," and Emily Dickinson explained the sensation of poetry this way, "If I read a book and it makes my body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry." Today, Mark Flanagan writes for About.com (http://contemporarylit.about.com/od/poetry/a/poetry.htm) that poetry is "the chiseled marble of language," because poets use an economy of words and consider emotive qualities, musical value, spacing, and even words' spatial relationship to the page to evoke intense emotion. "Defining poetry," he writes, "is like grasping at the wind—once you catch it, it's no longer wind."
These days, this grasping at the wind is usually done in a form named free, open, or blank verse. These forms do not require set rhyme patterns or particular line lengths or numbers of lines. The ends of the lines, though, are significant for the sound and to the meaning as are the stanza breaks (the way the lines are grouped in the poetic equivalent of paragraphs). Poets also continue to use prescriptive forms as practiced over the centuries by poets around the world: sonnet, ballad, sestina, ghazal, couplets, villanelle, acrostic, chant, cinquain, ode, pantoum, haiku, and tanka, among others. Many poets report that working in these forms provides the resistance they need (meter, rhyme, patterns of repeated lines, and numbers of total stanzas and lines) to struggle against and find new ways of mining their interior selves for wisdom and beauty. Although there is no way to grasp the wind, there are many shapes to the structures through which it blows.
Why Do People Write Poetry?
The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes in Letters to a Young Poet:
As the bees bring in the honey, so do we fetch the sweetest out of everything and build Him. With the trivial even, with the insignificant (if it but happens out of love) we make a start, with work and with rest after it, with a silence or with a small solitary joy, with everything that we do alone, without supporters and participants…
Poets believe, as Louise Glück phrases it in Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry, that "speech and fluency seem less an act of courage than a state of grace." Poets feel that in experiencing this act of grace, they are in a "continuing conversation" with their culture—"querying it, amplifying it, rebelling against it, subverting it, anesthetizing it, enhancing it," as Harvard poetry scholar Helen Vendler explains in the second edition of her book, Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology.
Individual poets have idiosyncratic ways of explaining what it feels like to blend imagination with a sense of language. In On Being a Writer, Bill Strickland records famous poets' words on what they do. Allen Ginsberg: "You say what you want to say when you don't care who's listening….so it's a matter of just listening to yourself as you sound when you're talking about something that's intensely important to you." Nikki Giovanni: "I shoot the moment, capture feelings with my poems." May Sarton: Writing poems means "not being knotted up to a purpose, but open to any accidental and fortuitous event." Poet Susan Rich told me writing poems is a love affair that "doesn't need to be perfect, but lifesustaining." And Diane Lockward explains that writing poetry feels like "finding my way home when I hadn't even known I was lost."
On Poems Outloud.net (http://poemsoutloud.net/poets/poet/bh_fairchild/), B. H. Fairchild says, "There is also the endless work/eat/sleep routine…, which can make one search for some point to it all and then eventually to locate it in literature, where life always comes to a point." Philip Levine told an audience during a Seattle Bumbershoot arts festival that if he doesn't write, he feels ill.
Whether we write from joy, sorrow, or wonder, our poems record our responses to being intensely alive. Today, many authors are writing about the way only poetry, both reading and writing it, has helped them cope with sorrows: I do in my memoir, A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, as has Madge McKeithen in Blue Peninsula. Writers have also turned their attention to the way poetry helps when most other therapies and conversations don't: David Rico in Being True to Life: Poetic Paths to Personal Growth and John Fox in Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem Making.
Writing poetry, we mourn the passage of time, celebrate connections, yell out at injustice, cry from the pain of unrequited love, and exclaim our joy and gratitude. Over the years, I have known I would start poems because of attending a traditional tea ceremony with my daughter as she was coming of age and the tea ceremony hostess's mother was dying, and because of awe I felt at the fragility of human life after looking down the Columbia River Gorge with my young son. I've written a poem because a blue moon in August made me sit down and consider the feelings I had when my daughter left for studies in Japan. Usually, I have the feeling of needing to write and no knowledge of what I will write. But as I write poems, I begin to understand poem-making as a way of finding out what I might not otherwise have known I had to say. And the more I write poetry, the more I read poetry, as absorbing other poets' strategies for delivering perception always helps.
Poet William Mawhinney, author of Cairns Along the Road, reflects on reading others' poems and concentrating on their sound:
Let me dip into my commonplace notebook and share some resonant snippets and lines that've rung my bell over the years. I'm a sucker for such paths of shimmering music as these:
"The day waves yellow with all its crops."
"We sit together, the mountain and me/Until only the mountain remains."
"To follow the sea-bright salmon home."
—inscription on a bell cast by Tom Jay
"Clouds dance/under the wind's wing, and leaves/delight in transience."
"Time stops when the heart stops/as they walk off the earth into the night air."
"Down the rivers of the windfall light"
"After many a summer dies the swan"
—Alfred, Lord Tennyson
"Man is not a town/Where things live,/But a worry and a weeping/of unused wings."
"Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs"
"I had the swirl and ache/From sprays of honeysuckle/That when they're gathered shake/Dew on the knuckle."
"Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang."
"But something in the sad/End-of-season light remains unsaid."
"…in the silent, startled, icy, black language/of blackberry eating in late September"
I don't invite my left brain to take charge when I engage a poem. I cringe when I recall the poetry courses at Pitt in the 1960s that encouraged me to tear wings from these butterflies. When I flunked my master's oral exam, I was told to "hold my nose and read more of the source material." I fled graduate school after that. For me, poetry is a physical experience, not an object for arms-length analysis. Today, as I read poetry, my right brain relishes the sounds of words, their physical and sensual presence—the original "mouth-fun" in baby talk, bedtime tales, and nursery rhymes.
If a poem gets up and starts to dance, I'll speak it to myself; I'll give it voice—a poet's medium is breath, not black marks on the page. And, when it's a real winner, I'll offer it my entire body by walking along the nearby roads and reciting it out loud. My neighbors already know I'm strange!
Phrases like these from my notebook are a species of remembering. They stick like Velcro to tender places; they light up dark spots inside, helping me to confront what Mark Doty calls "the unsayability of experience."
I jot them down in my commonplace book; otherwise they'll evaporate. That's the only "writing exercise" I use: I scribble down bits and shards of language that come my way, never knowing how I'll use them, if at all. One may become the seed of a poem, but because they all plunk my magic twanger, they become my word hoard. I'm a scavenging magpie tucking shiny objects into my nest.
I never know where this scribbling will take me. Writing poetry, for me, is a guideless journey. To the best of my ability, I ignore a voice that whispers from the shadows of my brain, "What a raging piece of crap!" and just get to work. Resonances from a few shimmering words will start percolating. Then something will occur to me and something else will occur to me, then something else that I reject may push me in another direction. Slowly, accretions of images begin to form around the seed words, lustrous deposits around an irritating grain of sand that perhaps end up as a pearl. I follow the poem as it emerges, remembering the words of an old Zen cowboy: "Always ride the horse in the direction it's going."
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