Nonfic: Poems of the gut

Almost none of my poems are written to please anybody but myself.  I suspect that sounds arrogant, but I don’t mean it in an arrogant sense — but rather in a sense that, as an artist, I’m trying to follow my own interests, and I’m not wanting to follow a standard of “what would others like?” 

I often read with my creative writing students an essay by the poet Richard Hugo that has stuck with me.  He says a couple things: that when one writes poetry, there is nobody looking over one’s shoulder.  He says that if you want to communicate with others, use a telephone (rather than a poem).  He at one point says things like: you owe the truth nothing—that if a town has nineteen residents but “seventeen” would make for a better sound-fit in the poem, go with seventeen.  He also says that a poet might not know when to end a poem except that he/she feels the poem is done—and I guess that’s the guideline I’ve been learning to use.

And I emphasize “learning” because I think the most important thing I’ve learned about creative writing in recent years is to get rid of feeling I had to write to a standard, to a model, of what a creative work should be. It felt like a hard-earned lesson to allow myself to accept whatever came out of my creative process.  Now, I don’t mean that I would accidentally write some description of brutality or something–I’m not writing in an unconscious trance—but I do mean that it is OK that I would write something, for instance, about headstones that “bleed sand,” even though that was a somewhat more-dramatic-sounding description than I had originally meant.

When I free-write a poem, writing down almost every word or phrase that comes to mind, I take the good (interesting) bits and the dull, cliché bits. The key of freewriting is for me to be accepting of everything, as open-minded as possible. Later I keep the bits that interest me the most, and I rearrange and try variations of these things, and I discard the parts that don’t interest me. I want to write a poem that surprises me.  I don’t want to have the poem planned out in my mind before I start writing. I feel rewarded by a writing process of freewriting and being attentive to the possibilities of what’s happening on the page. (I find much less satisfying a process where I’m just filling in the blanks of a story or poem whose outline I have previously decided to use.) The danger, and what I had to learn to stop doing, is being overly self-critical in this early process.  I freewrite the poem, I edit it as I go, and when I feel I’m done—when there is some kind of valuable (interesting) thing happening in a poem, and there is nothing that greatly detracts from that—I’m done. 

Months later, I can be a much more critical judge of whether a poem is still interesting or not.  But even so, I sometimes will still put on my blog a poem that I may not be entirely pleased with, or I may be pleased with it but expect that others may not feel the same. A blog is a public form, it is publishing, but even there, I don’t want to be too conservative, too self-critical, too self-limiting of what I’m willing to publish.  If I want to expand the types of poems that readers (including myself) are willing to accept as poetry, I need to be willing to publish these difficult, imperfect things—but then, all poems are imperfect in the sense that any judgment of perfection is judging a particular thing against some standard model—and I want to broaden (or de-legitimize) that standard model.

That said, I clearly have not put readers’ satisfaction as my priority.  However, it’s not my intent to make people feel they are inadequate to my poems.  I mean, I think it’s perfectly fine for people to not like a poem — in fact, I find it more interesting to like or not like poems without trying to understand them.  I know understanding, seeking meaning, is what Lit classes often ask us to do, but that seems a very narrow and even peculiar way to approach a text.  A student a few years back asked me what I thought a poem meant — I said I didn’t know, and actually, I didn’t really try to find out.  As you said, trying to find meaning feels like a game — who can analyze and generalize—and it’s my opinion lately that this game can be kind of pointless.  I feel like I’ve mastered it, and now it bores me.  It’s a little like a game I do with my students of comparing things: we compare apples and oranges, and my students find several commonalities (they’re both spherical fruit, both grown on trees, both are juiced for food, etc), and then I challenge them to compare very different entities—say, apples and love—and the students generally find some commonalities there too; they just go more abstract (both words have an “e” in their spelling, both are symbolized with the color red, etc). Any two things can be compared if one is creative in finding attributes by which comparisons may be made. And this is a fun game for a while, but is ultimately pretty unsatisfying for me.  It’s too easy anymore. 

But there are so many other ways to read and interact with and react to a text — just by reading things aloud, for example.  That Beowulf talks of his “word-horde” instead of a “vocabulary” not only tells us a bit about his character and his “voice” (the particular flavor of his personality/consciousness/sensibility), it also excites (if obliquely, semi-consciously) that part of my brain that thrills to new words.  (I’ve been making this semi-conscious word-reaction more conscious over the years I’ve been teaching and writing poetry.)  We can react to all language utterances (but particularly poetry) in a way analogous to how we react to hearing a joke: we laugh, or groan, or don’t laugh, but we don’t sit and analyze it—not at first, certainly.  Later, we may appreciate the insight or the construction of a joke, but at first hearing, we laugh, or we don’t.  This is a non-abstract reaction—it’s a very visceral, nearly automatic (via the quick language-processing in our brains) reaction. We take in the form of the joke (well, we may recognize the form of a joke, and some jokes make us laugh by upending this form), and the funny sounds of the words used, without consciously analyzing — and this is what I’m suggesting can be a way to read poetry. We can read a poem, especially aloud, and like it or not like it almost immediately. 

(Of course, there can be value in close-reading, and it’s valuable to try some poems you may not immediately like — but, as I tell my students, you are under no obligation to like any poem.  If it doesn’t click for you, let it go, find another one.)

And so, some of the poems I’ve put on my blog are more accessible than others. Some have clearer images than others.  Some poems may seem more “deep” than others.  But when I write, I’m looking for things that interest me, and what interests me is usually an intuitive, gut-type reaction.  Maybe Eliot wrote dense, allusive poetry that was intended to keep out all but the most learned—but if that’s the case, that intent seems much less sophisticated than it does juvenile. For me, I question myself whenever I feel like I want a poem to have some particular effect.  That’s not why I write poetry.  I write it to feel the engagement of the writing process, and to create something that surprises me, something I haven’t seen before.

I’m not trying to intimidate anyone—I feel like, rather, I would invite readers to turn off their intellects, their analytical machinery (not that that’s fully possible), while they read. I’d ask readers of poetry not to feel intimidated by any poem. Some poems may be written allusively. Some may not.  But I think the problem is the expectation that we should stand in awe of poetry, and that we should be able to puzzle out a meaning.  How tedious it would be to read poems if that were one’s attitude.

Rather, I like the sentiment (along with enjoying the particular words, the poetry, used here) Marianne Moore mentions in her poem “Poetry“:

“I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond/ all this fiddle./ Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one/ discovers in/ it after all, a place for the genuine./ Hands that can grasp, eyes/ that can dilate, hair that can rise if it must, these things are important not because a high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because/ they are/ useful.”

Also, Emily Dickinson’s quote about how she senses poetry:  “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?”

I like that these two definitions both refer to physical reactions one might have to reading a poem, rather than intellectual reactions. The trouble with poetry is letting ourselves be dumb (non-intellectual) enough to read it.

Beyond that, there can be many reactions to a poem—I can like a particular poem’s gruff language, or another poem’s florid language, without wanting every poem to be gruff or florid.  And likewise, sometimes a poem will contain a line or image that strikes me as fascinating, that grabs my attention, which line or image may convey a sense of a particular character’s voice or a particular mood, and this voice and this mood don’t have to be universal to be valuable, but valuable because of their particularity.

Afterthoughts:  In talking about how I’m writing poetry, perhaps I’ve been dismissive of writing to a model.  I don’t intend to denigrate that method of writing — there are many occasions when producing a text that follows a model is quite valuable.  (This explanation, for instance, is in the model of a letter.) I just mean to say that, in my poetry, my interest now is in going beyond models. 

Also, after writing the ideas above, I thought that I’d like to make this the basis of my creative writing class—the idea that poetry is physical and not intellectual, that we don’t want to think about poems. What’s been a funny experience for me in recent years is memorizing poems without thinking too hard about their overall theme, and then, years after I memorized them, realizing that I understood them.  I guess that’s why I like the freewriting method, not planning things out too much: it allows my subconscious/semiconscious mind to contribute to my writing, and those minds are wiser, more observant, etc, than my conscious intellect is.

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