The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

Back in Iowa (What Are We Writing?)

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Poetry.  Duh.  But if only it were that simple.  The permutations of the mode are incalculable, which is one thing that makes it so damn hard.  And which is why your English teachers made you wander lonely as a cloud.  And which is why so many people stay away from it.

But I don’t want people to stay away from poetry—especially when it’s mine!  I want people to come into poetry, to be able to feel their way around inside it, enjoy their short visit, and to emerge from it with something new and worthwhile.  Seems I’m in the minority at times in the workshop.

I said before that I ignore poems that don’t invite me in.  As our keenly skilled workshop leader asked:  Where can you put your feet down inside the poem?  If I can’t put my feet down inside the poem, if I can’t feel grounded and have something to stand on while I explore the poem, I really don’t want to deal with it.  But here in a workshop, my strong bias about how poetry should be written really isn’t fair to my fellow poets because I’m tempted to shelve their poems sometimes and see what others come up with during discussion.  I’d be insulted if they didn’t put an appropriate effort into my poem, and I’ve kicked myself for not researching some empowerment advertising and woodland Impressionist painting, both of which came up in the same poem, so I’ve realized I need to work harder on how I deal with my bias when others are depending upon me.  I’ve had to suppress my feelings about lines if not entire poems I couldn’t make sense of, suppress thoughts that the poet is trying to be elevated, avant garde, or New Yorker-istic–all to what end?  What’s the point if the poem is pushing me away rather than inviting me in?

As so often is true when I’m dealing with poetry…  the problem is me.  At least partly.  This doesn’t account for those who are writing over their heads with no clear understanding of why other than it’s en vogue to write a certain way and they saw it somewhere.  And that is happening.  The exalted workshop leader says to start with the discrete elements of the poem, those building blocks that we all know and that most every poem contains.  Things like sound devices, structure, allusions, metaphors–that which we already can feel and know and can work with.  This is sound advice (no pun intended).  In fact, it’s a fundamental of pedagogy to start with that which is concrete and move to that which is abstract.  So put your feet down on some solid stuff and move into less solid stuff later on.  There’s no need to feel mastery of a poem from the moment of diving in.  That’s an enormous thing with which to task oneself, and—my god the ego of someone to expect that of himself!  So I’ve been starting with those discreet elements, and damned if I haven’t been able to “crack the code,” at least partially, on some of the more whack stuff my fellow poets have been writing.  It doesn’t make some of that stuff any less whack, but it does make me a more skilled reader and editor of poetry, and (you guessed it) makes me a better poet.

Like it or not, I have to make the move toward some of the more “abstract” poems that I am currently descrying.  That will signify a move towards more sophisticated poetry on my part.  But damn it, I’m moving at my pace and I’m still clinging to my belief of inviting the reader into the poem.  Maybe that makes me a populist poet, or a socialist poet, but so what?  Every John Stockton layup counted the same as every Michael Jordan high-flying slam dunk (and Stockton wasn’t a cheater!).  None of that means my poetry can’t have artistry and sophistication.  It can have all that so long as it’s wrapped in my voice and is coming at my pace.

I keep coming back to this idea of inviting readers into the poem.  I preach this to my students.  This all comes from the best advice I ever got about writing poetry.  It was in an interview with Jack Ridl in the 15th Anniversary edition of Sport Literate:

Students very often, because they are taught that poems should be difficult, try to have their reader figure out the poem.  So students think that poems should be hard.  But students seldom get to experience those complicated poems.  They figure them out and then they move on to the next difficult poem.  But they never really read them.  I don’t want to figure out that a poem is about a dog.  Just tell me.  Now I’m in that experience with you.  All kinds of things can open up because you’ve given me the bottom line.  I’m not telling someone to write a dense poem.  It’s that Donne didn’t write a poem thinking, “This will be hard to figure out.”

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Written by seeker70

July 5, 2014 at 8:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Jeff, I could be wrong but your struggle to understand, and even work up the desire to read other people’s poems sounds much like what any journal of book editor goes through when they receive material with subject matter so personalized/specialized as to be incomprehensible to anyone else. If so, I think you’re right that editing other people’s poems will make you better at expressing yourself in a more understandable way in your own poems. At the very least, you’ll get better at composing attention-grabbing lines. Keep up the good work!

    Joel David Hutson

    July 6, 2014 at 11:12 am


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