writing poetry

66 posts

Bad Words: They Creep In

word

Bad words. They lose themselves in the crowd, but they are more prevalent than you think. Some of them are obvious, like the word “closed” in the expression “closed fist.” Modifiers are always guilty until proven innocent, and a better noun or verb always trumps an unnecessary modifier, so until they prove themselves good, adjectives and adverbs are suspect.

In his book Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry, Stephen Dobyns lists some so-called “bad words” to watch out for, but before we go there, know this: We all have our own personal list of bad words. These would be words we overuse without realizing it.

One way to track your word habits is to use the Search in Document function on Microsoft Word, the popular software many writers use. Or you could go to a website that will track words for you. Simply cut and paste your poem, essay, chapter, etc., and let the ghost in the machine scare up some statistical habits you have as a writer of words. Once such site is this one.

As for Dobyns, he lists the following culprits: still, even, some, yet, very, just, clearly, only, finally, quite, somewhat, rather, fairly, big, deep, loud, bright, etc.

You can highlight your poem or text and use the Search in Document function to scare these up one at a time. The deal then is to ask yourself: Can I do without this word entirely? Can I change it?

Sometimes the answer is yes. Strike, kill, and shout “Eureka! Less is more!” Sometimes the answer is no. This may be a “bad word,” you tell yourself, but if I use it infrequently and, where I do, it is key to the sentence or line’s meaning, it becomes a “good word.”

The point here is at least going through the exercise and making it part of your revision process. Add Dobyn’s bad words to your own list of unreliable go-to’s. Then search and, where appropriate, destroy.

How Do You Like THEM Apples?

m80

There’s nothing quite like the quiet after a storm. Thus my love for the Fifth of July, waking early, hearing only birds and wind through tree and leaf. It makes me feel so, I don’t know. Independent of noise.

Thank you, God.

Yesterday was a passing strange day for this blog. Holidays are slow days for online traffic. Notoriously. I only put my poem “It’s the Fourth of July” up because, well, it was the Fourth of July.

But a lot of people must have been home and on the web because a lot of people visited “Updates on a Free-Verse Life.” Most the site’s seen in over a month, in fact. And from all quarters of the Internet.

No one bought a book, which, ironically, was the prime reason for starting the blog so many years ago, but hey, poetry books usually sell only when they come out. Period. Two years later? It would be like Lourdes, where you’d have to separate the mirac- from the –ulous to find readers willing to take a chance on you.

Plus there are all sorts of myths (truths?) about sales and poetry books. One is that only other writers of poetry books buy poetry books, but even that has limits. As a poet, you can only extend your fiduciary kindness so far.

Two is that established poets outsell still-establishing poets (“Here, Peter Quince!”) by a country mile (“country” being Russia, east to west).

Three is that poetry books cost too much. Yes, there’s that. Though you can also argue that poetry by its nature is richer reading than prose because it holds up to rereading and, like music, offers greater pleasures through the act repetition (think “refrain” instead of “refraining from reading”).

In any event, there’s no getting around the fact that parents advise their children to grow up and become lawyers and doctors, not poets. “My son is a doctor,” women will say to their golf party at the club, never, “My son is a poet. How do you like them apples.”

Oh, would it were so. Just to see the expressions on the faces of ladies wearing lime-green skirts and visors before they tee off on the absurdity of it all.

Happy Fifth, folks. Enjoy your barbecued leftovers or, if you’re not American, enjoy the all our ironies from afar. (Assuming you’re bored with enjoying your own!)

“I Love Pretension” and Other Bits of Wisdom

socrates

Here is the last set of quotes I annotated in Mary Ruefle’s collection of essays, Madness, Rack, and Honey (recommended reading):

  • “I remember, in college, trying to write a poem while I was stoned, and thinking it was the best thing I had ever written.

“I remember reading it in the morning, and throwing it out.

“I remember thinking, If W. S. Merwin could do it, why couldn’t I?

“I remember thinking, Because he is a god and I am a handmaiden with a broken urn.”

Comment: Whether it involves an altered state (like Arkansas, which elected Tom Cotton a Senator) or not, we all can identify with this. Certain authors, be they poets or not, just make it look so damn easy. (See Hemingway comma Ernie, for one).

  • “I remember the year after college I was broke, and Bernard Malamud, who had been a teacher of mine, sent me a check for $25 and told me to buy food with it, and I went downtown and bought The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats.

Comment: A wise investment on Mary’s part, choosing food for thought over food for gut. And why didn’t I ever have a famous writer for a professor, one willing to send me checks, even? Instead, I had one that I handed a short story to for critique. He handed it back, saying, “I don’t have time for this.”

  • “I remember the first time I realized the world we are born into is not the one we leave.

Comment: And the corollary — we do not leave as the same person, either. Strangers, they’d be.

  • “They say there are no known facts about Shakespeare, because if it were his pen name, as many believe, then whom that bed was willed to is a moot point. Yet there is one hard cold clear fact about him, a fact that freezes the mind that dares to contemplate it: in the beginning William Shakespeare was a baby, and knew absolutely nothing. He couldn’t even speak.”

Comment: Finally, post-Disney, something Frozen we can embrace!

  • “Socrates said the only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing. It is his basic premise, one from which all his other thoughts come.”

Comment: If only we could find a politician with such basic premises. Instead, we have the makings of a book: The Arrogance and the Ignorance.

  • “And I came to believe — call me delusional — that no living poet, none, could teach us a single thing about poetry for the simple fact that no living poet has a clue as to what he or she is doing, at least none I have talked to, and I have talked to quite a few. John Ashbery and Billy Collins can’t teach you a thing, for the simple fact that they are living. Why is that, I wondered. I mean I really wondered. I think it is because poets are people — no matter what camp they sleep in — who are obsessed with the one thing no one knows anything about. That would be death.”

Comment: And to follow through, living people know nothing about death. And to those who think my first two poetry collections are dark and depressing and overly fraught with the topic of death, I say, “Touché,” which is French for “So there!”

  • “Ramakrishna said: Given a choice between going to heaven and hearing a lecture on heaven, people would choose a lecture.

“That is remarkably true, and remarkably sad, and the same remarkably true and sad thing can be said about poetry, here among us today.”

Comment: Get it? (Me either, but I like it!)

  • “Short Lecture on Craft”

Comment: This the title of a short section in the book. I was so flattered to read this and learned so much about my name!

  • “I love pretension. It is a mark of human earthly abstraction, whereas humility is a mark of human divine abstraction. I will have all of eternity in which to be humble, while I have but a few short years to be pretentious.”

Comment: Very cool. Just keep your pretensions under a bushel because, while they may be fun, they look butt-ugly to lookers-on.

  • “On one piece of paper I had written ‘the difference between pantyhose and stockings’ and I had scanned the statement — with marks — and written ‘the beginnings of an iamb,’ which is bizarre because I can’t scan or recognize an iamb.”

Comment: Thank you. And please forward to all these Unlovely Rita, Meter Maid, poetry editors out there who take their beats so damn seriously and reject any poem not stinking of the Ivory Poetry Tower (ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM, ba-BUM).

  • “Insanity is ‘doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.’ That’s writing poetry, but hey, it’s also getting out of bed every morning.”

Comment: Meaning we should celebrate getting out of bed each day as a new poem. Think about it. The bed you rise from, like fingerprints, never quite looks the same. Write  about it!

  • “Now I will give you a piece of advice. I will tell you something that I absolutely believe you should do, and if you do not do it you will never be a writer. It is a certain truth.

“When your pencil is dull, sharpen it.

“And when your pencil is sharp, use it until it is dull again.”

Comment: A fitting end to all of these quotes, though I wonder what the pencil equivalent is to keyboards? Cleaning the damn thing? I mean, really. What could be more disgusting than a keyboard and its lettered-cracks?

 

Why Death Is Literature’s Wingman

baxter

If you’ve ever taught literature, whether in college or in secondary school, you’ve surely come up against a common complaint from students: “Why is everything we read so depressing?” or, “Is every book, story, and poem about death, or is it just my imagination?”

Tongue in cheek, I always replied, “You’ll be happy to know that death is the great Muse, the inspiration, on some level, of much of the great literature we read and remember down through the ages.”

The students, few of whom would grow up to become English teachers, seemed less than impressed with that answer.

It all came back to me in reading Charles Baxter’s collection of essays on literature, Burning Down the House. One essay I particularly enjoyed is called “Regarding Happiness.” He opens it with an anecdote that I, as a poet and author of two books, could relate to. Let me share it:

“After a small press published my first book of poetry in 1970, I happened to be visiting my parents for a few days. On one particular evening late in my visit, my mother sat down with me during cocktail hour, a time when she often appeared to be emboldened. She held my book in her hand. Her martini was nearby, within easy reach. She studied me with a frozen smile and altered her position slightly on the sofa to give the impression that she felt relaxed; this impression failed.

“‘I’ve read your book,’ my mother said, digging for a cigarette in a mostly empty pack, having put down the book by now on the sofa cushion. She lit the cigarette, taking her time; she was in no hurry. She inhaled, and as she asked her question, smoke blew out of her nose and mouth. ‘My question is, when are you going to write a happy poem?’

“Thirty-seven years later, I cannot remember what I replied, but I hope I didn’t say what probably occurred to me: ‘Well, OK, when I’m happy, then I’ll write a happy poem.’

“Questions like the one my mother posed seem innocent, even comical, but after all, she was my  parent and was probably dismayed by my poetry and by the thoughts, images, and feelings displayed within it. Good! I wanted my poetry to dismay everybody. That was its purpose.”

Baxter’s memory resonated with me in particular because I have heard the same complaint about my collections of poetry. One GoodReads reviewer, who even took the time to cut and paste his review into Amazon, titled his review, quite simply, “Depressing.” He gave the offending depression 3 stars out of 5. I’m not sure what he gave the poetry.

As for my parents, unlike Baxter’s mother, they never directly spoke of my poems’ preoccupation with the great mystery of life (read: non-life), but I suppose the thought occurred to them as well. Why so much death? My parents place that topic in the same category as religion and politics and money: all verboten topics in polite company.

The Buddhists, among others, think differently. They counsel that we think about death and dying early and often. For them, it is a reminder of our brevity and insignificance, of our purpose while we’re here in the now, of our obligations not to desire stuff because that is the source of our misery.

Later in the essay, Baxter tells of assigning Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” to his undergraduates. Though the story unfolds in the shadow of death (a soldier returned to Michigan after WW I), it is surely as close to happiness as the protagonist, Nick Adams, is going to get. He is out in nature alone, doing what he loves to do (fishing), far away from his fellow man, far from the demons he met on the death fields of Europe.

When Baxter assigns this story to his undergraduates in college, they typically complain,”There’s no story!” and “Where’s the plot?” and “Nothing happens!”

Baxter writes: “To which my answer always has been: ‘Didn’t you ask for a story about  happiness? Well, here it is. You said you wanted happiness, but when I present it to you, you find it dull and empty’.”

You can’t win for losing, is the point. That and the fact that death, along with its depressing processional, always makes for better literature than happiness, which is best pursued without being captured (if it can be at all).

A final note. In his essay, Baxter shares a quote I quite like from Oscar Levant: “Happiness isn’t something  you experience; it’s something you remember.”

Reading this, it dawned on me that memory is like Loki the Trickster of Norse lore. It burnishes the past and makes it shine. It rids itself of any unpleasant dross. In hindsight, it looks so good that we realize we are not pursuing happiness, supposedly up ahead somewhere, it is pursuing us.

The best we can do is turn back and look at it like Orpheus or Lot’s wife, because there’s no going back.

Dead people? They say the same thing. Or would if they could.

 

 

A Sure Sign That Your Poems Might Suck

ordgen

Kim Addonizio’s book Ordinary Genius came out 11 years ago, so the statistics I’m about to cite about poetry readership are dated. The greater point remains valid, however. Let’s dive in ipso fasto and meet around the excerpt, shall we?

 

“Books of poetry will teach you more than your mentor or professor or the well-known poet you have traveled to a conference to work with. Reading is like food to a writer; without it, the writer part of you will die—or become spindly and stunted. If you’re afraid that reading will make you less original, don’t be. Falling under the spell of—or reacting against—other writers is part of what will lead you to your own work. Reading in the long tradition of poetry shows you what has lasted, and those poems are there to learn from. Reading your contemporaries shows you what everyone else is up to in your own time, so you can map the different directions of the art. There’s never one route to poetry, one style. Reading widely will help you see this.

“Here is a sobering statistic: Poetry, which has been for many years one of the premier poetry journals in America, has about ten thousand subscribers. Every year, it receives ten times that many submissions from writers hoping to land a poem on its pages.

“That’s a hundred thousand people, writing.

“Are they reading? Possibly. Maybe they’re not subscribing to Poetry because they’re spending their money on books by Neruda and Baudelaire and Muriel Rukeyser and Derek Walcott. But in fact, a large number of people who want to write poetry don’t seem to like to read it. Many journals have a circulation of a few hundred copies, and poetry books sell dismally compared to fiction or memoir: the first print run is usually one or two thousand copies.

“Maybe you’re one of those people who writes poems, but rarely reads them. Let me put this as delicately as I can: If you don’t read, your writing is going to suck.”

 

I love it when people get delicate, don’t you? Kind of like Mom and Dad when you were a kid growing up. Or certainly your siblings. Direct and to the point.

What’s worth gleaning here is this: Although she runs workshops herself, Addonizio is convinced that immersing yourself in the reading of poetry is the best training a wannabe poet can get, period. And yet the statistics seem to show that something else is afoot. Lots of writing, but nowhere near as much reading.

Certainly there’s a marked reluctance to plunking one’s money down for a poetry book or journal. This is surprising, considering the number of poetry practitioners is legion. Why do you think you wait six, nine, twelve months for a response from poetry editors? The transom looks like L.A.’s highway system, that’s why, while the poetry-reading traffic resembles rush hour in Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

What’s wrong with this picture? Addonizio would say, “Where to begin….” She finishes her chapter on reading with this flourish:

 

“I can’t stress this point enough: You need to soak up as many books as you can. Even the ones you don’t like can teach you something. If you were a painter, you’d spend time looking at works of art from every period in history. A chef I know, whenever he travels, eats enough for three people—he wants to sample all the dishes. Boxers study the great fights of the past, like the Ali-Forman “Thrilla in Manila.” Marketers look at the successes of past products to try to duplicate those successes. Poetry isn’t a product in that way, but you see what I mean. Read. Imitate shamelessly. Steal when you can get away with it. T. S. Eliot said, ‘Good poets imitate. Great poets steal.’

“So read. Let other writers teach and inspire you.

“Unless you really want your writing to suck.”

 

Time to look in the mirror, poets. What’s your writing / reading ratio? How much time do you spend reading, rereading, copying out, and memorizing poems (all practices Addonizio professes to practice as a successful poet)?

And what about your sense of history? Are you all about contemporary poets only (or even mostly)? Do the words “John Keats” send ripples of fear through your very being?

There’s no time like now to start changing all that. Especially if you’re “hunkering down,” a folksy expression for being cooped up by a pandemic.

The Long and Short of Big and Small Poems

snail

Unless you are talking haiku or senryū, short poems are scary. When you write them, you reread your work and feel a bit like an Italian grandmother looking at her skinny grandson, all skin and bones. Naturally, you want to put some meat on this weak thing. Feed it pasta and bread. Give it the nourishment of more words.

But sometimes, short poems are fine. You just have to trust them. I often arrive at my shortest poems by finally throwing out swaths of the larger poem it once was. Lines, stanzas, all deleted in the name of brevity because, paradoxically, what’s left does as much or more.

Brevity, when it works, is a powerful little shot. When it works. Sure, there’s always the danger of readers wanting more. These readers are not content with Hemingway’s iceberg theory applied to poetry (only show a little, let the reader infer the rest). But you are the ultimate arbiter. This is your skinny grandson, no?

Of course, long poems can be scary, too. “Howl” and “Leaves of Grass” notwithstanding, some readers wade in and start to drown in words. Is all of this necessary, they ask? Does the poet lack discipline?

Some beginning poets shy away from both the long and the short of it. They seek the safety of the middle, and their shortest efforts often begin in the 14-line realm of the sonnet.

Why, though? Short poems can be fun, and some topics work just fine with a brief snapshot of verse. And, for a stream-of-consciousness type work, what better than a meandering poem with voice?

As an example of a short poem that gets over the hill on its own, check out the following from Aracelis Girmay. It is called “Ars Poetica,” a popular title meaning “The Art of Poetry” which, thank the Muses, you are as free to define as the next poet.

Ars Poetica
Aracelis Girmay

May the poems be
the little snail’s trail.

Everywhere I go,
every inch: quiet record

of the foot’s silver prayer.
                    I lived once.
                     Thank you.
                    It was here.

Simplify to a Few Poetic Ingredients

wren.jpg

Simplicity. It was Henry David Thoreau’s word to live by, but it sure wouldn’t hurt a few poets to borrow, too.

Sometimes would-be poets make something simple overly complicated when all they need are a few basic ingredients. Then let these stew so the flavors can take hold.

Description, our old friend, is simplicity’s right-hand man. What does it look like, for starters? Choose the most prominent details and become the artist’s brush. A few specific nouns, a splash of color. Simile. Metaphor. But lightly. Lightly.

Just be sure your last piece of description is the most important. And waste no time ushering your reader into the poem in line one. Too often the opening lines of our early drafts are dispensable. Throat clearing before the speech.

Take care of that off stage.  Then boldly step forward to the mic and deliver, getting to the point. Making your point. Simply, but powerfully.

Exhibit A today is Robert Bly’s description of a dead wren in his hand. Imagery. Metaphor. There’s no reason to make it more complicated than that, is there?

 

Looking at a Dead Wren in My Hand
Robert Bly

Forgive the hours spent listening to radios, and the words of
gratitude I did not say to teachers. I love your tiny rice-like legs, that
are bars of music played in an empty church, and the feminine tail,
where no worms of Empire have ever slept, and the intense yellow
chest that makes tears come. Your tail feathers open like a picket
fence, and your bill is brown, with the sorrow of a rabbi whose
daughter has married an athlete. The black spot on your head is
your own mourning cap.

Foreshadowing, Literal and Figurative

shadow

Sometimes you can do some wonderful things with wordplay, even when said wordplay is deadly serious.

Take the word foreshadow. It is a literary term, yes, but watch what happens when an accomplished poet (in this case, Matt Rasmussen) plays with the word “shadow” lying inside the confines of the word “foreshadow.”

Interesting things, that’s what. The type things that get a reader / writer saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Of course, the answer is always the same: “Because someone else did first!”

But it’s good to know that there are plenty of other words waiting to be played with in interesting ways. Flip open that dusty dictionary in your study and take it from there.

 

Elegy in X Parts (My foreshadow stretches)
Matt Rasmussen

X.

My foreshadow stretches
out in front of me.

We stand on the soles
of each other’s feet.

I am a field
and there’s a man

standing in the middle
of me saying,

God is the sky pinning
me to my body.

I am a man
and there is a field

under me saying,
A dead man makes

love to the earth
by just lying there.

Self-Analysis as Creative Source

rodin

The best cure for writer’s block is the writer herself. Consider, writer, your field of expertise. Within the goal lines you will surely find these players: self, ego, and consciousness. Now jump in the stream and, as the psychologists say, let yourself go.

If you do, and you start with the prompt “I always have to be…,” you might come up with a poem like Ron Padgett’s “Think and Do” below. It looks easy, reading it, and nothing inspires an idea-hungry writer like the sensation of looking easy.

From a few things that define you as a person, you just relax on your back and let the stream of consciousness carry you down river. Enjoy the muffled sounds of forest and rushing river (your ears are underwater) and especially the moving sky and clouds above you, framed like art by treetops.

Before you know it, your sense of humor will kick in (it always does once you’re relaxed). And before you know it, you’ve gone from stuff you’re good at to non sequiturs. You know, like Rodin’s The Thinker, a big lug of a statue that holds within its muscular body all manner of contradiction.

By spicing your self-analysis with specificity and thought processes that your friends, upon reading them, would say, “Yeah, that’s just like him,” you’ll have a lively poem to work on in no time.

Looks easy, right? (Cardinal rule for writer’s block: Bring a sense of humor.)

 

Think and Do
Ron Padgett

I always have to be doing something, accomplishing some-
thing, fixing something, going somewhere, feeling purposeful,
useful, competent—even coughing, as I just did, gives me the
satisfaction of having “just cleared something up.” The phone
bill arrives and minutes later I’ve written the check. The world
starts to go to war and I shout, “Hey, wait a second, let’s think
about this!” and they lay down their arms and ruminate. Now
they are frozen in postures of thought, like Rodin’s statue, the
one outside Philosophy Hall at Columbia. His accomplish-
ments are muscular. How could a guy with such big muscles be
thinking so much? It gives you the idea that he’s worked all his
life to get those muscles, and now he has no use for them. It
makes him pensive, sober, even depressed sometimes, and
because his range of motion is nil, he cannot leap down from
the pedestal and attend classes in Philosophy Hall. I am so
lucky to be elastic! I am so happy to be able to think of the
word elastic, and have it snap me back to underwear, which
reminds me: I have to do the laundry soon.

Redefine, Sense, Identify, Write

silence

As a teacher, I often made use of the brief riches to be found in two sources: poems and short documentary films. Preview, prepare writing or discussion (or both) prompts, show, and turn it over to students.

For me, The New York Times’ “Film Club” series was an indispensable source of watch-and-write material. Most often the “write” was a Film Club Journal entry, but other times it was the gateway for an essay or poem or opinion piece.

As an example, consider the possibilities in the 7-minute documentary film called “Sanctuaries of Silence.” It tells the story of Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist (of all things) who goes out with sensitive listening devices and records the sounds of silence.

But hold on there. Let’s redefine first, an always fruitful assignment for students. Don’t let them assume or forever fall back on denotations. For creative purposes, pick an intriguing word and have them redefine.

Hempton redefines silence as the absence of human-made sounds. For him, sounds of the natural world alone don’t count as “noise.” No, noise pollution—that is, the product of the human race—rates as true “noise,” and it’s harder and harder to escape from it (think of planes passing overhead, even in the most remote of locations).

For student writers, going outside and putting their senses on high alert is good practice, whether it is a man-made setting or a natural one. In this case, it is sounds they would focus on and record in notebooks, but certainly it could be sights, smells, tastes, and sensations of touch as well.

Identify? What’s making that sound? If you think the exact source and its name is easy, just try identifying it. Hunting down the source of a noise is not always easy. Even crickets can grow shy when you get close enough, and does your average writer know the difference between a cicada and a katydid, a wood thrush and a yellow warbler? How about an urban setting? Manmade objects have specific names, too.

There’s an exact word for everything, all right, and specific nouns, along with active verbs, are the muscle and bone of good writing, no matter what the genre.

Starting with film or poem or both always makes for excellent writing kindling. Students love them, too, and they don’t eat up a lot of class time, so there’s a lot of educational bang for your instructional buck.

Not a teacher? Be an autodidact. Put that notebook to good use. Redefine, sense, identify, and write!