He blows it eight to the bar; or, On Moving Forward, Breaking Out, Stepping Up, Boogying Down; or, On Writing Better

I have an MFA in poetry. I pursued it because I felt I’d come to a plateau in my work, and I feared I did not really know what I didn’t know. And I felt like an MFA would be a good way to get some outside input into my work and to have a good impetus to focus focus focus. I was largely self-taught before that, reading texts of craft and some criticism, having some conversations, and, of course, reading reading reading poetry.

The MFA experience sort of kind of worked, but as I had never had any undergraduate preparation in poetry, nor English at all, it was not quite enough. Once I got my MFA I felt like I was really ready to pursue an MFA. I am lacking great gobs of history and information and could be more skilled in how to read a poem as a poet.

Fortunately, there is no end of great books about all this, and I try to keep a regular practice of reading them, but have fallen down in the recent past. I am feeling again on a plateau, and am happy to have stumbled upon Craig Morgan Teicher’s We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress. He examines the work of a variety of poets, sometimes in depth over the course of a lifetime’s work, sometimes in a more focused way, trying to determine the forces at work in someone’s work over time.

Although I don’t always follow what he’s saying, and am often perplexed at his assertions of examples of a poet’s best work and work that is weak. (It’s not helpful that he uses words like “obviously,” when what he is saying is not at all obvious to me; and assertions such as X work is “the best of the decade,” or Y is “a bit too much.” It makes me uneasy and insecure in my own assessments, and I don’t really need any more of THAT, thank you very much.) But he has a generous and sensitive eye, and for a poet, it must be a gift to be read by Teicher, for all that he can be bit stern in his discernments.

The chapters cover in depth and breadth of work: Merwin, Plath, Gluck; and in more concentrated segments, Ashbery, Francine J. Harris, Yeats, Lowell, and others. Again I’m reminded of the importance of taking one’s time in reading poetry. I cannot be reminded of this enough. And indeed I come back again and again to reading as a primary tool in a poet’s progress.

I have talked before about how to improve: More Better Blues. What I say then still applies now, and in the spiral of life, will apply next time I find myself stopped and slightly confused about how to move forward. But it occurs to me that this moment of pause, lifting my head and looking both back at where I’ve been and forward toward where I might go is itself a part of the process of improvement.

Although the word “improvement” is maybe not quite right, as it implies some scale, some external and rational system of measure. What do I really mean when I say I feel plateau’d? I think I mean I’d like to feel more out of my depth when I’m in the process of creating. If I feel too sure-footed, then I’m not in learning mode, I’m not bobbing around in a sea of possibility. I think I make better work when I’m splashing and flailing a bit, work that is more interesting — to myself, anyway. I guess it’s that old Frost quote about no surprise for the writer, none for the reader either.

One of the things Teicher identifies as breathrough moments in the work of some of the poets he examines is the breaking free of social constraints. I’m not sure if I feel particularly under the weight of social constraints. But of course, does anyone know that until they’ve broken free, or until someone later, in another decade, looking back, identifies what might be considered a zeitgeist, a social expectation or bind, and what might be considered a breaking?

I don’t know that in the moment any of us can understand our time and then act out of it. I think what he means is they broke with their own conventions.

So my takeaway is less that I should examine my constraints and break them than that I try new things. Try this, try that. Scattershot. Haphazard. Downright willy-nilly. Downright boogie woogie. How hard can that be?

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