Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On Writing (Modern) Poetry

Numerous are the legions of "poems", whose well rendered words are perfectly metered or rhymed, and maybe even chosen with such care so as to defy any suggestion of triteness or triviality, but who lack any real anima or soul. A "good" poem however, exists beyond the mere confines of its language.

There's an almost mystical quality to the process of writing a good poem; one might even assert that in fact, a poem isn't so much "written" as realized. I'll explain by personal example: When I sit down to "write" a poem, I pay little attention to the words I'm going to use, the form it's going to take, etc. Instead, I open myself to the soul of the poem; "what exactly do I need to convey?" Believe it or not, this is usually an almost painless process. When a real poem is ready to be born, it just won't be denied!

The next step is somewhat harder: getting out of the poem's way.
Anyone who has sat at their desk, a cafe table, on the edge of a cliff, etc., wishing to "compose a great poem", will have no doubt found themselves painting with broad strokes of ego. This is annoying, and almost never results in an enjoyable, interesting or enlightening poem. That's not to say that one can't write a great piece that exhibits his or her own point of view, (think "Two roads diverge in a wood...",) but it must not come from the desire to "prove something", or force something down the reader's throat, otherwise it'll result in little more than a self indulgence at the reader's (or audience's) expense.

Try instead, to allow the poem to be organic. I've found that thinking of it as a living thing, with its own set of needs and desires, helps me do this. This is very handy when it comes to the next step: editing.

When I edit a poem, I do my best to remove any extraneous content that might interfere with its purity. Usually, I begin this process with a chainsaw, and only later, when I’ve hacked off a sufficient amount of “fat”, do I go back in with a scalpel, finely trimming here and there, surgically shaping it. A good poem is, if anything, distilled.

Adjectives and adverbs are poetic potholes!
When Gary Snyder wrote "The Dead By The Side Of The Road", he relied on the cleanest prose:
" Zac skinned a skunk with a crushed head
washed the pelt in gas; it hangs,
tanned, in his tent"

He could have expended great energy on adjective laden descriptions, but instead he allowed the events or the moment to move it forward. Therefore, it has energy and immediacy.

This is equally true of both Raymond Carver's and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's work. Neither provokes inertia with wasted adjective or metaphor; When Ferlinghetti writes

"Johnny Nolan has a patch on his ass
Kids chase him
thru screendoor summers"

there's nothing unnecessary; in fact, the only adjective employed- "screendoor", is so new and specific, that it almost disappears, or takes on the same quality of motion as the rest of the poem.

Lastly, don't impose some artificial format on your poem. A poem, being organic, and having its own needs, tends to grow into its own form. This is not to say that there aren't some great and very enjoyable formalized poems; the dusty world of "Poetry" (notice the capitalized "P") is littered with them, but modern sensibilities tend to relegate these to the realm of the "quaint", and (rather unfairly,) the boring, so while I very much enjoy work by the likes of Donne, Wordsworth and Coleridge, the type of writing I'm discussing here is more akin to that of Snyder, Carver and Ferlinghetti.

Early readers of these three must have experienced one of three possible reactions:
"That's not poetry!",
"That's poetry?" -or-
"That's poetry!" .
All three largely disregarded earlier Western notions of what a poem is. Snyder studied and emulated Japanese and Chinese poetry with its pared down sensibilities. Ferlinghetti tuned into the music of the world around him, and Carver wrote almost as if he was writing fiction, which just happened to be readable as a poem. Whether one enjoys any of these approaches or not, it’s undeniable, that these three did something new, something interesting, something enjoyable, and something irrevocably poetic!

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