Monday, March 15, 2010

When It’s Hard, It’s Good

I’ve been reading a lot of Thomas Merton lately and in The Thomas Merton Reader in the essay “Poetry and Contemplation” he is very stern about what poems should not be written.  Be advised:  He speaks of Christian poetry and I am speaking about poetry in general and thus expropriate his idea and apply it more generally than he might be expected to do.

Merton writes of poems written from mere intention-- that is poetry merely willed by the poet-- as being better off not written.  There is a necessary indefinable aspect of poetry without which it is not genuine.  This aspect is at once ineffable, inspired, Providential, unspeakable and without it the poem is inauthentic.  The poem simply cannot exist wholly at the will of the poetThe poem is beyond the poet’s control and until it achieves that, and the poet achieves the ability to let it happen, the result will be less than desirable.

Fortunately, it is the out-of-control part that makes continued poetic effort possible.  It is because the poet is trying to speak illimitable truth in limitable language that he must never be satisfied and will always know the joy of being unfinished, of being able to say it better.

Do not get me wrong—I strongly advocate practicing writing, practicing forms, writing a lot with or without inspiration because, as I have so often averred, the craft of the poet demands and warrants fully as much practice as the concert pianist who labors over his keyboard hours a day.  But, as with the great pitfall of workshops,  what is thus produced is practice, not the final product.

Without the practice you are unlikely to make the best possible attempt to at least believably indicate the presence of truth in your poems and, without the accretion brought to the poem by the ineffable, the poem will ultimately fail.

As Woody Guthrie shouts:  It's a-hard, and it's hard, ain't it hard, great God…

It’s hard and, by God, it’s great too.

So long for now.