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Let me open my thoughts on poetry with lines from the late James Wright:
Be glad of the green wall
You climbed one day
When winter stung with ice
That vacant paradise.
Kindred to Wright’s imagery, I think you’ll agree with the late poet Richard Hugo, that “Once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.”
What is poetry then? There are the technical definitions concerning forms – dictionary definitions; but otherwise, the field of inquiry is open. By way of technique, except for rare occasions, I write in syllabics – each line of a poem having the same number of syllables, using declarative sentences within the same rhetorical mode e.g. beginning my poems with the same sort of addresses to my readers.
Some speak to a purpose in poetry: Dissident Iranian writer Salman Rushdie says the poet is to “shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”
Indeed, some speak of lofty purposes for poetry: the late Polish exile poet Czeslaw Milosz said …
What is poetry which does not save
Nations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a
Reading for sophomore girls.
That may be overwrought and high-fallutin’ though it has it’s truths.
Some speak to poetry’s sublime faculties … the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai once said that … “Poems are like prayers…It’s the oldest form of human expression and also the most advanced.”
Or the modern Greek poet Odysseus Elytis when he wrote …
…I went after Poetry as after a
woman, to give me a child, as though from one to the other I might not die…
I cried in front of waves and saw in poems the clear sky.
And finally, the great German lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin challenges us by asking,
what is the use of poets in a mean-spirited age? One immediate answer in our current day is Iraq war veteran Brian Turner’s book of poems, Here, Bullet, which I highly recommend.
Poems can evoke deep emotions; try reading William Stafford’s Stllborn or Bob Hicok’s Complications After Birth, or Anna Akhmatova’s The First Long-Range Artillery in Leningrad. Funny how we can become addicted to poems that knock the wind out of us, and that’s what Emily Dickinson meant when she said a good poem could make the tops of our heads rise.
In my own case, I’ve been writing poetry since 1997, and before I tell you my own definition, let’s ask: how do we learn to write poems? I am of the school of writing that says we owe our imagination everything and the truth nothing. This does not mean that we write lies; no, but never be afraid to write, what former Texas Poet Laureate Walt McDonald calls, “little fictions.” You see, the poem’s speaker does not have to be the poem’s writer – which is you, even if written in the first person.
In the words of Richard Hugo, use your world to find your poem’s ‘trigger’: if you are walking in the German countryside and you see a brown horse but your poem requires that it be a black horse, then it’s black. If you are like me and like to write about small towns and backwaters, say a gas station attendant you see one day becomes, in your writer’s imagination, an alcoholic, or an orphan, though in reality you know nothing about him or her – such sightings trigger your poem’s true subject, which often doesn’t emerge until the end. That’s why my technique is not to entitle a poem until it is finished because I most often won’t know the true subject until it is almost written.
As a side note here, never fall prey to the thought that some have out there that ‘you can only write what you know’ – that is, from the real circumstances of your own personal life or experiences; that’s simply nonsense. In clear-cut expression, you can make it all up!
In a recent tribute to the late poet Stanley Kunitz, a writer said that “his poems got better as he got older. He was a person who absorbed everything around him and turned it into poetry.”
Let me explain further ….
I’ve written poems about fictional incidents in towns I’ve only visited in cyberspace. For instance, I classify myself a Southwest regional poet, and I once transferred notes I took on a napkin in a real bar in Florida to a mythical one in San Ysidro, California. I simply liked the name San Ysidro; for all I know, there are no bars there – I just have a love for Latinate names, and I needed grist for a poem I wanted to situate in a western US border town, grist provided by a real bar in Florida. I’ve also written poems based on articles in farm magazines about growing cotton and peanuts.
Again, this does not mean that we cannot write poems based on real people and events, but know that the artistic use of language should be uppermost in your own writing process. For me, I have only written a few poems that I would label autobiographical. Most of those are ones I wrote about things my father told me about his experience in World War II, a time of his life he rarely mentions. So I’ve done it for him as it were, by re-inscribing his experience in verse.
In consideration of what I’ve discussed so far, surreal language may sound cool, but interpretable concrete imagery is better; don’t throw out detached psychological snippets; if there is one thing editors hate besides untitled poems, it’s trying to interpret someone’s inkblot test. That is, unless you a major published poet whose work may be accepted by editors as a name-dropping on the publishing market, you stand little chance of being published. The problem with the surreal, as in the overtly symbolist, is that it is too opaque for most editors and readers.
Let me provide a brief example of good concrete writing from Richard Hugo’s Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg:
You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn't last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he's done.
Admittedly I come across lines in Hugo that are a bit opaque; he has one that goes, Her legs were wild as pillars to a Persian lost in wind.
Or consider Walt McDonald’s haunting double entendre, a poem innocently entitled, The Gleam of Silver Wings. McDonald, who I mentioned earlier, is a former Air Force fighter pilot and English professor:
After Darren's jet fell spinning
out of the Asian sky,
I learned the myth of perfect flight,
all of us Icarus, birds of a feather,
accident-prone ground pounders
riding throttled fire.
I had seen airplanes in movies
tumbling and spouting smoke
and flames from under,
but not real flesh, like Darren,
the first I knew overseas
out of blue skies far from home,
no parachute open,
ten thousand pounds of thrust
and one of us reduced
to this, a silver matchstick
tossed indifferently away.
In such poems as these you can see the poem as it’s being read, see it in your own mind in ways that will prove common to other readers or listeners, yet find a unique unfolding in your own minds as well.
Let me point out that I do not mean that everything must be tethered to a map coordinate, or a phone book, as in the examples I just read. We don’t have the time to fully explore this issue here, but let me provide a brief example from poet JoEllen Kwiatek:
A Sad and Human Face
The swamp flower, a sad
and human face, retrieves
the moon, its fog of self-expunging
The artist was a strange
one to draw this lamp
with a broken swing--I
intuit that it's broken--
this strange planet reading
In the backwoods
of the universe, slim-ankled,
the swamp flower is waiting
like any donor.
This poem could be situated anywhere we find a human face, a moon, or a swamp flower – or where you invent them in your writer’s imagination.
Now … if you are going to write about mom and apple pie, then the pie should be poisoned and mom should be demented.
Beware of poems about cats – unless they are the kind that eat people.
And be leery of abstractions – words like love and soul – they are not impossible to work with, just difficult to. You see, some themes are so time-warn that to write something new or interesting about them may seem insurmountable; but it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t try.
I don’t mean to be dour or tell you that there are no upbeat or happy poems; there are certainly plenty of good ones out there, and I would call the best ‘upbeat’ as opposed to happy, -- which sounds trite. Here is what Pulitzer Prize winner Franz Wright wrote in a poem after he began his rehabilitation from drug abuse and severe depression:
Set the mind
before the mirror of eternity
and everything will work.
What I am trying to say is this: be serious, but above all, be interesting. Yeats has a line that says, ‘Bodily decrepitude is wisdom.’
This means being indirect in your poems; allow for irony – insinuation – nuance -- and allusion, or as one poet names it, a ‘tipping point’ where the poem could go either way. Know that poems take their strength from what is left out of them; never try to explain everything. This is not to say that all poems must be about big or tragic events; you don’t need to be high-fallutin’; you’d be surprized how much there is in what the late Mexican national poet Octavio Paz calls “the dark, forgotten miracle of being alive.”
Now, about line breaks: watch them closely – avoid awkward breaks; try never to end a line with a definite or indefinite article, or a preposition. These can be poetry killers! ‘a’, ‘and’, ‘the’, ‘you’, ‘but’ and so forth, even if preceded by a verb in the indicative mood such as ‘are’ or ‘is.’ Nonetheless, even as I say this, major poets have lines breaking with such words, and I wouldn’t wrench a poem out of joint just to follow this rule.
Very often I begin a poem by writing my thoughts in straight narrative, or bullet statements and words – you can work form later, but for the contemporaneous moment you need to empty your thoughts onto the printed page so you may poetically sort them later. In constructing his plays, Russian novelist Anton Chekhov once said, “People are having a meal, just having a meal, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being smashed up.” That is, the subtle – what runs in the background – is what turns a narrative re-inscription of a person, place, or event into a poem.
Though these are not absolutes, they are widely accepted guidelines and I believe they will make your poetry credible to yourselves and your potential editors. I cannot tell you how to write poetry, but only how I do it.
So where do we learn? Advice I was given by a poetry instructor was that rather than find a ‘how to’ book, read your favorite poets over and over, even as you find new ones. And your subjects? They will come from your surroundings: from the fields you walk in, the alleys you may find yourself down, the hospitals and death beds, small towns in deserts, in mine shafts, in wars and times between wars, but also in the homes of family and friends, and the hearts of your children; that is, the possibilities are endless. You will even find your triggers in books, in some short story you read that incites your imagination. Maxine Kumin mentioned that “Someone once said that we have art in order not to die of the truth.” I once wrote a poem triggered by something a man wrote about seeing a vulture eating something on the side of a desert road; in my poem the desert was there – as in a good many of my poems – but the bird was a Northern Harrier, and I re-inscribed its circumstances differently.
After you begin writing poems you will see how you can transform the simple into the complex by exploring angles few consciously think of. There is an old African proverb that says that “Only when lions have historians will hunters cease being heroes.” As a poet you can be the lions’ historians.
As Polish poet Adam Zagajewski tells us …
Only in the beauty created
by others is there consolation,
in the music of others and in others’ poems.
Only others save us,
even though solitude tastes like
So, my own definition of poetry, which is this:
Poetry is the imagination’s love affair with the imagistic power of language.
Walt McDonald puts it a kindred way: “Vivid images are the key to freedom.”
Poet Philip Levine says poetry does not begin with ideas but with tactile imagery: that is, well-wrought poems enliven the nerve endings of your readers, and the best poems – in my experience – don’t enliven by shouting at the reader, but through a more subtle power of words.
You see, it is the “green wall” – the vital color of life among our otherwise ‘icy and vacant paradise’ of ordinary words, that should make our writing so enthralling.
So stay in love poets, and your paradise won’t be vacant.
How does all this correspond to place for you? What is it about the Southwest that tugs at your soul? Or is soul the right word: am I being too cosmic??
Unlike Flannery O'Connor, who did go home again, I stayed in the Midwest. By the way, at one time, I wanted to BE Flannery O'Connor. My professors remarked about her influence on me. It really was ridiculous. I relied on her way too much.
Her take on the Southern Grotesque really resonated with me, though. I could not put her down for a long time.
The South is another matter. There are people who love the South, wallow in it, relish it, have excessive pride in it. But other people see elements of the grotesque about the South and write about that. We see this somewhat in works about the Midwest, too, like WINESBURG, OHIO, the fictional town of Clyde (which I live very close to).
The mythical implications of different regions is interesting to me. The West is synonymous with freedom in many's minds, with expansiveness, beauty, awe, the sublime.
Steve Schroeder who belongs to this group writes of the Texas Panhandle, an area I don't associate with the mythical implications of the West previously mentioned. It has a different aura all together. If we are lucky, maybe Steve will come over here and talk about that.
I have a lot I could say about the South, too.
“Once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.” This idea intrigues me, but I'm not sure that's the way languages die. Look at the languages in the world that are on their last legs today: for example, the Celtic languages, Welsh, Irish, Cornish (dead, with hearty but probably failing resuscitation attempts underway). They don't really exist any longer to convey information - the remaining speakers of Celtic languages convey information far more easily in English, but use the old languages to convey, I gather, a sense of identification with their ancestry, their land, their untranslatable tribal poetry ...
And now, to contradict myself, I will ask: Isn't everything that language conveys "information" by definition? To say "I love you," is to give someone information, isn't it? To hint at the same thing through a line of near-inscrutable but lovely poetic misdirection is also to convey information, though perhaps more subtly, about the underlying declaration of love, the speaker's/writer's ambivalence, desire to please, etc.
Poets (and some writers of prose) use the sounds and rhythms of words to convey a quite different sort of information than the mere dictionary definitions of the same words.
Broadly speaking, I guess "I love you" IS information. I never thought about it that way. "Information age" has assumed such a negative place in my thinking. Too much information, information glut, but too little understanding. Sometimes I become very afraid that beauty will die in our consumer culture.
I don't think I've addressed all your points. But that's the best I can do for now.
I do think there is some risk of computers, cell phones, etc., making people more isolated. Much of the time we now spend conversing on line and via telephone, we would once have had to spend conversing with people face-to-face, so we miss the subtle information we used to gather subconsciously from watching peoples' body language and facial expressions (and from the ability to touch and hug). But I wonder if people don't actually spend more total time communicating with each other now than we used to. When people could communicate only by talking face to face (or writing letters), many didn't actually spend very much time communicating.
Are there people who dislike the West? There must be some, as many rightfully disdain the legacy of American imperialism and wars against native peoples. Some would rail against the heat, but that's a different matter. I once read an excellent article about why Americans feel that open spaces must always be conquered, especially the West. Frankly, I like how it dwarfs me, how Arizona's rivers -- thin as they are -- still manage to produce giant cottonwoods and birches. I could say more here, but let me leave you with these thoughts for now, and my poem that was recently published in Iron Horse Literary Review:
The Desert Elk
In time, this ceaseless wind will brush aside
the vulgar charm of exhausted huntsmen.
It sweeps dunes like breath on votive candles
to disinter a skeleton intact,
its limber touch laying bare the fragments,
leaving unharmed a larkspur’s fringed petals.
Light was body, seized in her own bloodbeat
or touched like birthwater warming her sides
for gleaming mouths of calves. When it began
what she knew ranged far beyond petroglyphs
wrought in stone to mute gods, a shaman’s wail.
When snowdrifts thawed into streams, whose eyes could
hers implore: I followed open water,
sagebrush, daylight fading cold and remote,
the bullet, by now, refusing return.
Here is another, this time set in the South (published in Blue Collar Review):
Reconsidering the Harvest in Ben Hill County
The cost to water crops this year’s insane.
Most expensive crop in state history.
Returns diminish like hay bales in wind.
You won’t work these fields, seeing your father
like a linebacker in his last season:
a sweat-stiffened machine of mended bones,
gone to cursing God but pleading mercy.
Farm here and soil takes all that’s left of you
when the alchemy of a long winter
runs demented down the year shouting debt,
icy April still breathing at your door.
You may keep your name. If that’s not enough,
you’ll fight-off sleep to the numb din of spades
striking into the earth you swore was stone.
There aren't too many natural landscapes I don't love. I loved the New Mexico desert when I lived there, and I love the lushly watered Oregon forests now that I live here.
Meanwhile, there is some fine writing on Hugo, Wright, and Roethke here:
The Poet of Personality, The Poet of Place
Notes On Reading Richard Hugo
Proudly, Richard Hugo described himself as a regional poet, but he might have added, "So was Frost, Thomas, Pushkin, Hardy, and Williams." So be it. The poet of West Marginal Way (Seattle) was also a poet of Scotland and Italy, not to mention Montana. Thus, he is a poet of the world, and knew it. He may be having us on a little with his emphasis on regionalism. Yet it is there, all along. ...
He had a ragged life, unhappy and neglected up until about age 40, writing poetry out of loneliness and despair, drinking a lot, when suddenly the world began to take note of his talent, and he was offered a teaching job at Montana State University. He then became increasingly secure in his personal relationships, his teaching, and his poetry. But there was always a confidence in his poetry, even during those terrible years at what we all called "The Kite Factory," aka Boeing, where they make commercial airplanes and various war and space machines.
The article goes on to talk about his Northwest poetry, the transcending elements of the poetry, his relationships to Wright and Roethke, and his teaching.
for gleaming mouths of calves" are exceptionally powerful to me. I want to be able to write about "place" like this, but I wonder if it isn't in the cards for me, since my sensory capacity gets overloaded so easily that I end up living in the world of imagination and feelings.
These are superb poems.
Those who are interested, once you get there, will find others...
Also a number of articles on the topic that you can find on my "academic" site:
...especially "Don't Be Ugly" and "There's Nothing To See Out There."
It seems to me that the "love" most citizens of the United States have for the West has often been a curious form of loving it to death. (And comments on that date back at least to the nineteenth century.) Georgia O'Keeffe (whose career started in Canyon and Amarillo, Texas) railed against artists who moved to Santa Fe and painted it to look like a village in New England. And I find myself more depressed every time I go back by the extent to which it seems to have become a sort of remote neighborhood of Manhattan, a transformation that was already well underway when I was doing construction work there while writing my dissertation almost thirty years ago... Most people find the Panhandle and eastern New Mexico harder to love, so it hasn't been overrun just yet... ;)
I do my fair share of Texas bashing, but I grew up there, so I feel entitled. I don't like it when people who know nothing about the state do it. It's a complex place, with a history that combines overbearingness and oversensitivity. That can make it hard to coverse with people in a genuine way. What you say in your poem about the cowboy who is more likely to be working silently on fenceposts or sitting silently in a dark corner rings true. I think the silence almost gets to me more than the occasional person you meet who wants to bulldoze over you with his or her opinions. The last time I was in Texas, the latter types were all Dubya bashing. Hard to get too upset about someone you agree with. But I think they would do more good if they spent more time listening and asking questions and less time insisting they're right.
I'm a native Texan, grew up there, and go back often... I rarely bash Texas, though I regularly criticize aspects of it. The bashing bothers me no matter who does it, but I do get doubly defensive when folks who've barely passed through the place go off on it... The comment about listening applies to all people, all places, doesn't it? I often introduce those Texas poems when I read them up here (in Chicago) by saying "I have good news, and I have bad news: Texas is America." (Or, as Jack Kerouac put it, Texas is undeniable...)
Two more authors relevant to the "place" conversation, by the way: Keith Basso (whose work on Western Apache language, including place names, is fascinating) and Yi Fu Tuan. Make that three... Edward Casey has done some wonderful philosophical writing on place...
A very good man, a wonderful poet, Howard McCord, has written a great deal about the West. He taught at my university for a number of years. He used to come to class dressed in jeans and broad-rimmed hat. His work is playful and also very spiritual; philosophic; Tao. I can see how Texas would inspire that sense, because it seems to me to be a place of contrasts and drama and often a desperate isolation. I still remember how a friend of Howard's from Texas came as a guest professor and went to classes with a big knife strapped to his leg. It was the talk of the English department, until someone complained and the administration made him take it off. The knife was simply a way of life for him, something that didn't translate here.
Glad you liked the poems, by the way! ;)
This attachment to place, and to a particular region (the Great Plains) has resulted in an emphasis on region in much of my reading. My own poetry, however, doesn't reflect a strong sense of belonging and hasn't been welcomed by many of the regional journals. My political point of view also doesn't reflect the predominant values and attitudes of where I live. Nonetheless, I am comfortable with where I have made my home, despite the limited employment opportunities. It's what I know, from having lived here the longest; it's where I have my own history.
My favorite isolated location would have to be Monument Rocks in western Kansas. The Badlands at Pine Ridge, particularly in early summer, are haunting, too.
I read a theory somewhere once that people who live in flat, relatively treeless country tend to be less suspicious and more welcoming of strangers than people who live in mountainous and/or densely wooded areas. In the plains, you can see people coming from a long distance; they can't sneak up on you. In the mountains, when a stranger shows up you don't necessarily know what direction he came from or how fast or with whom he's been traveling. I can't say from my own experience whether or not it's true, but it makes a certain amount of sense.