Thursday, December 10, 2009

When You Shouldn’t Write at Christmas, This Is How to Do It

Yes, I got caught up in the season and births and deaths long enough to disappear.  I’m back, briefly, to amend earlier remarks about writing during the season.  When I urged you not to write what I really was urging you to do was to not expect the season to be revelatory, profoundly changing to your work.  You will  not likely write profoundly about the enormous feelings that can cripple the writer.  We just can’t write that well while in the throes of the season.  On the contrary, and contrary to what I said, you can write and write pretty well if you can maintain distance from what you write about.  Good writing may continue through the season.  It just cannot be about the things that are currently arresting.


I’ve written seasonal poems every year and learned that such poems can be successful and fully realized within the season but they take a distancing from the waves of emotion I find most immediate during Christmas.  I used to expect that as a writer I would actually see and feel the star of Bethlehem, meet the Magi at the corner of Main and East Main and that my life would be forever changed.  It hasn’t yet happened.  As I have evolved as a writer I have come to realize that the great truths do not come with sonic booms, parades, huzzahs.  Rather, they come with pacing, pondering, work.  The great poems you will write about this season will come with pacing, pondering and work.  The gift of this season is at the sum of all the seasons experienced thus far—and that’s good enough for any writer.


So, write without expecting and take joy in the surprise.


So long for now, and welcome back.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Saying What Cannot be Said is Not a Psychological Thing Here

I’ve been reading Winifred Nowottny’s chapter on ambiguity in The Language Poet’s Use.  It’s fantastic and explains the nature of poetry’s unstatable side; which brings me to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” which I have long used as a textbook example of how not to read a poem because most people think it a treatise on independent decision, the profound good of not following the mob, when in fact it is filled with assertions and counter-assertions enough to perplex even the logician.   I have challenged many seminars with explaining the poem to me after I have suffered the pain of explaining it to them.

I here concede that while I am correct in correcting students’ readings of the poem, I have failed in my reading of it as well in that I have omitted the truth that the poem leads us to a sense of unstated and unstatable meaning.  Despite understanding the briar patch of contradiction the poem is it remains inspirational and to many, inspired, to others and even the scholarly perplexity of it leaves the professor moved as are the poor readers who cannot see the tormenting tension in it.  The experience it gives those who want to get off the common path is no less valid than my own prior over-intellectualization of the poem.

Good poetry inevitably leads to an unstatable impact that can only be explained so far and the rest , the poem’s essence, cannot be stated.  All art aspires to the unstatable. Poetry’s difficulty is that it uses words, a written/spoken medium that must transcend itself and translate itself into the unstatable, the un-sayable.

So long for now.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Christmas Cautionary Tale

This is a cautionary tale for writers who mean to write about and during the holidays.  My advice is DON’T.  I repeat:  DON’T.  To me it’s like going to the ocean to hear something profound.  The ocean doesn’t say a thing; it keeps its secrets and forever promises to reveal them.  The sea is a big damned liar.

The holidays don’t lie.  Their secrets are all over the place.  I go to a performance of Messiah every year just to be overwhelmed by it; to be left limp and ragged, uncomprehending.  I end up knowing the great truths I want to write and knowing I can’t write them on such an emotional overload.  Listen to Wordsworth and recollect in tranquility.  This cannot be done in season

On Christmas Eve I have been beneath the stars, the clouds, in rain, in snow, drunk, sober, with a love, alone, with a dog.  I have walked, run, biked.  I have felt moved and have never written a word worth a lick about the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holiday troika.  They menace me with auguries and never deliver them to the pen.  The paper awaits, lying there like a naked lover jilted at the last instant.

There is just too much going on.  The mind has no silence to move upon; even in long silences the truths cannot be stated, written, transposed into language.  Once I learned how helpless I am to get it right, I stopped trying.  The holidays must pass me by; let the poet sleep or shop or roast chestnuts and remain essentially thoughtless.

I am appalled at the great charade of the holidays and cannot even write about that.  The best I can do is read stories to my grandkids, balance the checkbook and feed the cats.  I would prefer to be alone to ponder and sleep; ponder the greatness of religion, life, my place in the cosmos and fall asleep every moment I shake my head to toss off the weight of what I’m trying to ponder.   Perhaps this poet was never meant to know the truth but, like the sea,  forever to be promising and unable to deliver.

So long for now.

Technorati Tags: ,,

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Get a Big Head

From Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink:

"We make connections much more quickly with pairs of ideas that are already related in our minds than we do between pairs of ideas that are unfamiliar to us.”

It is in the unfamiliar connections that much poetry thrives, especially the poetry that is contemporary, not-so-formal.  This is what we learn in workshops and is both the good and the bad of workshops.  The good is that we learn not to bore the reader with old stuff.  The bad is that we get boring if connecting unfamiliar ideas becomes a game rather than the pursuit of truth that art should be engaged in.

I would like to focus on the connecting of unfamiliar ideas; or rather the unfamiliar connecting of ideas.  I think Gladwell mis-states his case.  The ideas are familiar, their connection is not.  For the poet, the idea and the connections leading to it are both unfamiliar.  Further, the poet begins with the familiar and by way of new connections brings us to a freshness that is both unfamiliar and still rings as true to life.  I think this is Gladwell’s point in that the psychological tests he cites reveal truths about ourselves that are surprising because they are hidden until the tests reveal them.  Poetry does the same thing.

I see, surprisingly, that I am again treading in that territory where business and art may bump.  For all his pomp, Gladwell gives little artistic circumstance and the feeling he conveys is a little too pop and businessman-worthy.  Yet, as with Michael Michalko in Thinkertoys, there is a crossover value to the poet in his business applications, his non-art-focused analyses.

When we write as poets we are not as far from using the creative tools of business people as we might think and vice-versa.  Our whole brains have both halves and we should learn from each other.  It is in making new connections that our brains literally grow.  This is a physical, chemical process that somehow gets into the non-physical realm of ideas.  (I love the mystery of it.)

New connections are not only interesting but they lead us to make other newer connections and our intelligence (of all types) grows.

So, go get a big head.

So long for now.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thnikertoys and the Arts or Business Not (Necessarily) Be Damned!

Picking up from the last post I would like to mention Michael Michalko’s excellent book Thinkertoys.  Written for the businessman, this book is full of ways to trigger creative thought and many of the lessons can apply to writers and this brings up a challenge:  I have often considered there to be a divide, a bifurcation between business and art, between businessmen and artists.  In fact,

I have spent much of my life sneering at businessmen for their compromises, the abortion of their artistic bents, their ham-handed handling of human sensitivities and etc.  Never mind that I’ve spent nearly thirty years working for a small business engaged in insurance and retail enterprises and that I have been, in a sense, a corporate mouthpiece.  (I hasten to add that I have been blessed with an atypical boss/owner/president who is remarkably creative, quick-witted and decent.)

Creativity is often snuffed out by the workplace but it is folly to reason that therefore all workplaces and their denizens are not creative.  There is great creativity in the workplace but it rarely serves art.  It serves bottom lines by way of product development, production development and marketing.  Barbie lives because of someone’s creativity.  The creativity in the workplace is usually just excellent use of the left brain whereas creativity in the arts is usually associated with the right brain.

I think the world would be well-served if the two brains worked together more.  This is where Thinkertoys comes in.  Yesterday’s post was in part prompted by Michael Michalko’s book and the idea that we can appeal to an authority in our minds and ask how to solve a problem, how he/she would solve a problem, answer a question.  This technique can apply equally well to a business problem or an artistic challenge.

I don’t think the rift between art and business will ever be healed and I don’t think it should be.  Nonetheless, we are all the same species, walk the same planet and can be quickened by encounters with the arts, however brief or sustained.

So long for now.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Blink and the Creative Writer or How to Move Your Mountain

At the Saturday meeting of the Manchester Chapter of the Connecticut Poetry Society I tried to explain some of the mysteries of the creative writing process.  I spoke of the internal wizard whose help we seek and urged that he become a consciously summoned aid de camps.  I have several such internal helpers.  I ask them to help me solve challenges when I am stumped, blocked in the process of writing, usually a specific piece.  I then send them into the recesses of my self and wait for them to return with whatever gems or detritus they want to bring back.  These surrogates return with the most God-awful stuff and, if I am willing to work with it, it turns into gems I couldn’t get on my own.

There is another part to this process and for its name I turn go Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.  He uses the term “motor program”.  Although the term has different connotations for different disciplines I take it to mean the physical action components of an activity; relate it simply to muscle memory.  That said, I think of creative writing as set up by a certain series of physical cues that can be repeated.  Simply enough, I have written very productively over consecutive days on which I awoke at 6AM, brushed my teeth, made tea, set up the coffee-maker for my wife, sat in a chair by the living room window, took my pen from a chair-side drawer and began thinking.  Every step the same every day.  The series became my cue to write.  It worked.

To bring the two together; what I wrote in the morning would often become something wanting further work.   (A lot was dreck.  Prolific writing yields only so much that is worth working on—writing more means having more good stuff and  more bad stuff.)  As I revised, I would be stumped by the challenges, the poems whose argument I could not hear, whose direction I was unable to discern; I would call on the internal wizards, the spirits from the other side of the veil of consciousness to help me.  I would ask them what they could suggest, bring to the poems—and I asked them to make certain it was new and fresh.  Then I’d let them go do their work.

Later, perhaps minutes, often hours or days, I would close my eyes, visualize the aids and ask them what they brought.  This is an imaginative process and they, permitted free rein, would bring back surprising stuff.  My obligation was to thank them and say to myself, “What the hell do I do with this stuff?”  Then I had to do it.

Even when I doubted them, I was invariably helped by these guides.  As Gladwell points out in his book, there is a whole lot going on in our heads that we not only don’t know but can’t know.  The process works because it works.  There is no explaining and we, as poets must understand and permit ourselves to do and write things that work without understanding.

So long for now.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Art—it ain’t for sissies

I am the lucky possessor of On the Limits of Poetry by Allen Tate.  Luckier still, I have read it.   It is a collection of essays released in 1948 about poetry, poets and a couple of other things.


Most recently I have been marveling at “Narcissus as Narcissus” written in 1938.  It is a commentary on his own poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead”The poem itself is good, excellent, hard and you should read it and be familiar with it the second time you read the essay.


The first time you read the essay, read it for what it says about poetry and the work of the poet.  You will discover the best demonstration of the difficult precision of the art of writing poetry I know of.

Tate, in talking about his poem tells and shows us indirectly how much work it takes to write a poem.  Notice the exactitude with which he consciously uses individual words, broken (poetic) feet, broken lines in service to the fuller realization of the poem.  Note too the agony remaining years later over whether changes he made, words he chose, were the right ones.  And re-read the essay to better mine the ore of seemingly off-hand brilliance:

“…the sea boils and pigs have wings because in poetry all things are possible—if you are man enough.”

“Serious poetry deals with fundamental conflicts that cannot be logically resolved:  we can state the conflicts rationally, but reason does not relieve us of them.  their only final coherence is the formal re-creation of art, which ‘freezes’ the experience as permanently as a logical formula, but without, like the formula, leaving all but the logic out.”

Wrestle with this second one:  it is deep, complex and exactly right and a damned good expression of the unresolved and unresolveable logic of good poems.


I would like to quote more but instead will urge you to find the essay and the poem (in that order) and add it to that list of things you go to when your page is blank and you need to prompt yourself into real thought about poetry.  It ain’t for sissies.  (After all, it is art.)

So long for now.

Technorati Tags: ,,,

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Ten Commandments from an Editor

I’m not big on urging or teaching how to get published but I have some advice for you.  I’m prompted by my experience editing (which means producing, beginning-to-end) the Long River Run members-only journal of the Connecticut Poetry Society.  Our guidelines are a little lax so some submissions are going to be awkward if not downright strange; yet I come to some rules you ought to follow.


1.  Follow the guidelines.  If it says “forty line limit” don’t send forty-five lines and ask me to shorten it for you.

2.  If the limit is one poem don’t send three and ask me to pick one.

3.  Don’t send me a second email with a only the few changes you want me to make in the first one.

4.  Don’t use a cute, rare, illegible font.  Times Roman 12pt is fine.

5.  Although I respect your need to protect your brilliant work, don’t send me something I cannot edit.  I am an editor and if I have to cut and paste an image from a pdf and then have to sweat over it to make it look like the other pages sin the book I might leave it out.

6.  Send electronic copy as an attachment if possible.  Email programs do strange things to your work.

7.  If you cannot send an electronic copy, send a typed copy.

8.  If you send a handwritten copy, make it legible!  I am not a seer.

9.  Include all your contact information so that when you violate these commandments I can give you a chance to redeem yourself.

10.  Don’t email me after the deadline asking if it’s too late to send something—it is but it’s better to send me a poem I can ignore than to piss me off with a message that wants an answer before sending me a poem I will ignore.


I’m sure there will be more commandments—I’m no Moses. But these are those I was given last night as I assembled the first draft.

So long for now.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Back to the Future


It’s good to read old stuffRight now I’m reading from “The Limits of Poetry” by Allen Tate; his essay on Emily Dickinson currently having my attention and thrill.  Not only does he have wonderful insight in to poetry and to Dickinson but he gets the divine madness part of the writers.  So, read him.

Having said that let me urge you to return to reading criticism by the great ones—Cleanth Brooks comes to mind; contemporarily, look to Helen Vendler.  And how about Winifred Nowottny?  (Her The Language Poets Use is staggering.)  These critics can tell you more about poetry than most universities and certainly more than MFA programs.  To write, you must read and read lots and read lots of stuff that isn’t poems.

I read these guys in order to write better, to better understand what poetry is.  I think I learned more about Robert Frost’s ambiguities by reading Tate’s essay on Dickinson than in all the classrooms, seminars and workshops I’ve attended combined.

By going back and reading older critics, our poetry can better move into the future.  Also, by reading Tate’s essay on Dickinson you can learn how it is that the past makes possible the future or at least the present moment.  These are things of great import to us individually whether we are writing about Truth and Beauty or about the dead doe in the road or about the trip to the toilet in the quiet of the early morning hours at camp.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

I Hate to Get Up in the Morning

I hate to get up and face the two miles I walk. I do it, did it, for the health of my heart. It has been six years, maybe seven, since I walked/jogged regularly. It has been almost six years since my heart surgery. I am healthy again and resumed walking while on vacation a little more than a month ago. WHAT HAS THIS TO DO WITH WRITING? Well-asked. Here's the answer: Directly, nothing.

Let me digress again, but less. My father-in-law died just before the above-mentioned vacation. This gave my mornings back to me, the times when I used to write. Unfortunately, I got into the habit of walking first thing in the morning and out of the habit of writing then. So, I just tried shifting my walking into the late afternoon, especially since I want to get up to five miles jogging (Thanksgiving Day road race in mind) and simply haven't the time early in the day.

THE POINT IS that I re-discovered the joy of getting up and writing versus the much lesser joy of getting up and walking. I like getting up to write and I have found the muse waiting for me, keeping the chair by the window warm. I will still walk/jog and I will still strive to do that road race just one more time. But I will enjoy the agony of writing each morning more than ever before.

I don't believe in writers block. I believe we are always collecting even if we're not writing. I do believe it is easy to get out of the habit of writing, out of the daily work writing requires and when that happens, we're not blocked but we are in trouble. I don't know what would have happened if my father-in-law had hung around long. Although I certainly wished him well and a long life, I cannot avoid the delight I feel in having my writing (life) back.

So long for now.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Listening to yourself is not always fun

I remember the first time I heard a recording of my voice: I couldn't believe that was me. (I still don't.) But I've learned a couple of things.

1. Hearing your poems gives an entirely different and very valuable take on them

2. Reading them aloud and hearing them are essential exercises during revision

When the poem breaks down in the reading it probably breaks down in the meaning as well. Keep this in mind. One of the things I see is that the music of poetry is often neglected. Remember, it should sound nice. Poems are meant to be heard. The sound and the meaning should inform each other in a symbiotic relationship. Often you can identify where this relationship breaks down by hearing your poem read by another.

Hate those text-to-voice voices? So do I. However, use them. We cannot always find someone to read our poems to us and, frankly, we shouldn't want to. Voice to text programs are freely available online. I use Text2Speech and there are certainly other more sophisticated ones available, some requiring download. Text2Speech has a 5,000 character limit which is pretty generous.

Despite the machine-like quality of the voices, you can listen for those points at which the flow breaks down, weakens; and you may then check the poem for similar thematic weaknesses that may want attention.

So, listen to yourself if you can. This will help your readings. Also, listen to your words spoken by another person (a valuable asset of workshops) or by a machine. In any event the result will be a better poem.

So long for now.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Go To Congress!

The Library of, actually. Now, there are lots of things governmental to bitch about and I'm at the head of the class in that all too frequently. It's all too easy to overlook the good and one of the goods is The Library of Congress website. You can get lost for days in there, longer if you want.

I particularly note, today, their list of poets reading from their own works. Note especially the external links list, the range covered. I don't know of a better list.

Outside of the academy I guess most of us hear poets at public readings. Sometimes we are favored with an invitation to a private reading. And, I'm not being harsh to say that dead poets don't read, to me anyway. The next best thing is to find recordings and the best way to do that is online. Listen and listen with text in hand as well.

Online you can replay the recording
, something the living reader will likely not permit. This is a valuable asset. When I attend a reading I particularly like listening without the text in hand or in mind. I want to hear the poem without prejudice. Then, I would like to hear it and read it at the same time. I cannot because I'm just not going to ask the reader to re-read. With the online reading I can have it both ways.

So, the spoken word is now being made available at a variety of sources and today I recommend The Library of Congress. Go thou and listen.

In the next blog some words about hearing your own poetry.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Poetry Readings, Part 2

Having trashed readings in the last post, I want to get into the readings I have enjoyed the most from the audience. They fall into two categories:

1. Those done by the best poets writing
2. Those with a theme, a plot if you will

Among the first I include readings by Charles Simic and Seamus Heaney. I might add Paul Muldoon and Adrienne Rich. These poets are the real deal. To be with them is to breathe rare air. You can exist on it for longer than twenty minutes and, for reasons I cannot explain, I think I could last ninety minutes listening to Simic.

Among the second I include two: Wesley McNair and Baron Wormser. I heard McNair read "My Brother Running" at The Frost Place and although some thought it too long, were bored by it, I was captivated. I have liked McNair for a long time and found the reading fulfilling, poignant. As for Wormser, I heard him read his scathing indictment of the more recent Bush presidency, "Carthage," in a private reading and, although I have heard him read several times, liked this the most because it did have a plot, movement from beginning to end. It held me.

So, there are readings that work. They are rare and you have to attend a lot of readings to find them. It helps to be lucky too. Additionally, despite my dyspeptic attitude, I do attend readings because that way I can support the writers who struggle honestly with this very demanding art. They deserve all I can give them.

So long for now.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Poetry Readings, Part 1

Reading Katha Pollitt's entry from The Nation magazine reminds me of Charles Bukowski's poem "The Poetry Reading" and the two bring me to my own feelings about poetry readings: I don't like them very much.

There are two people at any reading-- the reader and the audience. As the reader I must decide whether to read to the audience or read to myself. That is, read what will entertain the audience or read something I want to be linked to as a poet; whether I want to be a performer or a poet is the choice. The audience won't get the poet, usually. The audience will remember funny poems. That's about it.

As the audience I must remember to set the bar low. There are few poets good enough to be interesting and most readings aren't by them. I consider a reading good if I come away with a single memorable line and will settle for a single memorable word. Also, even great poetry cannot be endured for much more than fifteen or twenty minutes. Lousy poetry loses me from the first gushy dog or god that died, usually the first line.

The best thing about poetry readings is that they give bad poets an audience, bad poets who deserve an opportunity to read. These are poets who write seriously, honestly and genuinely deserve a reading-- there are thousands, maybe millions. They need to read somewhere. So there are readings all over the place and I go and support them because they serve a function and help the readers.

The second best thing about poetry readings is that they have morphed into little spectacles of entertainment that is often creative. In the never-ending attempt to legitimize themselves readings have become drinking fests, beer tastings, wine tastings, fights, festivals and a variety of things-not-poetry-but-that-include-poetry-in-their-titles and which have readers of poems as their causes. Occasionally a good poem falls out of one of these and they are worth attending for that surprise.

Poetry is a difficult art, is hard to get at at a reading, does not entertain much because it shouldn't. It involves so much that is difficult, complex, restricting. Current audiences just haven't the courage for good poetry. Yet we want readings. I think the driving force is the urge to read a poem, not the urge to hear a poem-- it's an ego thing. Occasionally, it is the urge to hear a particular poet. Give her twenty minutes, tops. Then sit down, belly up to the bar and talk about Red Sox or the protein content of hemp powder.

So long for now.

(In my next post, I'll discuss readings I have actually enjoyed.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Readers' Digest Again

Okay, UNCLE!!! First, lest you think ill of me, I don't subscribe to The Readers' Digest. I say that for all of you who, as I for decades, maligned the magazine as something appropriate to a sub- or lesser- species of mind. I think I learned this in high school, maybe earlier, despite the fact that my parents subscribed for endless years and I read a lot of it and never missed the humor. As I got older and involved myself more in poetry it became essential to my appearance as a writer interested in good stuff to put down the Digest while remaining a closet reader, however intermittent.

Well, cut my legs off and call me shorty if I don't recant. THE READERS' DIGEST IS PUBLISHING POETRY MONTHLY. And it's good stuff. So, name another magazine as pedestrian and widespread that is publishing something so lofty. Hats off to RD.

Now go read it.

(I cannot leave this topic without noting that The Readers' Digest according to a Wall Street Journal article on August 17th is filing for bankruptcy as part of a debt restructuring. It is expected that the magazine will continue publication without incident although it will adapt to survive.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Go Back to School

Fall is fast upon us and it's impossible to ignore the feeling that it's time to return to school. The brochures for the community colleges, the adult ed programs, the YM/YWCA are in the malls and barber shops and it's time to wonder which poetry writing course to take this time around, how to pick, what will be the most helpful.

This fall don't take another writing course. Take a reading course, something as basic as American Literature, the sonnets of Shakespeare, the criticism of Coleridge, Victorian Poetry, modern American poetry. But don't write a goddam thing. Don't study writing, don't learn about writing. Just read and read and read.

We all want to write our hearts, our passions, free our souls and all that good shit. Stuff it. Do the work of learning what the good stuff is, what the great writers wrote. This is where the love of the art begins. And learn how the poems mean, how they get their impact, why formal verse works and how much work it really is. We tend to measure our work by its passion rather than its command of the elements of poetry. Read Aristotle's "Poetics" not necessarily for the way it informs contemporary poetics but for the depth and complexity of poetry, the nuances we so often are unaware of, the attention to the WORK OF POETRY we so often omit from our own efforts.

Go to school to read the good stuff. You'll learn more about writing that way than by writing. DO THE WORK.

So long for now.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Art, Artsy or Madness?

"That contemporary art seems to be anything an artist wants it to be can lead to a lot of confusion, most notably, the willy-nilly application of the term to anything with a creative impulse." (Italics mine)
This quote from The Christian Science Monitor brings me back to another look at my criticism of much current poetry and workshops. We tend to call anything creative "art" whether it is or not and this diminishes art. Poetry is an art and is much more than merely creative.

Workshop leaders fawn over any creative phrase, turn, even titles. Yes, such creativity is praiseworthy but the risk is that the writer and other observers are so easily led to think that this makes their work art when it qualifies for artsy, at best. Creativity can bring many of us up to mediocrity but alone cannot bring us to the level of artist. Craftsmanship can bring many of us up to mediocrity but alone cannot bring us to the level of artist. Creativity and craftsmanship together do not guarantee art but come closer.

To get to art we must add divine madness-- inspiration and inspired engagement with creativity and craft. All these come with work, lots of work, lots of hard work and this work should be bereft of the notion of art. The art will take care of itself but we and our workshop leaders are well-advised to be familiar enough with what art is to caution us not to believe that our work is art when it is not. We will thus raise our sights and better our work.

And by the way, divine madness without creativity and craft is only madness.

So long for now.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


In a post titled "Creativity Not" I spoke of my father-in-law's effect on my writing schedule. I now report that he has died and was interred last Friday. At nearly ninety years one cannot endure a fall, broken hip, pneumonia, surgery, heart attack and brain damage. Now what do I say about my creativity, my schedule?

There is that struggle with first he was here then, suddenly, he wasn't. There is mourning (muted because he was so old and, frankly, pretty mean (for much of his life)). But I have also established another schedule that is hard to break from. Instead of writing I was reading-- non-fiction in the morning, fiction in the evening. I grew comfortable with this despite the discomfort of not writing. There isn't enough time to read all I want and to write all I want. There will be a loss switching tasks here. I have read and heard of others who could not switch back to writing without great struggle and some who never returned to it with the same verve.
I doubt I'll have that much trouble but I have again learned:

If you want to write, write and write regularly and don't surrender.

Life is a potent distraction and often means the deaths of things. I'm a writer or I'm not. Creativity requires work. Inspiration can and need be cultivated or it withers.

So long for now.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Michael Jackson

In September when I ask the Manchester Chapter of the Connecticut Poetry Society what happened this summer I figure that Michael Jackson's death will head the list. Here's what I have to say about that:

1. I once turned down free tickets to one of his concerts.
2. The problem with the death of "The King of Pop" is that pop is king.

I'll bet you didn't know of the death of Harold Norse on June 8. (Check out these poems.) I do not suggest that Norse ranks with Jackson but I do suggest that in his milieu he was as important and influential as Jackson in his and that pop as king will almost always trump The Arts in America and I don't like it.

The artist walks the world without his prosthetic nose, struggles anonymously with life and occasionally makes five bucks for a dose of truth. Truth doesn't sell, creates no icons, is not welcome. The King of Pop, loaded with talent, is now being laid waste in the halls of gossip, voyeurism and ogling-- and that is what most of my poetry group will think of as the hallmark of summer. Harold Norse? At this point I think Michael Jackson envies his death. My real hope is that the two of them are up there shaking their heads and alternately laughing and despairing at those of us below.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

How to Write a Poem, Briefly

As I have so often found, don't bore me.
As I have rarely heard, make it about me.
As I've never heard, do it with craft.
As I've almost never heard, use less free verse.
As I've definitely never heard, learn what a dithyramb is and don't try it.
As I've heard, if it's therapy, don't show it to me.
As I live by, if you're in my family, I don't want to see it either.
Take your draft and slash it, brutally.
Don't stop slashing until only the bone remains.
Don't make any poem mean what you want it to.
Don't ever think the poem means what you think it does.
A poem means what the audience thinks it does.
The audience cannot be told what to think about it.
It is the audience's right to say "Fuck you".
It is not your right to say so to the audience.
If I can't understand it, you can't understand it.
Don't ever revise the poem.
Revise your understanding of the poem.
The poem knows more than you do about it.
Don't ever think about whether it is good.
It's not up to you.
Aim very carefully: You must hit the heart.
You have only one bullet.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Creativity-- NOT!

I often ponder creativity, most recently wondering how I can return to "creative writing" since my schedule was upset by my father-in-law moving in last November. It used to be that I could spend an hour uninterrupted early in the morning. Now I cannot stop listening for the clatter of his walker, his gruff voice barking at the cats, the slam of the bathroom door, the clank of his spoon on his cereal bowl.

I am a fan of the idea that creative action can occur anywhere and cannot now prove it in my own life. It is not for this reason that I'm looking at new takes on creativity although even a mild cynic could think so given that I am tottering on the edge of thinking/saying that poets should shed the notion of creativity entirely. I come to this not from desperation to justify my father-in-law's upsetting my schedule but from the notion that creativity, for the poet, is a formal organizing of chaos, a saying of the unsayable. This means that creativity is the making of cages, structures. It is a violent, radical subjugating of things to create a mimicry of Truth.

I thus come to the conclusion that the poet must know and practice the rules, ancient and modern, the craft comes with since creativity cannot exist outside of the very rules the very notion of creativity seeks to erase. Choose your slavery, choose your master and submit to its violence. I always wondered why poetry is so hard. The answer is two-fold:

First, it uses words for the wordless;

Second, it joins the abysmal with the sublime.

Except by faith it is an impossible endeavor.

I re-conclude that there is no such thing as creativity since the poet creates nothing new other than a fresh mimicry. This is not to belittle the poet. Well, yes it is-- but only from thinking himself a god. My experience with poets is that too many think they are the Creator of the truth they try to speak or, worse, they think their words are THE TRUTH. They are not sufficiently submissive to the violence of their art.

Worse is the poet who doesn't think he is trying for Truth.

The landscape would be drastically improved by poets practicing poetry and forgetting about creativity.

So long for now.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

More About Where to Steal

I follow Copyblogger and this morning came across a post about the poet and the killer and urge you to first drop your attitude toward the "get-rich-copywriter" part and secondly to take the blog seriously both for what it says about the killer instinct necessary to all writers and also for the lesson that rainbows come in surprising places. That is, great ideas and lessons can come from anywhere.

First, however, however much we might like to be hob-nobbing with the gods and the greats, our craft demands that we get to the point and poets are lousy at getting to the point. We all too often fail to drive the nail into the heart, letting our readers and ourselves off the hook. We pale in the face of things. The advertising killer does not and in this has an all-important lesson for us and much as we might like to consider ourselves a tad better than the car salesman (read the comments in the above-mentioned blog) we're not.

Second, steal everywhere. Yesterday I urged theft from small, local poetry events, from other writers. Today I go back to one of my hard and fast rules: Steal everywhere; from the doctor's office ("the orbit of the eye"), from construction lingo ("fugitive dust" (what a wonderful phrase)), from the news account of death by legal injection ("He just wanted to live").

Stay open to language from everyone and everywhere. Some of the most colorful language, and I mean that in the best sense of the word, I have heard came from the tire changers I worked with in my first job after high school. They were uneducated men busting tires for a living and we talked and talked our way through the summer while we sweated our way through our clothes and I'll never forget that the gods gave them language too. Actually, I didn't steal anything from them-- they gave it to me. ACCEPT YOUR GIFTS!!!

So long for now.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Let's Hear it for Small Poetry

Recently attended and participated in The Riverwood Poetry Festival. For a variety of reasons having to do with lousy educational priorities, the loss of the arts in schools and life, etc, etc, poetry doesn't make the front page anymore, although it does make The Readers' Digest-- see my entry about that-- and is rarely even back page material. It resides, at most, in the obituaries. But, pick up your paper or check online and you'll find a lot of poetry events looking for an audience. Let me first say that I don't think of slams as poetry and that much of what is at any poetry event is unappealing. With that disclaimer I urge you to get to these small poetry events.

You'll find some good poets, good people, good food, fair wine and a good time.
There are people out there ready to surprise you with how good they are and you only need to find one to make the trip worth it. This is one of the places to go to steal-- ideas, styles, words, topics, inspiration. Don't go expecting to meet the next, or current, Frost or Eliot but do expect to find assurance that poetry is alive and well and you are not alone. And also be ready to discover that even the good ones aren't all that much different from you.

So long for now.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Summer Reading; some poetry, some not

This is not about poetry, not directly anyway. Rather it's about where I find stimulating reading not necessarily for the summer. I direct you to the UC Berkeley summer reading list for incoming freshmen. I've found delightful reading from these lists over the years-- Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is one example I remember reading while vacationing on the National Seashore, Cape Cod several years ago. It remains a remarkable reading experience. The books on Berkeley's list say a lot about what incoming freshmen might be expected to know. I hope the promise plays out in reality.

I think too that a Google search may turn up older versions of the list so you may have a lot of choices and will find something palatable, exciting and stimulating. In any event reading some of the books will ultimately enrich your poetry as all good learning will.

While on the topic of reading lists I now call to mind Alan Ginsberg's "Celestial Homework" reading list from a course he taught at Naropa in 1977. If I could I'd read all of it. The link takes you to the list which in turn has links to some of the works online. It's a marvelous way to find some grand and great writing and also a look into Ginsberg's own makeup, that of one whom The New Republic magazine (I think) referred to as a "major minor poet".

In all events, if you want to write, read!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Reader's Digest!

Ok, another confession-- Although omnipresent from my earliest childhood and source of some of my longest-standing bits of humor, despite an eighth grade guidance counselor whose brother was on its staff, as an intellectual venue Reader's Digest is a publication I have long (and probably rightfully) snubbed. In fact, the only writers joke I know is about that magazine. So, caught where there was nothing else to read, I thumbed through the June, 2009 issue and was blindsided by a poem by Sharon Olds; the poem is excellent, good poetry, good Sharon Olds poetry-- AND IN THE READER'S DIGEST.

This is a shift in axis, a change in paradigms, a shaking up of the order. A little research reveals that The Wallace Foundation, associated with the Reader's Digest co-founder Lila Wallace DeWitt, may be the connection here but I'm not sure. CAN YOU HELP ME RESOLVE THIS? I would like to know more about the magazine and its association with and support of the arts, especially poetry.

I am also reminded of my own urging to students that they look for poetry in the most unlikely places, open themselves to all opportunities to find exceptional language and exceptional verse. It seems that I have failed to follow my own urgings.

So, where have you found poetry surprises?

I look forward to your comments and help.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Place, Part 2

I refer you to John Talbot's poem Horace, Odes I .9 Vides ut alta stet found at which I hope you visit daily. Talbot's poem gives us another measure of place, one which I think we too often are not conscious of; that is, our own places in the lineage of poetry. Our poems, our poetry, our writing does not come out of nowhere but rather exists as part of the history of poetry.

Some of us learned about and read a lot of poetry in junior high school, high school and college. Some of us continued during our careers whether or not as part of our vocations. All that history we were exposed to conspires to influence how we think about poetry and what we think makes a good poem. In Talbot's case we are told quite plainly that his poem has something to do with Horace's odes. Research will tell us that many poets (including Frost) were influenced by these odes. Hence our own poems are somehow so influenced.

If you research Horace's odes online, particularly the one referenced in Talbot's poem, you will find a selection of translations from the Latin and these are very interesting in helping us understand not only Horace's poem but Talbot's as well. Although not quite as intentionally our own poems are replete with referents as influential as in Talbot's excellent poem. It is an interesting and fruitful exercise to take a poem I've written and ponder every influence I can think of for each line, theme, thought, etc. Once begun the influences come in chunks and from sources that were far, far from my consciousness as I wrote. I also find that this awareness causes me to more consciously insert things from my poetic lineage into what I am writing .

This is another interesting and important sense of place-- our place in the line of poets; and it give us a humbling sense of gravity about our own writings and tells us that we ought not fail to give our own writing its due.

So long for now.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Place Maps

At that most recent meeting of The Manchester Chapter of The Connecticut Poetry Society I decided to speak about "place" and was surprised at how animated and interesting the discussion grew. It seems that the people there had not thought consciously about place in their poems and their lives and wanted to do so.

We identified many places: Physical place at the keyboard or writing pad, the room, the house, the neighborhood (I see my neighbor leave at seven every morning and even that affects how I write at that instant), the community, the city, the state, the country, the world, the cosmos; additionally, psychological place, mood, emotion, time all affect and define the "place" we work from and the places we put into our poems.

One poet wrote of climbing a tree to pick apples. We easily spotted the tree and the ground and the apples and then moved on to childhood which is when the picking occurred, and then she moved us into the factory where her mother had done piece work and where she had acquired rapid enough dexterity with her hands so that at an advanced age she could peel apples faster than her daughter (the poet). The poet was unaware of several of the places she was inhabiting or inserting into the poem as she wrote. This is part of the magic of writing-- that we don't know all that we are putting in to it.

As we write, an increased consciousness of place can deepen our work quickly and efficiently.

Study it; it's worth the effort.

So long for now.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Confessions of an Impractical Poet

Perhaps this should be labeled "Part One of Many" since I will probably contradict myself at other times as well. Contradicting that I must say that I don't think what I'm about to write really contradicts anything. At any rate, monthly on the second Saturday of the months from September through June I conduct meetings of the Manchester Chapter of the Connecticut Poetry Society.. These are somewhat like workshops but without those workshop attributes I find loathsome. These are times when I try to give everyone in the room (6-15 attendees monthly) whatever I can to help them write and understand poetry better. I get high on these efforts. I have stressed earlier the value of camaraderie among writers and that is the biggest payoff of these meetings. The level of talent ranges from zilch to accomplished and the ages are from late twenties to late eighties. It's a sparkling group of people from carpenters to teachers to attorneys and accountants and includes the retired, the working, the unemployed and the disabled.

I'm not sure why I'm telling you about this group other than to emphasize that we need each other. Poetry is a solitary pursuit but does not exist at its best in a vacuum. As Donald Sheehan, Director Emeritus of The Frost Place, says, when our intelligence goes into our hearts the result is a higher intelligence. There is something about these meetings that achieves this and rail though I might about the crappy poetry I find so common, it's not all about intelligence.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Another Take on What Workshops DON'T Do

Came across "Show and Tell" from the June 4 (I think) New Yorker magazine. Although it's largely a book review of Mark McGurl's The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing the author, Louis Menand, spends a good deal of time both attacking and, in the end, talking up (a little) workshops, particularly poetry workshops. Although his approach differs from mine he takes good swipes at the workshops and the notion that they really do anything for writers. What I like is his focus on the problem, as I see it, that "Creative-writing programs are designed on the theory that students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem." Where he uses the word "publishable" I would use the phrase "workshop-acceptable". The book itself looks at writing programs and how they have changed the creative writing landscape in the last several decades. It is no doubt worth the reading but I urge you first to read Menand's article.

Menand ends his New Yorker piece by affirming the value of camaraderie found in writing workshops and this I heartily endorse. As I have urged earlier here, if you are going to attend workshops, once you've gone to one or two don't go to learn anything more about writing but rather go to give as much help as you can to the other participants who are not as far along as you.

So long for now.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Notes on the Sublime

I've been reading Keats. Also, I found two articles about melancholy-- unfortunately I cannot locate them online any longer-- which caused me to reconsider Keats and the sublime and how the sublime affects us as poets today. The upshot is that the reason we write is in our relationship with the sublime and its counterpart melancholy. It seems they come together.

Poetry is a reflective art and the act of writing is a profound reflection with a pen. Is is, as reflection is, without direction. That is, the poem in first draft begins without any knowledge of its route or of where it is going. If you know where the poem will go, if you think you know where you want it to go, if you even think you know what it will be about-- YOU MUST QUIT-- until you abandon those notions.

Reflection is an ordered process which we cannot know the ordering of. Writing a poem is a profound, nearly mystical, ordering of reflection. It is a tangent of the abyss loaded with awe and unknowable until the last line. It requires surrender and achieves the sublime but never without the concomitant imbuing of melancholy. This is not joy. It is sublime. The great part about it is that it calls to us and, if we are to get it right, we must attempt to write without ceasing.

Another great feature of writing poetry is that we may actually engage the sublime without ever achieving greatness. The sublime is available to the worst of us writers if we can pursue it honestly and with exacting craft.

So long for now.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

What Has Truth Got to Do with It?

This is where passion and craft converge with the reason for writing. Presumably we write toward Truth. If we write toward publication then we sacrifice Truth. If we write toward workshops we sacrifice Truth. Passion derives from Truth as we see it at the time. Craft is the crucible into which we attempt to pour Truth. It is an inexhaustible job in that we never get it perfectly right. Part of the reason for this is that we as individuals change and our understanding gets wider and deeper over time. Thus, Truth itself changes. We can never digest the fruit of the tree of the knowledge.

Someone once asked me when I finished writing poems about Viet Nam. My answer was that I haven't. Each year I am a different man with increased experience and understanding about life and think and reflect differently upon all that passes through my mind. The analogy of being unable to bathe in the same stream twice holds profoundly here. This is much of the richness of poetry, of art. This is another reason that our poems, even the successful ones, even the published ones, may be considered failures the day after we write them. Even the act of writing changes the Truth we are trying to nail down. So, the point is that Truth is the backbone of our work, its reason to be. And Truth is a moving target that, in concert with the Heisenberg Principle, gets harder to nail down the closer we get to it.

Read this and the previous post Do the Work-- We've Seen Enough of the Spirit Side together.

So long for now.

The Art fof Failure

The art of failure is not the failure of art. Rather, it is analogous to Thomas Edison: "If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward." So too with your poetry. This will come to have greater importance if/when you submit to publishers except that rejection comes not from an idea that didn't work but, more often, from an editor who wasn't receptive at the moment of reading. Nonetheless, each poem should be considered a step forward despite the fact that most poems are not very good, in fact fail, as poems. Get used to this notion-- most of your poems will fail at greatness and, usually, goodness. Yet each one is a stepping-stone to the next one which will be better and so on until you have 10,000 ways that didn't work but the last is the best you've ever done and not as good as the next. This is the art of failure. Cultivate it. Do not be discouraged by any of it. Your commitment to the art will overcome any sense of failure and your understanding that the process of writing a poem, of being a poet, will trump any dejection. As I have so often said, this is a rigorous, demanding art and the act of devotion to it is very much the success of it.

This post will be expanded upon in the next-- don't judge this until you read that.

Next post: What has truth got to do with it?
So long for now.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Thoughts on publishing

That's about it for the beginner, for the one in early workshops, for the one who hasn't found her sea legs. The urge to publish is one of the greatest detriments to developing poets and should be discouraged from the start. There are millions of ways to get published, millions of poems getting published. Most of them are crap. Being a published poet is not a recommendation anymore, if it ever was. If you write to be published you will tend to write poetry you think others will consider publishable and may not ever find your voice, write with honesty, be proud of yourself as a poet. This is kin in my book to writing workshop poetry, poetry that is a product of what workshops generally regard as good poetry.

Get used to the notion that this is a demanding art and that very few meet the demands. The rewards are few and far between and publishing is generally not very rewarding either financially or in terms of personal satisfaction to the poet who cares about the art. Good poets will often become printed poets and the process of becoming one of them is arduous and publication was rarely if ever the goal from the outset.

Do the work of learning the craft, writing a lot, getting a critic, minimally workshopping and generally becoming a good poet. Forget about publishing. It's a lousy goal.

Nest post: The art of failure

Friday, May 22, 2009

Do the Work-- We've seen enough of the spirit side

This is a variation on a theme that will come in other variants from time to time. I begin with a list:

***Screw your inspiration
***Screw the workshops
***Screw your starry eyes
***Get down to it

I can't remember his last name (may have been Jarvis) but his first name was John. He was Italian, liked to sing and made a living managing a commercial truck tire department for Sears in West Hartford, CT. Most importantly, he was a par golfer. I was young, just learning to swing a club and knew I would play good golf pretty soon. I went to John and asked for a tip. His answer was simple. "Stay off the golf course. Go somewhere and hit an awful lot of golf balls for an awful long time."
You poets: Go somewhere and write an awful lot of poems for an awful long time. Again I say "LEARN THE CRAFT". To quote Robert Frost from a perhaps apocryphal story, "Go write some rhymey-dimey stuff." Learn form, meter. Get the mechanics.

***Screw your inspiration
***Screw the workshops
***Screw your starry eyes
and...***Forget about publishing

So, again-- do the work. And, although I got to where I could play bogey golf on a particular nine hole course I never did get very good at the game. I don't know if I'm any better at poetry but I have written lots and lots of poems and haven't golfed in a decade.

Next post: Thoughts on publishing
So long for now.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Learning Curve

In short, it goes on forever. I know a writer who told a group I lead that several years ago he wrote the best poem he'll ever write. I have to agree with him because he's an awful writer, has not evolved in the last ten years, doesn't get it at all.

Fortunately, I know lots of writers who know they're on a trek that, pursued over time, will yield better poems right up to the end. In the words of Robert Earl Kean, "The road goes on forever and the party never ends." Given that you'll write very few good lines, let alone entire poems, the learning curve has every opportunity to go on and on and on. The art is inexhaustible. This derives in part from the nature of art as expressing the inexpressible (so why do we try?) and the nature of man, who can never get all the answers. Our efforts as poets lie in the belief that we can always learn more and can always say it better. We also know we will never know enough and never say it right.

So why do we try?

*There is joy in expression
*There is a delight in refusing doom
*There is a profound and humbling richeness in looking into the abyss
*We are dissatisfied with our own mortality

At bottom, poetry (and all art) attempts to address, if not cure, a disconnectedness that is pandemic to our natures. There is an incurable element of religion to it. My sister, a violinist, says "Music is my religion." The aims of art and religion are similar and she, at age sixty-seven, enters each concert as a child and learns wonderful things every time. So too with the poet.

The learning curve goes on forever and the party never ends.

Next post: Do the work-- we've seen enough of the spirit side.
So long for now.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

My Advice to a Young Poet

My Advice to a Young Poet
after reading “Ashes, Ashes We All Fall Down” by my niece, Catherine

The difficulty, Cat, is that
your passion is as large as the ocean
and poetry demands a jar.
Pottery, not poetry—
the potter’s wheel,
the kiln of craft—
these you need.

Write sonnets to the moon,
odes to moustaches,
villanelles about ants
beneath horses’s hooves.
Go to the zoo and look
at a single animal
but look at it long,
all day today and then tomorrow
and the next.
You may learn its name in German.

Bore yourself to anger
with spelling and grammar,
rapping your knuckles
like a schoolish marm
until truth bleeds from your pen
as it does now from your heart.
And read & read & read until
you don’t sleep enough,
are too tired to defend yourself
from yourself.

Then, helpless with the beggar’s jar
in your shaking hand,
pour portions of your heart
slowly, carefully down
until you see only

the chair your mother sat in
and can tell us

it is empty.

Copyright March, 2003

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Advice for Young Writers

The two times in life when your brain grows the fastest are at two years and in your teen age. Sometime in your teens you will likely have one watershed experience that will define your life. For me it was the moment I read "Fern Hill" by Dylan Thomas. For my daughter it was an experience of being born again. Poet William Matthews once spoke about how the great Latin teacher he had in high school influenced him and also remarked that had he had a great chemistry teacher he would have been a chemist. Such is the volatility of your teen years. Thus I say to you:
Rebel, rant, tell off your parents, teachers, the mailman, the garbage man. Write of the deep loves, the embarrassments, the hatreds, the murders you want to commit, the lives you want to take (even if it is your own). Fear nothing and write, scream about it all.
You have more energy, more bubbling in your cauldron now than you ever will again. What you're writing is not poetry but I'll give it fair grades for honesty and life, for excitement. I went to two readings by Lloyd Schwartz at Trinity College, Hartford, CT and found him erudite, skillful and boring, boring as hell. Afterward I found an open mic in some fairly obscure, not-quite-dingy place on campus and heard nothing erudite or skillful but it was exciting, interesting and it lived. I'll take that anytime. As I've heard from several teachers: DON'T BORE ME!!
So, my advice to you is: write. Write anything you goddam well please. And live.
So long for now.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Therapy as Poetry

Get this: IT ISN'T! Don't show me or anybody your poems until your poems-as-couch-sessions end. Doing this will prevent thousands of lousy poems from print and will thus save many trees-- which we need more than we need crappy poems. Confessional poetry in the right hands-- Berryman, Plath, Sexton, etc.-- can be good, even great. In the wrong hands it is nothing but a flubbed brain scan ruining perfectly good blank paper.
The world is full of stress, depression, pestilence, war, famine and pain, much of which can give birth to good poetry but, in the main, I (and everyone else really) don't care about your stress, depression, pestilence, war, famine and pain. I have enough of my own and I make it my business to make it not your business. If you're going to write yours down at least do it as a way of practicing the craft for your future poems. Aim for one good poem some day in the far future. This is a cruel art. Don't kid yourself and give me your therapy. I'd rather hear the cats yowling in the dark.
In the next post: Advice for Young Writers
So long for now.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Craig Arnold

Many excellent poets come and go without many knowing of them outside a relatively and regrettably small circle. In my life Hugh Ogden was one. Recently Craig Arnold prematurely joined that list. I never heard of him until he was lost and then followed the story of the search for him. I found several of his poems online and they caused me to follow his story with some interest because he was a compelling writer of great skill and talent. Although the story is sad it gave me the opportunity to discover him and to bring his poems to the attention of the members of the Manchester Chapter of The Connecticut Poetry Society and hopefully enlarge the audience as Arnold's poetry deserves.

We must remain ever mindful of the importance of our art, and the arts in general, in a world so dismissive of them. Additionally, we are charged with the responsibility to endeavor to promote the arts in any way we can. It is sad to consider that Craig Arnold attracted more attention by way of his death than by way of his poetry. We are likely headed the same way without being nearly as good as he.

This seems cause to rail.

So long for now.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Quick Rules for Writing, Part 5

Work you poems. Revision is a word so over-used it is largely meaningless. We need to bring it back to life. First understand that we tend to revise for meaning and understanding. This must change for it enslaves us to what we want and not what an art demands. Dedicate revision as well to HOW the poem means. This means conscious applications of the elements of the poetic art to your poems. Learn the craft. Learn the craft. Learn the craft. Yes, poetry should be passionate but it is an art that transcends passion in search of truth and beauty. When we hear that a poem has its own life, its own direction we should act accordingly and let the poem be and become what it will, what it wants to be, not try to make it what we want. Rarely, if ever, is it right to know how the poem will end when we begin it. This flies in the face of creativity. The process of practicing the art will release all the creativity we can handle. Dedication to the features that make poetry poetry will release all the creativity we can handle. We too often want to show our passion, dedicate the poem to honoring our feelings and sensitivities. This is wrong. The poem should be a service to the art of poetry. If it is so then all the other things we think we want from the poem will be there only if appropriate. Poetry is not therapy. Revise to the greater art, not to the greater passion, the greater feeling.
So long for now.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Quick Rules for Writing, Part 4

This is a repeat of sorts: Practice daily and practice specifically. I think it was John Keats and Leigh Hunt who spent afternoons in sonnet competitions-- they knew the forms, by heart. Charles Wright was the first to impress upon me the need to write every day. He reminded that the concert pianist practices hours a day at an art no greater than my own. We have to treat the art as an art, one that is demanding and never fully achieved. Treat yourself as an artist. For periods as long as fifteen months I have written daily. The result is that I am a far better writer and a far quicker writer. Little of it is really good but a greater percentage of it is decent and I am certain I never would have written as well without the practice. Additionally, practice specific things whether forms, meters, styles, etc. Spend a month copying somebody else. Spend a month writing sonnets. Spend a month writing nothing that rhymes. Spend a month writing about a single topic. Exhaust your inspirations.

Remember that the discoveries will be the unexpected seams in your mind, the little spaces where poems reside. Days when you are certain you cannot possibly write will blossom into your most productive. You need not spend a lot of time-- I typically averaged thirty minutes daily, usually in the morning although I urge you to also learn that you can write at any time if you will.

Bottom line: If you want to write, write. Second bottom line: If you want to write, read.
Tomorrow the fifth part.
So long for now.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Quick Rules for Better Writing, Part 3

Memorize poems. Knowing poems is a wonderful thing. It makes them live and they become part of you. This will teach you much and impress the poem upon you. As you work with poems, studying and memorizing, they become you, part of what consciously and subconsciously informs your work. The more you have to draw from the more you have to draw from. All the best poets I know can recite a lot of poetry. Learn the old, the new. The discipline is wonderful and the physical feel of reciting a poem is informative regarding the woof and warp of language, the same language you are trying to write in. Memorizing and reciting poetry is similar to writing it out longhand as I urged earlier but it is an entirely different way of knowing and inhabiting the poem. Again, it will enable the poem in all of its depth and breadth to inform your own work as you write and as you revise.

I hasten to add that I am not speaking of memorizing a few lines, snatches of poems. We can all do that. I speak of memorizing entire poems, beginning to end. It is not easy but it will enrich you beyond the costs of the work of it.

Part 4 next.
So long for now.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Quick Rules for Better Writing, Part 2

Molly Peacock said once in a lecture to read fourteen poems for each one you write. Good advice. Better advice is to read one great poem fourteen times for each one you write. Study HOW it means not what it means. Why each word? Why each line break? Why each stanza break? Why write the poem? Identify the sonic elements-- meter, rhyme, assonance etc.-- all the poetic devices. Read the poem aloud. As the wine taster does, notice the mouth feel. Does the poem read better silently? Listen to the poem read by another. (Do this with your own poems.) Read it a month later, a year later-- how has it changed?

All these things will make the poem and its poetry yours to call upon as you write. Never stop learning and studying the craft and never stop reading the great ones. Everything will become part of the thought basin you call upon when you write and the larger that thought basin the better your writing will be. So step two is to read a great poem fourteen times for each one you write.

Part 3 in the next post.
So long for now.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Quick Rules for Better Writing, Part 1

This list comes as a by-product of a lecture I recently gave titled Keats and Courage in Poetry. First: We must detach ourselves from self and dedicate ourselves to artistry. That is, when we bare our souls and ponder our pain, rather than let the pain be the soul of the poem let the pain be the vehicle that transcends itself into imaginative reflection on the greater world the pain inhabits. This is not to disavow the pain but to honor it. In the writing, the act of writing, remain conscious of the art of poetry in its expressive nature:

Sound, content, form poetic devices, theme metaphor, language, beauty, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, repetition, long and short vowel sounds, consonants, consonance etc.

The point is that the poetry world and the world of workshops are filled with people who want to write about their pain and sensitivity more than they want to write good poems. This does not serve the art. In my lecture I emphasize that while Keats had ample agony in his life, to write about it would have been a far lesser achievement than to dedicate himself to the art and craft of poetry as an end in itself. We must dedicate ourselves to that art if we are to be poets.

Next, Part 2, or How to Prepare to Write
So long for now.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Self-censoring a First Draft

I offer two rules for this:
2. DO IT

in that order.
First, as a beginning writer, an inexperienced writer at any age, it is essential that you not edit yourself as your write. Put it all down. Leave nothing out. The reason is simple: You are in the zone and don't want to miss out on anything, don't want to be limited. You will have plenty of time to revise, edit, censor later. Do not deviate from this.

Well, don't deviate until you have reached a more accomplished stage in your writing. At some point you may know and understand your own voice, may have worked in it enough so that you know what you are doing as you do it. At this point you may have read and learned enough about poetry so that you know what to cull on the fly. This is a much more efficient way to write than to write down all the claptrap you once needed to include and excise later when you could better make decisions. If you are not comfortable doing this, don't risk it. For my money you can't really get away with it during your first ten or so years of hard writing work. When you reach that point, don't bother any longer.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Best Use of a Poetry Mentor, parts 1-2 or 3

This has two parts because my use of a mentor had two parts, actually three, that were distinct. I emphasize from the last entry that a long relationship with a single mentor can be really productive. Initially I submitted poems, we worked them over, I revised the poems, we worked them over again and repeated the process until the poems were as fully realized as they could be at the time. This was a grueling process and hugely educational. The more you learn about writing and the way you write the more you will eliminate bad writing from your drafts (more later about the notion that you shouldn't self-censor in the earliest stages of a draft). This phase of being mentored lasted several years and was indispensable. In the second phase I did much less revising and preferred to take what I was learning from my mentor (Baron Wormser) and apply it to my future poems. Keep in mind that at this time my poems were coming fairly rapidly and I felt that each new one was better than whatever came before. I rarely returned to the mentoring with the same poems again. The most recent stage came about both because I was evolving satisfactorily and because I was low on money. In this stage I worked with the mentor only occasionally, often less than once every six months, and usually with a batch of poems in which I had a specific interest. We have achieved a stage of marvelous mutual regard and friendship and there is nothing I won't show him or that he won't say about my poems-- good, bad or ugly. It has taken more than a decade to arrive at this.

In the next post I will discuss the pros and cons of self-censoring an initial draft.
So long for now.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Where to get what doesn't come in workshops

It is imperative to have someone who can read any poem you want and critique it. This is not family, not ever. This should be someone whom you trust, someone who knows poetry and someone who will not mince words but shoot straight even if it kills the poem. For those who have the bucks there are good poets in the business of mentoring. I have worked off and on for years with Baron Wormser. I don't know if he is taking students now. The poets offering their services often charge a rate that includes reading and preparing comments on your poem or selection of poems followed by either an online or telephonic hour of discussion. Typically they want a continuing series of sessions regularly scheduled over time. I have seen charges from $25 to $100 per session. Failing that, seek out someone who has taught courses, workshops or who has read in your area and see if they are available. Failing even that, go to another writer and offer to exchange the service for each other. Have patience with the process of finding a reader/critic. It is often a long search to find someone sufficiently compatible. The payoff is that the relationship may last a very long and productive time.
In the next post I will discuss how I make best use of my mentor.
So long for now.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Reason to Go to Workshops

Although it will sound so, this is not a self-help, feel good thing. It is, however, true. After exhausting myself of ways to get something out of the workshops I decided that I was going at it ass backwards and chose to give as much as I could. If the workshop required submitting work to be critiqued I picked something I was interested in working on but did not go in committed to getting anything specific but rather to be as selfless and committed to giving others all the help I could once I got there. Any help I received was a bonus. This was a breakthrough. I enjoyed the workshops much more and gained a far deeper appreciation of the others in the group and the work they were doing. I did not find them any better as poets but I did find them genuinely interested and harder working than I had given them credit for. The payoff for me has been and remains that I have learned to read my own poems more critically and that, despite my somewhat jaundiced attitude, I have learned to be a far better coach, teacher and writer than I otherwise might have been. So, my advice is that beyond the first couple you attend if you want to enroll in workshops, enroll for what you can give, not what you can get.

In the next post I will discuss where to go to get the help not provided by workshops.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Why not to workshop, part 2

This is really about why not to expect to get much from a workshop and is meant for those who have gone to more than two. The real reason is that if you're paying attention and maturing as a poet then workshops won't offer much. End of story. Because they operate at the lowest common denominator you will have to find your growth elsewhere. I learned after two or three workshops that I should never go expecting to get something, expecting to be given something. Thus, my next step was to plan exactly what I wanted to get as opposed to what might be offered. This relieved me from paying too much attention and allowed me to focus upon what I wanted. Of course, it didn't work that well and I was disappointed although I never left without gaining something tangible, usually from a lecture by a visiting writer; this was not enough alone to justify the expense. I also found myself unhappy putting up with those participants who made up the lower half that reduced the common denominator. They were honest,decent and tried hard. But they were not poets.
My next move made all the difference in the world. It will be detailed in my next post.
So long for now.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Why not to workshop, part 1

The first reason is that after the first couple they become formulaic and encourage formulaic writing. It's simple: Hook the reader with the opening, take a few turns, end with a surprise. The reason for this is simple: most of the people in the workshops don't "get" poetry, never will. But most of them are intelligent enough to learn some craft and well-crafted lousy poems are IN. Also, without lots of pretenders, who is going to support the writers running the workshops, many of whom are in fact pretty good poets? Anyway, I noticed after several workshop experiences that on looking back at my old poetry I was writing better but without the same passion. I asked poet Peter Liotta (a genuinely good poet of the highest order) how to retrieve the passion and he urged me to get out of the workshops; I had done enough of them. That was the last workshop I ever went to with the intention or hope of getting anything from them. The advice has proved itself excellent.

Next post-- part 2
So long for now.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why Workshops-- the pros

Twenty or so years ago I had my first workshop experience. It was an informal meeting with two other writers looking for people to workshop with and I was put in contact with one of them by Hugh Ogden who I had known since my college days. The three of us worked well together and managed to continue for a couple of years mostly monthly but with longer breaks. This prepared me for my first formal workshop at The Robert Frost Festival of Poetry at The Frost Place in Franconia, NH. My first year there I learned how to be there, the second year there was transcendent. I finally "got" poetry. I encourage all poets to get to formal, genuine workshops sometime early in their careers. It is good to find such communities and helps de-sterilize the environment we work in. Great launch pads! And now a note of caution-- There are a lot of reasons not to attend workshops. I'll begin to tell you what they are in the next post.
So long for now.