Are artists expected to paint only self-portraits? Authors to write just memoir? Of course not. It is interesting to ask why we might place such limitations on poets, then. If confessional has come to be a default mode for contemporary American poetry, what might we be missing out on? Poetry challenge: Create a poem without the I-word.
I am sometimes asked to recommend resources for students of poetry and for poets looking to hone their craft (or pull out of a rut). Collected here are just some of the books and links that I have found particularly helpful over the years for myself and my students.
A strategy I’ve found helpful when working with a recalcitrant poem at any stage is to overwrite/underwrite. The idea is this: take the problem poem and pump up the volume—write in all the little details you left out because you didn’t think they were relevant, add plenty of descriptors, add the action that gets us from point A to point B that your better angels whispered to leave out, get more associations and images in there, go all out. Elaborate. Complicate. Give the poem a hefty dose of growth hormone. You can either take the frame of the existing poem and add to it, or start from scratch and just take the original idea and go baroque.
When you’re as done as you’re going to be, step back and take a look. It’ll seem unwieldy at first, but try to find the hotspots, the power points, the places of essential energy. Then—surprise—reduce the whole thing to a gesture drawing. Try to capture in as few strokes as possible the thing you need to say. Compress until your poem releases the essential oil contained in its petals.
In this process of elaborate and compress, best carried out over several sessions, you’ll learn something important about the poem you were trying to write. Now use that new knowledge, that new feeling, to write the poem as it was meant to be, neither overdone nor underdone, but this time, just right.
I keep coming back to a statement by Robert Bly that “every poem has to have images and ideas and some sort of troubled speaker” (Turkish Pears in August). The notion of a troubled speaker captured my attention right away. It gets at two very essential questions about poetry: for the poet, why one is writing a poem in the first place, and for the reader, why one should even care.
“Troubled speaker” means someone bothered by something, trying to work something out. And all of us are daily engaged in working things out – it’s what makes us human. But it is the artist’s job to give voice to this process, to acknowledge the uneasiness, the doubt, the fear, the awe, the surprise, the difficulty, the dizziness, the contradiction that is at the heart of the human experience.
It’s a useful question to ask of any poem: what’s bothering the poem’s speaker? To pinpoint the unease is one way of unlocking a poem. Here’s “The Broken Sandal,” a short poem by Denise Levertov.
In this poem, the speaker feels suddenly disoriented. She is faced with a decision, one she feels ill-equipped to make – either continue moving, which may involve pain, or come to a standstill. Either way, the unforeseen turn of events disturbs the speaker and raises questions about her present and her future. There must have been something she was moving toward, she feels, and she wants to work out whether or not it is worth suffering for.
A friend of mine, the poet MRB Chelko, once told me she thinks of poems as questions. This insight is similar to Bly’s. I have found it very helpful to conceive of poems this way — as a seeking after, as a search. And I am coming to learn that a poem without this energy goes nowhere.
How, as a reader, do you know when a poem is over? That’s easy – you run out of lines to read. The question gets tricky, however, when we talk about the poet: it’s not as easy as saying that the writer knows a poem is over when she runs out of lines to write. It’s a fascinating question, though, and one that every poet has to grapple with on an almost daily basis.
In a recent interview in the American Poetry Review, John Ashbery asserts that a “timer goes off” when the poem he’s working on is done, and he’s found that it’s futile to keep writing after that figurative ding!. Reading that, I get this weird and wonderful image of a poem as a mass of yeasty dough that you’ve got to knead and let ferment and then shape into a loaf and toss in the oven – after all that work the cook can only wait for the bread to be done in its own time, and there’s that perfect moment of golden-brownness and hollow thump when you rap it’s underside with your knuckles.
There are plenty of other ways of looking at how a poem runs its course. In grad school I had a professor say that just when you think it’s done, take one more step. Push yourself a little bit further over the threshold you constructed, open the door, and walk through. You might be surprised at what you find. To this wisdom I’ve added the notion that what a particular poem might need is the very opposite move — for the writer to take a step back, to turn away from that door, to leave something unsaid.
Maybe moving a poem toward its ending is like rock climbing: finding the right foothold. Do I grab hold of this outcrop here, put my toe in that crack? Is it wise to try and reach that ledge over there, or should I shoot for that crevice instead? It’s a game of finesse. One move may be safe and one may be more risky. You have to keep weighing alternatives again and again without becoming paralyzed by analysis, but it’s what gets you to the summit.
Taking the poem in a surprising direction, the volta, or turn, usually associated with the sonnet, has the capacity to open, widen, or even detonate a poem as it draws to a close. That’s exciting. I’d like to see contemporary free verse engage more in this kind of vigorous movement. It’s healthy and it gets the blood flowing.
I look at poems I love by Frank O’Hara, Wallace Stevens, Yannis Ritsos, Emily Dickinson, Zbigniew Herbert, and others, and part of what I love about each one is that the ending leaves me feeling like I have witnessed something true, and it leaves me exhilarated or unsettled or grateful, but never indifferent. It’s true that I want the entire poem to make me feel, and the best poems do, but there is something that a poem’s ending can accomplish which makes the finishing line crucial to the success of the whole. O’Hara suddenly pleads with his father to “forgive the roses and me” (“To My Dead Father”) in the final line of his poem, and it is a complication of what has come before instead of a closure, but it is the perfect ending.
A good poem generates energy, or better yet, is energy. What does this mean? That there’s action and contrast. Movement. Transformation. To better understand, ponder the opposite: stasis, inertia. Passivity and monotony.
To make an image or idea dynamic means to give it something to spark against, to put it into contact with something else. You could try banging a flint against empty space, but nothing will come of it. Take a poem you love and examine how the sparks are created. Do the images and ideas interact, bang into each other like excited atoms, or are they suspended in a sterile environment, cool and aloof?
I try to keep thinking about energy not only during the writing process but also (and perhaps especially) during revision. Having images and ideas already on paper to work with – to rearrange, expand upon, cut, simplify, complicate, connect – makes the job of activation easier.