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.

Energy

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.