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.
I like how Nobel Prize-winning poet Tomas Tranströmer talked about his poetry:
My poems are meeting places. Their intent is to make sudden connections between aspects of reality that conventional languages ordinarily keep apart. Large and small details of the landscape meet, divided cultures and people flow together in a work of art. Nature meets industry, etc. What looks at first like a confrontation turns out to be a connection. (Quoted by poet and Tranströmer translator Malena Mörling, here: https://uncw.edu/writers/faculty/morling.html)
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.
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.