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How to Write (& Read) Poetry


“Don’t imitate me, don’t be the second half of a cut melon.” Basho

“Don’t settle for what the old masters found, seek what they sought.” Kukai



Last edited by Katlin, Oct/9/2013, 10:16 am
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Re: How to Write Poetry


Jane Hirshfield in aninterview:

To pick up on your earlier pondering, about telling writing students they
should, as the saying goes, "show, don't tell," I also think it isn't always
true. Just a good corrective to the beginning writer's tendency to write
"I'm sad" and imagine that's enough. But one thing I've been doing in more
recent work is a good deal of "telling"--listing the names of emotions, for
instance. Sometimes you just want that economy and simplicity, rather than,
say, constructing an image to embody the emotion. They're different
strategies for different requirements--and poetry needs the full range in
its tool chest. The deep image poetry of the 60's and 70's was a reaction to
the overly intellectual (at times) poetry of the 50's. Then people grew
bored with "stones and bones" and experimental writing appeared. What many
people are doing now is a kind of hybrid, drawing from both the tradition of
Lorca/Neruda/Chinese Classical poetry and from, say, the intellectual rigor
of Milosz/Herbert/Szymborska. This isn't new--the Roman classical poets also
combined both image and intellect. But we do it differently now, in a way
recognizably of this moment and its dictions.

You asked if I ever deliberately try to change my poems. Mostly, no. Mostly
I write as a path toward discovery, toward the almost inaudible stirrings of
my life; writing the poem is the way I can hear who I am, learn who I am,
learn what I am pondering and feeling in the underground rivers of the self.
Very, very rarely though, I notice something, and then I don't exactly
deliberately change as a writer, but do something that feels more like
putting in a request to the muse. "Muse," I murmur, "is there any chance you
would like to get, well, more strange?" And over the next few years, my work
becomes more strange. Then I might notice something else. "Muse," I then
murmur, "might you be interested in making a few more direct statements? In
shorter sentences?" And then I discover myself writing a poem like the one
you first quoted, "The World Loved by Moonlight," which has shorter,
declarative sentences, and says something directly. For some reason I find
these direct statements very frightening--literally, frightening. But I also
want to make them, to peel off the protective camouflage and say what I
think, what I feel. I think we are often drawn to what is difficult for us:
the rich challenge, the step that needs to be taken. Poetry has always been
that for me: a way to challenge my innate reticence and come into the world
of knowing and (still difficult for me) being known.


Here is the poem she mentions:

The World Loved by Moonlight

You must try,
the voice said, to become colder.
I understood at once.
It is like the bodies of gods: cast in bronze,
braced in stone. Only something heartless
could bear the full weight.



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Katlin Profile
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Re: How to Write Poetry


As you can see, I'm on a JH kick today. More from the above quoted interview:

In answer to the question, "I still wonder if you have subjects
that you avoid, that you think are not yours to explore."

Well, there are things I haven't written about yet and kinds of writing that
I can't at the moment imagine myself doing (confessional/autobiographical in
the factual sense), but who knows what the future may bring? I would hate to
rule anything out as possible terrain, or define anything as not-mine, or
not poetry's. But the way poems come to me, avoidance is hardly an issue.
Much more applicable is the question of what might [sign in to see URL] something
comes, I'll do my best to take it in. Ten years ago I probably would have
shuddered if someone had told me I'd do a large number of poems in which the
words "the heart" would appear; three years ago I wouldn't have imagined
myself entertaining quite so many household objects in my poems as currently
appear. If someone had proposed to me the exercise "write a poem about a
button," I'd have gagged. (The doing of exercises itself is pretty problematic
for me, I'll add.) But now I have a poem about a button. I have a poem about
shame--something else I'd have thought quite inconceivable, until I wrote the
one I did. I have a poem about "obsolete" technologies--again, a topic I'd
never have imagined myself taking on. . . . I'm cut from one cloth in this
matter: no ideas about what I do, and no ideas about what I don't do--this
seems to me the fertile path.

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Re: How to Write Poetry


Thanks Kat, especially appreciate her comments re: combining image and inetllect,

Chris
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Re: How to Write Poetry


I get that idea that the subject itself, or maybe the whole poem (or in my case usually story) is a surprise to the writer until she finds herself writing it. Or finds she has written it. "Where the heck did that come from? Me?"

Seek what they sought--or just, "seek."
vkp
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Re: How to Write Poetry


Hirshfield is always a thoughful poet. Her strength is in how she looks to think from the inside out. The dictum, show don't tell, while at first sight seems like good advice, ends up being stupid. Stupid because delimiting. It seems to me a good poem, a good story for that matter, in order to engage, pull in my reader, must have both. Both working in tandem. Narrative poetry, for example, and by definition, tells a story. A ballad tells a story. An epic tells a story. I suppose it could be countered that a good narrative poem tells by showing. But that is getting squirrelly. In my poetry there is almost always a story line. When there is not, there is invariably a story hinted at, drawn from and pointed towards. I'm not quite prepared to say that story telling is instinctive, but it might be. I am prepared to say story telling is as old as is the village lore, the conduit for passing down village memory. Poetry forgets its roots at the expense of killing itself off.

The Basho line reminds me of what Nietzsche said to his would-be disciples: I have found my way; you must find your own.

Tere
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Katlin Profile
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Re: How to Write Poetry


"There are a thousand ways to love a poem. The best poets make up new ways, and the new ways mostly take getting used to.” Donald Hall

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Re: How to Write Poetry


So is this a defense of willful ignorance? That’s one way of phrasing it, I suppose. It would be more accurate to say I’m describing a phenomenon that was originally described by Emily Dickinson:

The Soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the Door—

Some doors are shut to poets because of historical circumstances (like the absence of ancient Greek manuscripts in 13th-century Tuscany). But poets shut doors on their own, anyway, excluding by creative aversion what they have no use for. You could hand a poet like Kay Ryan a volume of Allen Ginsburg; she could read it through, and she might even enjoy it, or parts of it; but it is unlikely to “influence” or “inform” her poetic practice. The tastes and specific ambitions of a writer tend to guide that writer’s readings from our fine excess of available books and poems. We absorb and internalize kindred poets differently than we do poets whose aesthetic choices please us less. We shrink the “canon,” any canon, whether the Western one or that of some “alternative tradition” or another, according to our own needs as writers and tastes as readers.

Which may well scuttle the usual advice to writers. A young writer should read widely and reverently in the tradition he wishes to be a part of, the pedagogical wisdom goes. But the history of poetry suggests that you really don’t have to, and that it may well benefit you not to. The maxim should be amended to encourage a creative, Shakespearean ignorance which frees a writer to high-handedly reappropriate past tropes as he wishes, and discard them where they don’t suit his taste or his audience’s. In other words: Read whatever you like, deeply and irreverently.


Amit Majmudar

Taken from this brief essay:

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Re: How to Write Poetry


Terrific essay, Kat, thanks for it,

Chris
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Yes, Kat -- a good read.
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Re: How to Write Poetry


So I tend to read poetry for several reasons. Sometimes it is because I feel I should have some familiarity with a particular poet. Dryden is an example of that for me. So is Swinburne. Sometimes it is a matter of curiousity, mostly an intellectual motivation. Both are valid reasons. But there is a third such. It is when I read a poet out of need, a need that is physical or somatic or, maybe, cellular, perfectly unintellectual but still intelligent. Body-smart. There is something I need from that particular poet, something she has that is necessary to absorb or ingest. I get out of my way, do not ask why. I read that poet in the same way your body can tell you you need protein or starch or greens and you don't bother asking why, you trust your body enough and follow its signals.

Tere
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Katlin Profile
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Re: How to Write Poetry


Commonplace construstions can function well in a poem. Deployed for conscious effect, familiar phrases--e.g."blankets of snow," "blue sky," "day after day" . . .--help speed things along with an easy tone. Comfortable as a favorite ottoman, such relaxed speech can invite, condole, reassure and help convey the matter in a poem without mooing for attention. Too much of this, however, begins to feel lax, slack and lacking in inventive spark.

David Yezzi in Poetry, April 2000
 
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Re: How to Write Poetry


Give Yourself in Belief

Glued to the pages of my journal, a letter from a friend [Stephen Dobyns]:

It is necessary to give yourself in belief to the motivating event. It is necessary to be gullible. Once that part of the writing is done, one has to become ruthless. You must become an expert at the first, before becoming expert at the other, even if it means writing nothing but junk. At this point in your writing the process is more important than what is produced by the process. You need to do more to give yourself to the emotion, the event, the story.


Laure-Anne Bosselar, Small Gods of Grief
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Re: How to Write Poetry


There are no rules.

Or, you can modify that rule by observing that each work of art generates its own unique rules. Consider the exchanges in Frank O’Hara’s poem “Why I Am Not a Painter”. O’Hara sees that his friend Mike Goldberg is working on a painting that contains the letters SARDINES.

“You have SARDINES in it,” says the poet.

“Yes, it needed something there,” the painter responds in O’Hara’s poem: “It needed something there.”

After a time, O’Hara returns to the studio, the painting has been finished. “Where’s SARDINES?” asks the poet, seeing that “All that’s left is just / letters.”

“‘It was too much,’ Mike says.”

Impulses, swerves, collisions, flights, descents, gags, indirections, surprises, exploding cigars, non sequiturs: all are allowed or encouraged, and all in some sense begin to create their own principles.

There are no rules, but uniformity in art can make it feel as though there are rules: the more unconscious or unperceived (as with widely accepted fashions), the more confining.

A reigning style can feel tyrannical: the assumptions behind it so well-established that there seem to be no alternatives. But there are always alternatives.


Introduction to Chapter 1: “Freedom”
by Robert Pinsky

from Singing School: Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry by Studying with the Masters


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Re: How to Write Poetry


Yet another reason why I respond to Pinsky.

Tere
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Re: How to Write Poetry


hi Kat,

I like the way he ended the essay too:

A poem is free, and it shows its freedom by establishing its own principles: the unique physics and chemistry and atmosphere of a new planet. From a new planet where Time turns snow and silk and milk to dusk, or where the sky roars like a lion at my door, or where a meditation “On Nothing” is clinched with observations about national characters, kings, whores, and great men—the familiar world can be seen in a new way.

Thanks for the link,

Chris
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Katlin Profile
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Re: How to Write Poetry


This is a bit of an aside for this thread, but I wanted to include it here anyway:

To my mind, the notion that negative reviews are a dialectical antidote to the vague praise and careerist back-patting often found in poetry reviews is founded on a mistake. There is no good reason to think that negative reviews are ipso facto any more honest, more intelligent, freer of strategy, instrumentality, or profit-motive than positive reviews. Negative is not the same as critical. The negative reviewer is shrewd enough to moneyball the marketplace: he understands that in an economy rife with praise-inflation, vitriol can code as honesty, and ridicule may seem refreshing because it is so rare. His operation risks devolving into spectacle. The idea that negative reviews should be more “honest” or “refreshing” than positive reviews is symptomatic of the fantasy that there might be a place where the dynamics of economy and careerism are suspended, and the voice of truth can pour forth undiluted by ulterior motives. The main problem with negative reviews is that they’re too similar to positive reviews. The poetry criticism I admire most spends less time praising or blaming—which often amounts to leveraging the reviewer’s cultural capital and verbal virtuosity to muscle readers into assimilating that reviewer’s taste—and more time describing and contextualizing with intelligence and gusto. Of course, no reviewer could ever remove his taste or politics from his descriptions; the very choice of an object for attention is a function of such things. But I think we’d all learn a lot more about what’s happening in poetry if reviewers leaned less heavily on overt statements of aesthetic judgment, positive or negative, and more on close analysis.

David Gorin

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There is a distinct difference between writing reviews and critiquing workshop poems, but I feel Gorin's points can be applied to critiquing as well. For example:

To my mind, the notion that negative critiques are a dialectical antidote to the vague praise and mutual back-patting often found on poetry sites is founded on a mistake. There is no good reason to think that negative critiques are ipso facto any more honest, more intelligent, freer of strategy, instrumentality, or ego-motive than positive critiques. Negative is not the same as critical.

On so on.

Although ridicule may be rare in the world of "career" poets, it's not so rare in the culture at large. Think of all the TV programming and online forums (for everything from poetry to politics) that so often in/de/re/volve around putting others down in the most vitriolic ways possible. It's not really about anybody learning anything. It's about being right, having your side prevail and getting the last word while making the other person/side look bad.
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Good article, Kat. It's important to challenge the premise that negative criticism is intrinsically more honest, intelligent and devoid of ulterior motive. I agree, the same can be said of workshop critique. Far more value in "close analysis."

Chris
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Katlin Profile
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Hey Chris,

Going even further afield, here's interesting article by book reviewer Lee Siegel, "Burying the Hatchet":

I have a confession to make. For years, I earned a living—or a sort of living—writing negative book reviews. Panning a book wasn’t all I did, and it wasn’t even most of what I did, but the pans were what got the attention. Yet when I think of the prospect of sharpening my knife and setting to work on another negative review, distaste for the enterprise makes me listless. The truth is that I intend never to write a negative book review again.

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New demands for new times are the big-picture reasons I’ve lost the taste for doing negative reviews. I have smaller, personal ones, too. Having become an author of books myself, I now find that the shoe is most definitely on the other foot. I once dismissed as maudlin the protest that one shouldn’t harshly disparage a book because the author poured the deepest part of herself into it. What, I replied, has that got to do with defending civilization against bad art and sloppy thinking? Nowadays the abstractions of aesthetic and intellectual criteria matter much less to me than people’s efforts to console themselves, to free themselves, to escape from themselves, by sitting down and making something. In my present way of thinking, mortality seems a greater enemy than mediocrity. You can ignore mediocrity. But attention must be paid to the countless ways people cope with their mortality. In the large and varied scheme of things, in the face of experiences before which even the most poetic words fail and fall mute, writing even an inferior book might well be a superior way of living.



Last edited by Katlin, Oct/1/2013, 12:10 pm
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Re: How to Write (& Read) Poetry


Guess what poets do. Whatever we want with language. Despite grammar and outlined traditions, there is no set-in-stone social contract that constricts poets. As long and as hard as some have written on what poetry has done, what it ought to do, what forecasts predict, no one has systematized what poets must do. Where scientists follow specific guidelines for conducting experiments and maintaining “controls,” poets can knock off into the wilderness without prescribed imperatives or outlined goals. We can look to many futures without imposed blinders. In fact, poetry can help us identify those blinders and avoid them. The impossible is ours to plunder – and make the most of.

Taken from "Threat Level: Poetry" by Amy King. If you like the quote, you might want to read the whole article (I recommend it):

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Thanks for the link Kat, I'll definitely read the whole article,

Chris
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