In effect, asking what a poem is about is like asking what music is about. And our inability to answer that question succinctly is hardly a testament to the meaningless of poetry—or music for that matter. When we mistake a poem for a newspaper article or even an anecdote, then the expectations for a poem’s language changes—and drastically. As Eliot said, poetry “is a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all.”
Indeed, at its best, a poem might be comprised of breath, desire, intelligence, and memory, our influences and conventions, rhythm and imagination, sound, narrative, history, and spontaneous play, as well as reference, emotion, the unconscious, and the music of language itself. As Robert Creeley put it simply, it is “a complex.”
Poetry resists just this kind of disclosure. To me, that is part of a poem’s unique power: ourinability to reduce it. In fact, poetry is already a reduction, or, as one of my undergraduate students said recently, “a compaction.”
Can I get an amen?
Forget all that you’ve learned. How many workshops taught me never to use a to be verb? That rule used to cripple me when I tried to write prose. Now, I write “was” and “is” as much as I want to. Open up a book by Faulkner and count the to be verbs. You’ll be shocked.
For me, finding a writing place is key. Find a place, a physical location. Clear your schedule and go to that place. Sit down for an hour and write. Do not worry if the writing is any good. Just write.
Writing is not something to turn on or turn off. It happens all the time. I have my characters in my head constantly. If I’m working on a poem, I’m constantly chewing over a phrase or a word or a line break. To be a writer, think like a writer.
Read. Read everything from the classics to contemporary genre stuff. Read poetry. Read fiction. Read essays. Read a book by China Mieville. Then read a book by James Joyce. Read Hemingway. Read James Baldwin. Read Tom Franklin. Read Virginia Woolf. Read outside your genre. Poets, read fiction. Fiction writers, read poetry. Essayists, read fiction and poetry. Read challenging writing. Read writing that makes you use a dictionary.
Read and learn. Read like a writer. Ask How does this writer get away with that?
Fall in love with language. Pick favorite words. Enjoy those words. Fall in love with the sounds of words, the intrinsic rhythms of language.
Let literary theorists worry about literary theory.
Imitate the writers you love. Imitation is how all children begin to learn, and imitation is how writers begin to write.
Forget about originality. Your writing is original because you are writing it. Stereotypes emerge from half-finished work. If you tell the truth (whatever that may be and however that may appear), then your writing will be fresh and original.
Don’t worry about developing a “voice.” Your voice will emerge as you write. Despite contemporary thought that tells us the intrinsic self is a fiction, you know who you are. Your writing will sound like you eventually.
Ignore writers who tell you that you can’t or should write a certain way. Ignore writers who tell you to avoid certain subjects. Ignore anyone who tries to tell you that your writing is not important.
Readers are important, but the story or essay or poem needs to please you first. Write the kind of work you want to read.
Do not quit. Develop a damned stubborn insistence on your own writing. Harry Crews says that writing is like fishing. You have to keep a worm in the water. Do not let a day go by without casting into the water.
Writing is thinking. Just because you don’t a new chapter or a new poem every day doesn’t mean that you’re not writing. Keep your head in your work.
Care enough about your writing to discipline it. Don’t pretend that grammar rules are beneath you. If you don’t care about your writing, why on earth would you expect anyone else to?
Revision isn’t “fixing errors.” Revision is figuring out what the story/poem/essay is all about. Revision is writing. Writing is revision.
Read your own work aloud. Listen to your words. Enjoy how they feel in your mouth. Practice visceral reading: emphasize syllables as you read. Try go find the music in your writing, be it poetry or prose.
Don’t worry about writing “literature.” History will decide whether or not your work stands the test of time.
Find a community of writers, folks who understand what you’re facing. Make friends. Swap work. Understand that while writing is a lonely business, a writer doesn’t have to be a lonely soul. Nix that “suffering artist” nonsense. There’s enough suffering in the world already.
I’ve been reading a lot of prose this summer: William Gay, Tom Franklin, Charles Frazier, Larry Brown, all southern novelists who have a love for the land and whose work reflects that love. I’m working on a book, myself, and I look to these writers for guidance and inspiration. And as much as I love reading their work, however, I often find myself simply overwhelmed, and I sink into this pit of self-doubt. I worry that I’ll never be as good a writer as any of these guys, and I think Why try?
This is a hard place for any writer to inhabit. On the one hand, I need the inspiration. When I study how Larry Brown seamlessly intertwines the third-person narrative voice with the character’s voice, I am driven to try something similar in my own prose. At the same time, I think, “If Brown did it this way, when why would you even try? He’s a master. You’re a journeyman, at best.”
There is no easy answer here. I’m driven to imitate Brown and Gay and Franklin and Richard Hugo and Yusef Komunyakaa and numerous other writers for the same reason I imitate Slash and Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan on guitar: the voice is one-of-a-kind; an irresistible charm comes over me when I hear it. No, I’ll never write a Larry Brown character any more than I’ll play a solo exactly as Slash does. But in my imitation, I slowly figure out my own voice, who I am on the page.
Poets talk a lot about voice, but fiction writers have a voice, too, a way of writing prose that is unquestionably their own. This voice is not something slap-dash, something thrown together. No matter how “natural” it sounds, I believe that this voice emerges from the wisdom accrued through revision and failure. The more you write, the more you fail. The more you fail, the more you learn. Then, you fail again, and, to quote Samuel Beckett, you fail better. And you fail better. And you fail better again.
I’m very hard on myself, and I don’t handle failure well. This probably explains why writing prose is hard for me. I’ve spent the better part of my writing career writing and reading poetry, and I think that I’ve come to some understanding of it. I am by no means a perfect poet (God, who is?), but I think I understand the genre, and I have an understanding of my own strengths and (many) weaknesses as a poet. Learning to write poetry was/is for me a process of failure, too. I have twice as many (perhaps three times as many) abandoned poems as I do successful poems. When I get frustrated writing prose (as I have been of late), it’s helpful to remember those failures that I’ve had as well as the failures that have yet to come.
Whitman said “Vivas for those who have failed.” He could have been talking to writers and artists everywhere. He likely was.
I’m still struggling to learn how to write prose. But I think, if there’s one thing that any successful writer has in common, it’s this: a damned, hard-headed, dogged persistence. You write, you fail, and you write again. Back to it. The page is waiting.
It was a common scene in any given undergraduate workshop in which I was enrolled: the group would discuss a poem, and afterward, the poet, connecting her life with her art would say something like, “But that’s how it happened.”
The professor would then swiftly remind the young poet that life is life and art is art. Just because something happened in life doesn’t mean that a reader has to accept it in writing. The class moved on to the next poem or short story, and the lesson stuck in my head. Over the years, I have struggled with this tension between life and art.
Last night, I was lying awake, thinking about a possible poem: my mother used to clean houses to help make ends meet. She worked a split shift at the local telephone company, and in the four hour break between shifts, she picked up my brother and I from school, got us home, cleaned a house, came back home, made supper, and headed back to work. Thinking about that routine, I became fascinated by the duality of it all: two jobs, two sons, two homes, two worlds, two lives, and so on. I imagined the structure would be in couplets to emphasize the two-ness of the poem.
Then, as I tried to work out the opening lines in my head, I began to think about how much of my writing emerges this way: from life experience. It’s not such a strange thing, really. I think that many writers turn to the page to make sense of the world. But in the workshops I took, I was taught that on the page itself, I learned that my life didn’t matter all that much. Only the writing mattered.
I don’t want to give the impression that my professors were terrible people. I had wonderful teachers, all caring mentors who helped me as I struggled to learn how to write. Particularly Ed Pavlic at the University of Georgia pushed and prodded me, helping me to find my poetic voice. Without his advice, I’m certain that I would still be struggling to rewrite John Donne and Mark Jarman. Without Ed’s influence, I’d be the same poet I was ten years ago and not constantly evolving and restlessly experimenting.
My teachers, however, knew my writing, not my life. The lines I spun were more important in the classroom that the experience that inspired those lines. My teachers understood that editors and potential publishers knew only the words on the page, not the awkward balding big man with glasses who wrote poetry to try to make sense of his place in the world.
Yet, I can’t ignore my life. I can’t pretend that I don’t write from experience. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many brilliant writers in my life, poets and fiction writers and essayists motivated by theory and poetics. Their work is widely praised and rightly so. But my writing is less theoretical, less motivated by a poetics and more experiential. In many circles, that fact makes me a second-tier poet. In writing about my life, I risk sentimentality. But I think that every piece of art should run that risk.
Of course, I realize that my life experience is a kind of fiction. What I remember about my childhood is very much a narrative I’ve built over the years. But that narrative emerges from actual fact—things that I remember happening. And when I write about those things, I realize that the artifact that emerges (the poem itself) is not the actual experience but a kind of re-writing of that experience. I guess that in writing about my life, I am trying to re-write my past. For each poem, then, I have two memories: the experience that inspired the poem and the poem itself. And at various times, one is the shadow and one is the fire. One is the tenor and one is the vehicle.
For me, the necessary fiction of poetry makes the experience bearable. The poem distances the reality, and the reality focuses the poem.
This is starting to get tangled, and I don’t want to suggest that every poem I write works this way. For me, writing a poem happens mainly in revision, when I am fine-tuning lines, reading the work aloud, and trying to find the poem’s shape. In that process, the experience fades into the background, little more than white noise at the edge of my consciousness.
But in the end, when the poem is abandoned (says Valery), I am left with a thing (artifact? by-product?) of both artifice and experience. It’s trite to say yin and yang, so I won’t. I will say that in the end, my life and my writing have become so entangled that when I read my work, I often can’t remember the actual events any more. I remember only what the poem allows me to remember. And I think that’s enough.
I wrote a poem for a friend last night, someone I’ve know for a good while now who recently had a death in the family. I’m staying abstract in my description because I don’t want to talk about the poem or its subject. Instead, I want to focus on something I noticed as I revised the piece: how my imagination and the natural world seem indelibly melded.
Writing the poem, I started out with the image of pine pollen on a car windshield, a common springtime sight here in South Georgia. As the poem took shape, some natural associations of spring and winter emerged: spring as rebirth/ revitalization time and winter as death/ end of life. At first, as I worked on the piece, I rejected these associations. I wanted to do something “new.”
As I’ve thought about the poem, though, I’ve been wondering if my associations are tied to art/literature or to real life. And no, I don’t have a problem with the term real life. Despite what some post-post-postmodern mumbo-jumbo would have us believe, there is difference between life and art. The world is not merely a text.
Do I associate spring with rebirth because all the poems and literature I’ve read over the years have told me to do so? Or, is there something inherent in the blossoming dogwoods that touches some deep, metaphysical part of me (call it a soul, call it psyche; just know you can’t measure it)? I suppose this question is unanswerable. But just because a question doesn’t have a definite answer doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t ponder it.
The question is aesthetic as well as metaphysical. If in creating art, I must always seek to defamiliarize and make new, then shouldn’t I always seek to distance my poetry from standard associations? Should my writing never associate spring with rebirth? I’m engaging in a bit of either/or thinking here, I realize. But as someone who values good writing and appreciates the challenge of a difficult poem, I find these questions urgent.
Writers can’t escape who they are. Whatever we write, we find ourselves speaking, above all, as ourselves, either through the lyric I or through some dramatic guise. So, if there is some part of me that associates spring with rebirth, then my poetry will naturally have that inclination, as well, unless I temper it or work against that impulse. And I’m not arguing that I shouldn’t. I wonder, though, if I’m giving up some essential part of my by rejecting this association. Should I reject it simply because I worry that a reader (or editor) will say, “Oh, this is trite and old. Everyone knows that spring equals rebirth. Yawn”? At what point am I lying as a writer? At what point am I lying as a person?
“Poetry,” Robert Frost said, “provides the one permissible way to say one thing and to mean another.” His statement reveals a lot about the way Frost thought about poetry: for him, it’s metaphorical and intentional. The surface of the poem (say, the subject matter) says very little about its depth. And if in that depth, my associations of spring and rebirth appear time and again, then so be it. Perhaps in the act of saying one thing and meaning another, poets stumble through a linguistic landscape only. But in that linguistic landscape, poets surely find shadows of the real, even if those shadows are cast by words.
Below, I've listed fifteen random poetry prompts, some I've used, and some I've never used. Some I made up off the top of my head; others were taught to me by various teachers and writers over the years.
If you're a regular visitor to my blog, let me apologize for my lack of posts. I've no other excuse save this: I teach college composition, and I've been doing a *lot* of grading.
If one of the prompts below leads to a particularly interesting poem, please feel free to send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to read it.
If you enjoy this kind of thing, be sure to visit Robert Lee Brewer's website, Poetic Asides. A He posts weekly poetry prompts and advice for writers.
Drop me a line below if you have any ideas for writing prompts.