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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

How to Write a Poem (ii)

VII.  The first line of a poem must be given (donnée). It must pop into your head just like that.  I have had many lines appear to me for which I found no continuation:  "My father was not beaten as a child." The first line of a poem must be great, or there is no hope for the rest of the poem.  Can you think of a poem that starts off badly and is still great?  I'm sure there have to be lines less good in "I knew a woman, lovely in her bones" than the first one. Or "Among twenty snowy mountains."

I just had one this morning:  "There is a randomness in my heart." I can imagine this as the beginning of one of my bad poems quite easily. I have no idea where it came from or where it might lead, but it sounds off-kilter enough to be a good beginning.

VIII. When you think of a line from a poem, you can think of it in two ways.  You can think of it as a phrase someone might say in real life, or as a special kind of utterance.  Now a real life sentence might not work in a poem, because you think that the poet has not taken the first step in writing poetry. He might just be incompetent, and not know that you just can't do that.  On the other hand, a poet who seems to know that a poem has to sound different will write in a pretentious diction. We ask her to write lines that someone might think of using in real life.  So there is a narrow band of language that works somehow as both special utterance and language borrowed from real utterances.  It has a poetic charge to it even though the words don't seem particularly different from what someone might say.

Duncan uses an elevated tone:

I am liable in the late afternoon
lingering to remember in the various cities
the familiar streets, clock-tower, magnolias,
to remember, reconstructing yet not 
faultlessly as then, for the singular vision
has departed, reconstructing the cities
in sand, not faultlessly, roughly,
impatiently...   ["Fragment: 1940"; The Year as Catches 15]

This works for him (not always though). His ear is musical. Even when you don't feel he writes perfectly, his poetry is true to a particular conception of what poetic ought to be. I could select lines and passages from this book of early poetry to try to convince you he is a bad poet, but he is also a poet capable of the lines I've just cited.

There is another aesthetic called "ars est celare artem."  The idea is to write without any obvious poeticism, but without prosaic flatness either.  The artfulness is concealed rather than overt. So you would have Creeley instead of Duncan.

If we look at contemporary poets, we can see that each one has to come up with an individual solution.  Some depend on the inherently poetic qualities of language in its raw state, so that they can incorporate historical documents or bits of conversation without effort. Some work with parody, deliberately muted effects, or a compressed but slightly precious diction.

IX. One way of approaching all of this is to start with poets who are obsessed with craft, like the poets of the Objectivists and Black Mountain School, with some New York School thrown in.  You should read Ronald Johnson, Ken Irby, Eigner, Levertov, Niedecker, Ceravolo. Among the poets favored by the more academic side, you need to read Jean Valentine and Elizabeth Bishop.  It is hard to imagine being a good poet without having assimilated poets like these.  Early James Tate is also excellent.

You can get an excessively strained and stiff quality to your writing, though, if you never loosen up a bit. You need to explore the forbidden side too, break some taboos. What do you fear?  Fine writing?  Sentimentality?  Pretention?  You might be paralyzed by a fear of being thought not talented, or by an avoidance of any number of things.  It is hard to hit the sweet spot where the writing is going to feel just right.

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