Maintaining Poetic Fluency

A poet must develop fluency in poetry through constant reading and practice. A poet must also maintain that fluency. As with any language, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Is poetry really a language unto itself? All I can say is that poetry is a different way of communicating than prose and everyday speech. For example, compression and ellipsis, figurative language, sound patterning, and non-linear movement of time are poetic devices that can distract in prose. And as a language undoubtedly influences the mindset of the speaker, so it is with poetry, which is as much a way of seeing the world as it is a way of talking about it.

Once gained, to maintain poetic fluency is ongoing work. One is neither born with it nor struck with it in lightning-bolt moments of inspiration. Knowing this, I try not to let too many days go by without making at least one poetic decision. Writing a poem is really a series of poetic decisions. But when I am not actively working on a poem, this can be as simple as writing one line or a single image. It can be copying out by hand in my notebook a poem I like written by someone else, and pondering the poetic decisions that poet made. It can be deep readings of poems, during which I ask questions: Where is the high point, the crisis, of the poem? Can I capture it and examine it like a firefly in a jar? How is the poem’s energy generated? Is there action and contrast? Does this poem move me? If I am unmoved, why? Can this poem or something in it become the jumping off point for another?

Image: Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation, 19th c.

Notebook Excerpts

I have a growing desire to write in three dimensions, to sculpt text rather than paint it.  To use words as mixed media.  More shadow and space where mystery can rush in.  To manipulate poetry, to construct it (not so much a poem as a construction) rather than simply (hear the bland intonation) write it.


The question of how to get shorter line breaks.  I don’t want them to seem unnatural.  It’s a frame of mind.  See the line breaks of tanka.  See the slowing-downness.  Not slowness, necessarily, but the process of slowing.  Noticing.  Chewing on something.  Setting a thought apart — not letting the mind race, but letting it settle.  In some ways is it the opposite of a prose poem, which lets the lines sprawl so luxuriously till line breaks cease to be?  There can often be “another ordinary day” feel to prose poems.  Then there’s the setting off from the rest, the highlighting, the calling attention to, the deliberateness, that comes with line breaks, especially shorter lines.  Something arranged, or composed, like a collection of stones on a shelf.  That’s the conceptual art of it.  (The artist Joseph Beuys always left plenty of space.)


Saw Adelia Prado read last night.  She was absolutely connected to the words, invested in them, not cavalier about them like some poets can seem when they read.  She read slowly, clearly, and forcefully.

She stopped once to catch her breath from sadness.  She wept.  She placed a fist over her heart.  She raised her palm in the air.  That old auditorium with periodic tables of the elements suspended from the ceiling was transformed.

“I don’t write with my head or my heart,” she said, “but with my gut.”