Tuesday, February 28, 2006

For the Student of Poetry Who Asked me to Elaborate:

Excerpt From: Walt McDonald ~ ADVICE I WISH I'D BEEN TOLD

"Abstractions and generalizations are like chunks of lead tossed on a pond of water — " the art of sinking in poetry." Abstractions are hired assassins; they're paid to hold you hostage, to keep you bound to your couch, in house arrest. They don't want you to travel, to see the vivid images of other regions; they hope you won't discover what you're missing. Now let's stop and admit some obvious facts about the craft of writing:

1) There are no rules. All I can do is describe what works for me in the best poems I read. All I can do is share the best advice I can to help you write better poems; all I can promise is to focus on what I admire.

2) Let's admit it: for some readers "anything goes" — just as in human behavior. Anything you wouldn't do in a civilized society (or in wilderness!), someone will do — and not simply get away with it, but may even be applauded for it. But why should I urge you to write like someone whose poems aren't the most exciting poems I can find?

3) In some of today's journals, you'll find anything — from sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas to blank verse, language poems, free verse, prose poems, poems that look like grocery lists, bits of flabby prose, and worse. We know what a sonnet is. But now and then, someone will chop up a piece of pedestrian prose and give it a title such as "Sonnet." It may be the opposite of what we call a sonnet. But someone somewhere will publish it — even if in his garage on a second-hand mimeograph machine with a stapler. And that doesn't mean that good poems aren't sometimes published in such conditions.

4) Some poems are more powerful than others. Some give us more pleasure packed in a few words than we expected to find. I'm amazed at how some writers can make simple words implode. The images are stunning, vivid, and sensuous. I see and believe the lines. The poem is an intense experience; it doesn't merely tell me about something.

5) There's a difference between language that is utilitarian — merely for information — and language that tries to pack the maximum pleasure in words.

a) Utilitarian language is explosive, going outward, like a puff of smoke that evaporates and is gone (e.g. yesterday's newspaper, instructions that I'm grateful for when I start assembling a toy.)

b) Emotional language is implosive (e.g., fiction, poetry, powerful non-fiction prose, scriptures). Emotional language doubles in on itself, or implodes, for maximum pleasure — sounds, rhythms, images that conjure our deepest emotions. I'm compelled by emotional language that packs a power; at its best, language is striking, implosive.

Writing the emotional equivalent of feelings and ideas is a goal we probably can't ever reach; but intentionally to do less is too easy. Louis Simpson said the goal of poetry "is to make words disappear." Usually, we look through the glass of a window to see through the glass, not to focus on the spots or streaks. "

Appeared in Valparaiso Poetry Review: Contemporary Poetry and Poetics
Vol.1, No.1 - Fall/Winter 1999-2000


Billy Jones said...

If only I'd been told this before I started.

Nick said...

You and me both!