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.

Poetry Challenge

All I’s on Me

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.

Ekphrasis

When writing an ekphrastic poem, it’s never enough to simply describe a scene; one must inhabit it.  And to inhabit a scene is to be there as a living being who is a creature in and of time, not removed from time, not observing from the cool distance of timelessness.

It’s true, however, that a picture is time stopped, a moment removed from all the other moments flowing before and, especially, after it.  The way scientists remove a core sample from the earth in order to run tests in the lab, the painter or photographer has taken a core sample of time, the better to meditate on a particular moment.  In so doing, one hope is that from the particular we may experience some larger truth.

An engaged viewer returns a picture to time’s animation.  The poet who uses a work of art as a starting point is doing just this.  And what it means is the picture is allowed to live, allowed all the gifts of time: action and transformation chief among them.  Shadows lengthen.  Icarus disappears into the sea without a trace, and the water’s surface is seamless again.  The girl making lace feels a sudden rush of rebellion in her fingers.

Poetry Resources

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.

Starting Out:

“Advice for Beginning Poets” from Wesley McNair’s Mapping the Heart: Reflections on Place and Poetry

The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser

Creating Poetry by John Drury

Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio

Any Time:

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield

The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo

Claims for Poetry, Donald Hall, ed.

A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, Friebert et al., eds.

The Art of series by Graywolf Press:      

     The Art of Description by Mark Doty      

     The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach    

     The Art of Attention by Donald Revell      

     The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt

Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, Michael Thuene, ed.

Leaping Poetry by Robert Bly

Exercises:

The Practice of Poetry, Behn and Twichell, eds.

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp (exercises for artists in all genres)

General Writing Advice:

Writing With Power, Peter Elbow

If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland

Poetry Anthologies, etc.:

The Oxford Book of American Poetry, David Lehman, ed.

The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (two volumes), Jahan Ramazani et al., eds.

The Book of Luminous Things, Czeslaw Milosz, ed.

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics

Online:

Poetry Daily

Verse Daily

www.poets.org (Academy of American Poets)

www.poetryfoundation.org

As always, the best education for a poet at any level is to consume poetry widely – in journals, books, online, and at readings.  To write poetry, one must also read and listen to it.

Image: Learn, Learn, Learn by Evgeni Katsman