University of Nebraska Press
Can You Read Your Poem Through Your Poem?
When my sister and I were small children, perhaps five and eight years old, our parents took us to the Wisconsin Dells, a popular tourist attraction just a few hours' drive from my grandparents' home in northeastern Iowa. These picturesque rock palisades on the Wisconsin River are a smaller, flooded version of Colorado Springs' spectacular Garden of the Gods.
I remember very little of that trip, but we can be almost certain it was one of our family's daylong outings with a predictable lunch of cold meat, mayonnaise, and Wonder Bread sandwiches. I have forgotten most of that day, and have long since lost whatever souvenirs I wheedled my dear parents into buying, trinkets that would have been paid for slowly and painfully, coin by coin, from a purse that my mother always held tightly in both hands. I probably went home with one of those little souvenir Indian tomahawks in my lap, one with a black rubber blade painted aluminum and a few brightly dyed chicken feathers tied around the handle. Or perhaps it was an Indian drum made of pieces of inner tube stretched by shoelaces over a cardboard cylinder.
But I do vividly remember going for a ride in an excursion boat that had a clear glass bottom. It floated with grace and ease and a throbbing gurgle across water brightly dappled with summer sunlight. Beneath the glass floor I could see fish swimming, catfish and carp and gar, and rocks eroded into imaginative shapes, and soda bottles that people on earlier cruises had dropped over the side.
I remember being completely absorbed by this underwater world until a large woman sitting nearby leaned over too far and her white-rimmed cat's-eye sunglasses slid off the end of her nose and fell with a clatter onto the glass. That sudden interference on the surface of the dreamy world beneath me brought my attention back to the glass floor, back to the ordinary world of being a little boy, hot and impatient and cross. The moment had been spoiled.
Enjoying a well-written poem can be like going for a ride in a glass-bottomed boat. The poet deftly and confidently pilots the language, taking the reader across sometimes deep, sometimes cold, often colorful waters. The reader peers down through the clear floor of the poem, down through the page upon which words have been printed with type and ink, a page now magically gone transparent, into a fascinating realm revealed by the poem. The reader's experience in this world beneath the page is much like a dream, trancelike and timeless. His or her attention swims playfully among the waving grasses and mossy rocks of the poem, until something — a pair of sunglasses maybe — suddenly clatters down upon the surface and spoils the moment. You don't want that to happen.
You'll find all sorts of dropped sunglasses on the surface of poem. For example, here are just a couple I often come upon:
The ampersand — & — was invented by typesetters to enable them to make their lines of lead type a little shorter in length, so as to fit the horizontal restraints of narrow columns, and poets do sometimes use them for that reason, to shorten a line enough that it needn't be broken and dropped to the next line. But I never come upon an ampersand in a poem that doesn't hang me up for just an instant while I wonder why the poet decided to use it. There is really nothing wrong with the word "and," and it doesn't attract any attention, but every ampersand requires a reader to think about it, if only for a second. I'm sure plenty of readers are so accustomed to ampersands that they don't even notice them, and I'm probably a crank on this, but the use of any graphic symbol in place of a word is just a little risky.
Another stylistic trend in contemporary poetry is to drop articles, perhaps in an attempt to heighten the energy of the language. A poet might do something like this:
CB radio blares, man shouts,
There are times when writing like this can be effective, and times when a reader is brought up short, wondering why on earth a poet would choose to "talk" that way, to sound like a robot. The standard use of articles avoids this stylistic affectation and calls no attention away from the poem and to the poet's choices.
A CB radio blares, man shouts,
a dog growls...
And so on. In your poetry reading you'll find all sorts of little things dropped on the glass.
Work and Rework and Rework
You can learn to love tinkering with drafts of poems till a warm hand from somewhere above you reaches down, unscrews the top of your head, and drops in a solution that blows your ears off. Sure, there are plenty of days when nothing good happens, days when every word you write seems silly and shallow, when your revisions seem to be dragging your poems in the wrong direction. But you need to be there writing and waiting, as a hunter might say, for that hour when at last the ducks come flying in. To say it more simply, in the words of a painter friend, you just need to "show up for work."
A couple of years ago, I happened to be talking to a man about pitching horseshoes. He told me his uncle had been a three-state horseshoe champion for several years running. He said he once asked his uncle how he'd gotten so good at the game, and the uncle said, "Son, you got to pitch a hundred shoes a day." That's the kind of advice beginning writers should listen to: Keep pitching them horseshoes. We poets serve an art, just as a champion horseshoe pitcher serves his game.
Relax and Wait
You've written your poem. The first step in spotting its flaws is a simple one. Set aside what you've written and let it cool off for a while, the longer the better. Take a look at it after twenty-four hours if you must, tinker with it a little. Does there seem to be an awkward rhythm in one of the lines? Are there places that could use more specific detail? And so on. Then set it aside again for as long as you can stand to. Like a petri dish, the longer you leave a poem by itself the more stinky fungus will surface. As Edward Weeks said, "When the ideas begin to run smoothly they can so easily run away with us, leaving behind pages which in a colder mood seem full of extravagance." Extravagance, certainly, but just plain stupidity, too.
If you can manage to do it, leave your poem alone till it begins to look as if somebody else might have written it. Then you can see it for what it is, a creation independent of you, out on its own. A poem must be equipped to thrive by itself in a largely indifferent world. Yon can't be there with it, like its parent, offering explanations, saying to a confused reader, "Yes, but here's what I meant!" A poem has to do all of its own explaining.
What's the hurry? The truth is, nobody's waiting for you to press your poetry into their hands. Nobody knows you're writing it, nobody's hungry for it, nobody's dying to get at it. Not a living soul has big expectations for the success of your poem other than you. Of course, you want it to be wonderful-pure genius, beautiful, heartbreaking, memorable and by coincidence that's just the kind of writing your audience would like to be reading. So let time show you some of the things you've done wrong before you show your poem to somebody and are embarrassed by a problem, or two or three problems, that you just couldn't see in the exhilaration of just having written it.
And don't stop writing while you're waiting for one poem to mature. Most of us are tempted to wait for approval before moving on. We want our mothers to praise our mud pies before we make any more. But if you're going to get better at writing, you have to write a lot. You have to press on. Isak Dinesen said, "Write a little every day, without hope, without despair." When you finish a draft, or get stuck, put it out of your sight in a drawer. After a month or so, you can take out that poem and the others with it and start looking through them, beginning with the oldest. You'll be amazed at the way in which the passage of time has helped you come up with solutions to problems you had during those early drafts. You'll also be surprised at how awkward some of it may seem.
Don't worry that the process of revision seems slow. The writer's tools were developed early — paper, pen, and ink; a watchful eye; an open heart — and good writing is still the patient handiwork of those simple tools. A poet who makes only one really fine poem during his life gives far more to the world than the poet who publishes twenty books of mediocre verse. The Industrial Revolution did not reach imaginative writing until recently, and today black clouds of soot belch from the smokestacks over the creative writing schools. Poems get manufactured and piled on the loading docks where many of them rot for lack of transport. Wouldn't we all be better off if there wasn't such an emphasis on productivity?
At a party, I once heard a woman say that it was "criminal" that Harper Lee had written only the one novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. What peculiar expectations we've developed for our writers! "Criminal?" We ought to be thankful Lee used her time to write her book as perfectly as she could, that she didn't rush a lot of half-finished books into print.
So just relax. There's plenty of time to do your writing well and, if you're lucky, to make a poem or two that might make a difference.
Reprinted from The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, published by University of Nebraska Press, 2005, and used here by permission of Ted Kooser.