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.