Like breathing in and breathing out; or, On Poetic Clarity

I don’t always want my poems to follow the strict rules of logic. I want there to be some air in my poems, if not leaps at least some hopping, some request that the reader understand less with the mind and more with that other thing that comes into play when we react to a piece of music, for example, or a piece of visual art.

It’s a response in the quiet of the self, inarticulate, “moved” as in to be set, internally, in motion.

But that being said, confusion in the mind creates confusion in the poem, and part of the process of revision is to clarify clarify clarify — both my intention behind and the poem’s expression of that intention. But even that sounds more logic-based than I want the poem-making process to be. Oy.

I’m working on one of my poems-that-start-as-long-blathers. I started it some weeks ago, let it sit, worked on it, let it sit. Now when I go back I am confused about what I thought I was up to.

Some of that confusion is the lack of logic in the poem’s thinking. But I’m finding as I’m clarifying that, I’m losing something. I’m making changes based on logic, but I’m losing something that was special and beyond logic. I’m finding I need to go back to the self who first blathered and ask what? what?

Unfortunately, that self is gone with the passage of time, and this other, confused self must sit with it all.

It’s interesting, as a process. A tad annoying as well. I was sure I was onto something back then. Now I can’t remember what.

I have found in my work as a copyeditor and my brief stint teaching a course that not-great writing comes out of not-great thinking. The authors and students who couldn’t quite think through something couldn’t write through it either. That being said, overthinking can kill a piece of writing as surely as underthinking.

I believe in the first-step technique of opening the mind and letting stuff spill out without regard for logic or connection or any kind of controlling. But then that orderly mind has to wade in and pull weeds.

I have, however, been known to overweed. I have a sad little patch in my garden right now to show for it, and a peony whom I thoroughly traumatized. Judicious must be the weeding, so air can move, ideas can stretch out, images can take on different casts, and the writer can be surprised, as well as the reader.

Wow, this is difficult. I find that I need, as I sit with this confusing/confused poem, to think less, breathe more.

We shall be released; or, On the First Person Plural in Poems

I’ve been advised enough times not to do it, you’d think I’d stop trying. But here we are again. The royal “we,” I mean, possibly, or the group of us who do such a thing, as opposed, I guess to the “they” who do not; that is: use the first person plural pronoun (we) in poems. Why do I keep trying to make it work?

It interests me to write poems from the perspective of this identity: a member of the human species. From this perspective I can think about the so-called “human experience,” not as “in opposition to the nonhuman,” but as a part of a, let’s face it, pretty significant force on the planet, and as a representative of a species that is able to think about itself and go “Hmm…really?” A member of a species that is aware of, possibly obsessed with, death, and, therefore?, a bit obsessed with life and its meaning.

But the use of “we,” or MY use of “we,” shall I say, has caused people to become argumentative (“you do not speak for me,” they say, or sometimes just “oh yeah?”) or to be otherwise put off by the lack of immediacy and intimacy (“hm, what are you distancing yourself from,” they ask). I don’t know, though. Do I not have the — what: right? capacity of imagination? proper hubris? — to speak out of that human stance?

The use of the all-humanity “we” has a long tradition, but fell out of favor when societies began saying “hey, wait a minute, this ‘we’ is not representing me, but rather the autocracy.” So social movements that overthrew old hierarchies to introduce a more democratic worldview plus a rise of the validation of the personal experience led to, it seems, a skeptical view of the poetic “we,” so fakely grand and oratorical it seemed, off-putting and snooty, the voice of empire. But I want to call it empirical: that is, based on experience, verifiable by observation.

As an anthropologist by study and natural inclination, I’m a participant observer here on earth among you/we humans. I hear your/our/my joys and pains and confusions. I believe that for all our differences — beliefs, tastes, fears of spiders v snakes, ability to roll the tongue or no, color, hair type, tattoo-level, who you worship, who you fuck — we humans are more the same than different. That’s the “we” I aim to write from.

But okay, fair enough, I’m not all people, and doubtless my imagination fails to capture much of the you-ness of you and your experience. So what’s the big deal for me about switching to “I”?

For me it gets tangled in the history of confessional poetry. As if what “I” am about to tell you better be pretty personal, or you’ll be disappointed.

Maybe contemporary taste is not willing to abide less than a confession. Maybe we don’t want to hear from some damn “we,” who, in point of fact, is a middle-aged white lady who quite possibly indeed does not know shit from shoe polish.

There has been much scholarship and musing on this topic, as I have found in my dive into it all. Back in 2004, writer Laura Miller said this in the “The Last Word” column in the The New York Times: “Modern readers find collective first-person narrators unsettling; the contemporary mind keeps searching for the familiarity of an individual point of view, since it seems impossible that a group could think and feel, let alone act, as one….You could say that the history of Western literature so far has been a journey from the first-person plural to the first-person singular, the signature voice of our time.”

On aerogramme.com in 2017, editorial director of The Masters Review, Sadye Teiser, noted this: “If the first-person plural tries to be too sweeping, if it does not acknowledge its own subtleties, it can miss the mark. But it also has the singular ability to harness a power that is not limited by the bounds of one character’s individual perspective. That is why the first-person plural is often used to describe events, be they real or unreal, that feel bigger than us. Even if there are things that we experience differently, there are others that we share, and that, especially in our times, is worth remembering.”

Martin Buber had this to say about “we”: “For the word always arises only between an I and a you, and the element from which the We receives its life is speech, the communal speaking that begins in the midst of speaking to one another.”

In Poetry in 2010, Jane Hirschfeld said: “I suppose some would say it’s terribly old-fashioned, or terribly arrogant, for a person to use ‘we’ in a poem to speak of ‘us all,’ but it’s a concept I still believe in — that certain experiences are universally and profoundly human, and that one of the possible tasks of poetry is to name or evoke them.”

Of course, I am aware that I have cherry-picked some quotes here, in order to bolster my continued attempts to get away with my “we” penchant. And you can continue to question my judgment about it. And we will continue this wrangle to voice ourselves to each other. After all, we’re in this together.

All misty wet with rain; or, Seeing the Forest Through the Trees; or, More on Revision

I swore off workshops long ago for a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, but as I’d been brooding over this particular poem for a while, and as isolation breeds a kind of insanity, I signed up for one.

It was not as bad as I’d feared it could be, although not as useful as I had hoped, but I did get one takeaway, which is, perhaps, all one can realistically hope for. It was worth the price of admission, but perhaps not entirely worth the hours of sitting staring into zoomland.

And I share it with you here for free. Cuz that’s the kind of gal I am.

The editing (or “revision”) process is often one in which I start with the idea of finding the weaknesses in a poem and getting rid of them. The process was reframed for me in that workshop in this useful way: Find the shining points in the poem and clear away anything that may be getting in the way of the shine.

It is very useful, this idea that the elements of a poem stand next to each other and cast shadows. You may want the shadows. You may not. I am grateful to be reminded to understand how the elements of a poem are standing together, what shadows they cast, what is illuminated and what is obscured by those shadows, and to take control of how light and shadow passes through the poem. You may want some, I think — some “chiaroscuro” in a poem, clarity/obscurity play of elements. But it needs to be carefully controlled so what is highlit is meaningful, what is shadowed is purposeful.

This may involve all the usual elements of revision: trimming, cutting, rearranging, but by thinking about it in terms of light and shadow, I’m able to bring a different kind of attention to the process, like thinning a grove of trees so as it strengthen the diversity of species, or dividing my vast, tangled patch of iris to let it thrive. So thanks for that, workshop.

As for the rest of the story, the workshop did give me the impetus to wade back in to the poem. I knew trimming would be advised, and some wholesale deleting of stanzas. A friend happened to be in the workshop and also had some specific advice re: my use of pronouns (more on that in another post) and the ending, as well as some need for clarification. So I took all that in hand and headed in, taking down trees.

Then I realized I could move stanzas around for logic of thought process.

I took out the ending. I wrote another one. Took that out.

Wrote a different beginning. Took that out.

Changed the pronouns.

Retitled the poem. Reretitled the poem. This process is useful for establishing my own understanding of the poem’s intentions.

I tried to walk away for a while. But kept thinking of new things to try. I put back in some things I took out earlier on.

All this changing led it to somewhat change direction. Okay, I thought, let it turn, and I’ll see where it goes.

It didn’t really go. I realized I was now writing things in to force it to go in this new direction. I felt like I was forcing the poem away from the thinking that was the impetus behind it in the first place. I took them out.

Finally, I went back and reread the original version of the poem. You know what? I kind of like it.

 

Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles; or, Anatomy of a Poem Making

Here’s a sentence I see on Facebook or heard spoken at open mics that I do not understand: “I wrote a poem today.”

There is no way what I write in a day could be considered, in my mind, “a poem.” It MIGHT become a poem. Someday. But in one day, it is and can only be some stuff I’ve written that is amorphous and possibly colossally crappy or just random thoughts that will never be more than that. I guess other people work differently. The best I could say in a day is that I took some lumps of stuff that I wrote x days/weeks/months/years ago and poked and prodded and twisted it into something that either might be a poem or is The Best Poem Ever Written but check back with me tomorrow.

I’m working with a bunch of pages of thought over several days, seeing whether there’s anything in there that seems like a poem, i.e., seems like it’s saying something more than it’s saying and doing so or can do so in some kind of interesting way that can make use of silence and pauses and imagery and rhythm.

Which I guess is my basic definition of what a poem is.

So I’m taking these pages of longhand and moving them onto my computer, and, interestingly, to me anyway, they are taking the form of triplets, that is, three lines that seem to form a whole, a whole that is somewhat distinct from the three lines that came before and after, but that speak across the gap (Can I call them tercets? Do tercets have to rhyme? I don’t know). And by three lines, sometimes I mean three sentences or three fragments, or one extended thought that seems to have three parts or within which the introduction of the pause of a line break, or the wink or nudge of an enjambment or caesura suggests a deeper layer of how to read the thought.

It’s interesting to me that I did not set out to think in threes nor to develop a form at all but rather the content itself dictated this approach, at least in this first round. Isn’t that funny? This is form finding itself, or content finding its form, elbowing out all awkward and sticky, stretching and yawning.

When I see it finally all stretched out, then with fresh eyes I can try to “hear” it, assess whether it’s something greater than its parts. As I read it to myself, I want to feel the movement of air in it, of sound and quiet, but also a sense of things moving in the dark. This is a gut-level response.

Sometimes I know right away that what I have is not working, it is too filled with, e.g., self-consciousness, or feels effort-full, or just falls flat, no feathers nor loft. Sometimes I think, oh, yeah, this is a Thing. In that case, as I’ve written here many times before, only time can provide me with a check on that response.

Before I do much more fiddling around with this Thing-Possible I’d better let it lie for a while. Back to the Great British Baking Show for me. Tomorrow is another day.

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?

What do you do with a drunken sailor; or, On Failure

I am thinking today about the economic notion of “sunk costs.” I recently finished a project that took a lot of time and effort, and I hate it. It sucks.

I’ve spoken in this space before about how all creative people must allow themselves to make sucky work. But I need to take a minute to dwell in the rendeth-my-garment frustration of coming to the end of creating something only to be gravely disappointed. A moment of grief must be allowed. A flopping about of dismay.

But in the end, crap is crap, no matter how much time and good intentions it took to make. There’s no regaining the time and attention. It’s all part of the process. And I know I’m supposed to be focusing on appreciating the process. But, arrrghghgh.

I know some of you softies are thinking, “Oh, you’re being too hard on yourself. It’s probably fine.” There are some good moments in it, I’ll admit (it’s a cartoon), and I continue to be astonishedly pleased at some of the things that can come out of my not-entirely-in-control scribbling with my fingertip on the iPad. But a few moments doth not an entire piece make.

Can it be saved? I don’t think so. I’ll give a little time to trying to piece something together from the moments I like, just to indulge you. But I’m not sanguine. A word which also means bloody, which is closer to how I feel.

I’ll also spend some time thinking about whether I learned anything along the way, so it might not all be for naught. Processing the process, as it were.

So allow ourselves to make crap, yes. But I think it’s also worth taking a moment to grieve the sunken treasure of time and creative energy, the debris of the process settling lightly on the ocean floor, glinting of false promises.

Synchronistically, I heard an interview recently and it took me three times to understand that what the interviewee was saying was “work of art” not, as I had braingzingingly thought, “workfart”…

Then we take Berlin; or, Editing the Heart of the Matter

Most editing advice edits at the level of the word or sentence: do you have too many articles, are your verbs too boring, are your sentences too syntactically the same? But sometimes (often?) I find the problems I can’t seem to overcome with a poem are either in the entire approach of the poem, or the content. This is far harder to fiddle with effectively.

For example, I have a poem now that is well grounded in sensory stuff, but it takes a sudden turn at the end, and I can’t figure out if that’s okay, or if it seems abrupt because it does not grow organically out of what came before in the poem. Is it another poem all together? If I take out that turn, the rest of the poem seems unfinished. Maybe I have yet figured out what the poem is about, so I stuck on this other thing. On the other hand, maybe I just need to weave the ending into the rest of the poem. Or maybe the poem just sucks and I need to start over.

Do you see the problem? This is not a put-a-comma-in-take-it-out thing. This is an existential quandary at the poem level.

Sometimes if a poem does not seem to work it’s because I have not reached far enough. In this case, it may be that I’ve reached too far — beyond the scope of the poem into another poem all together.

This is the most interesting aspect of the editing process, eyeballing one’s own utterances, meditating on the source of images, the hidden reasons behind unconscious choices of vocabulary, choices of sound. Something has appeared here on the page, blurted out of my various levels of consciousness. It interests me. It fails me.

Sometimes ideas can be unearthed by playing at the level of word and syntax and sentence and sense-unmaking — so editing at that level can be useful too for this deeper examination — but at risk of the nicely arranged Titanic’s deck chairs’ fate.

I need to ask of the poem what it’s deepest intentions are. I need to ask, brutally, whether this is a poem that has enough to be said that it’s worth saying. Is it a nice description but not much more? Is it a clever snapshot but not a well considered moving picture with chiarascuro and resonance? Was it a moment’s effort that came of some deep bodied quake or a moment’s effort that came of a brainy shake?

I owe it to myself and the poems to ask this.

And if I have even a whiff of doubt, I need to listen to it, even if I share it and others say ooh and ah. If I think something’s awry, then something’s awry.

There is some level of communion I have to come to with a poem like this, to feel its beating heart. And if I can’t find a pulse? Well, there’s my answer.

I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home; or, On Letting the Writing Be

I read somewhere recently about the advice to start your writing practice with this question: What am I writing to learn today? It occurred to me that this might provide a grounding for what might otherwise be meandering balderdash and piffle.

I found, however, that it put so much pressure on me that I haven’t written a word in weeks. Must I learn something new all the time? It makes me tense.

So I’ve decided to jettison that advice. It’s a good question, but a question better devoted to somewhere in the editing process. This allows me to blather and pine all I want in the writing moment. Then worry about edification and inquiry somewhere down the line, when with the editing process things get serious.

I share this so you won’t make the same mistake.

Write on.

Down to the Crossroads; or, Confidence and the Editing Process

I’ve gotten a couple of acceptances just recently that I’m very pleased about. And it has also thus far been a year of many rejections. I have certain pieces I’ve really believed in that just keep getting rejected over and over again, and I’m losing my confidence. Do I really know how to assess my own work? Am I just wrong?

My rational self says, “Yes, sometimes you’re wrong. But sometimes,” it assures, “you’re not wrong. It’s just that this is the game — send stuff out, get it rejected, repeat.”

But, I argue, how do I know when I’m right and when I’m wrong?

Rational Self says, “Oh, um…is that the phone? I think I hear the phone. Gotta go…”

I’m in this place of doubt — not necessarily doubt about my work, but doubt about my ability to understand what in the work is working. And what isn’t. I know I’ve been here before. I know the mood has passed. I don’t know if I had discovered some way out of this fog, or whether it’s just time, and distraction. I’ve forgotten. I know I come back to two things: that time is the best editor; and that there is something at gut-level that knows things about my work. But when time and gut still says it likes a work that has been getting rejected for years? I know I’ve written in this very space about honing one’s own editorial sense. But can I really believe myself? I dunno.

Rational Self rolls her eyes.

The editing process takes inner calm, perspective, and confidence. This is especially true when it comes to “knowing” that something is ready to send out. My own process is too often to send stuff out too soon, get it back rejected, and suddenly see a new editing angle. But hey, it’s a process. But there are some times in which I just can’t muster up the guts to do good editing on my own work, or see it with a sufficiently cold eye. (And I do think there are some of my works that I’ll just never get perspective on. I’m just going to love their flawed selves and that’s it. I’ll tuck them into a manuscript somehow or incorporate them into a visual project maybe. But I won’t abandon them to my C-level folder! I won’t!)

A friend of mine who breeds and raises dogs talks about puppy panic periods: something a puppy did without fear a day before suddenly turns it into a whites-around-the-eyes, stiff-legged-no-way-I-ain’t-doin’-that trembling mess, and pretty soon pretty much everything freaks it out. The periods generally only last a few days, although the puppy might have another such period some time later in its development. I think I have puppy panic periods throughout my whole life. Different things set me off at different times (there are some things, of course, that set me off EVERY time). (Spider!) I think I must be in one now.

Time will move me off this, and I’ll regain my self-confidence, and/or regain some perspective on those pieces that have received consistent rejections, and/or continue to believe in them beyond all reason. Right now, though, I’m going to just sit here quietly for a while.

That’s not a spider over there, is it?

 

You Can Leave Your Hat On; or, Rethinking Writing and Editing

I like to flounce around thinking I know things.

So it’s good when I stumble upon ideas that wake me up to my profound ignorances. A few things I read recently made me rethink my often cavalier approach to writing and particularly to editing.

First was this from1984: “The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.” In 1984not only is history rewritten daily but language itself is being narrowed, and as language narrowed, thought itself stultified. Thinking and language is, for us, our wag-tongued species, inextricable. “Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.”

I have always loved words, even as a little tiny kid would leaf through a book on the family shelf called How to Build a Better Vocabulary. Words were as magic as magic, and as delightful in the mouth as chocolate chip cookies, as cake with candles. And I can almost remember a visceral sense of my mind expanding as I encountered new words that struck me, words that opening up new worlds, new ways of thinking.

I just read Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks, a wonderful book about books and words, specifically words of regional dialect that describe things specific to regional experiences: how the fog creeps across the moor, the way certain rock formations sparkle, how the regular passage of a small animal through a hedge creates a hole. Worlds and worlds, words and worlds.

I think of Rilke in the 9th Duino Elegy: Maybe we are here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit, tree, window…. (Well, is the best translation “pitcher”? Or is is it “jug”? “Carafe”? “Box of Wine”?) Looking through my recent drafts I think I’ve gone slack with language. One editing exercise I do in my writing workshops is to ask everyone to examine all the verbs in their draft, and act to wake up those verbs, make them carry more weight, move with more gravitas or fleetness. Editor, edit thyself.

And then I encountered the words of an old friend, whose work never fails to humble me to my own limitations: Doug Glover has a new book of essays on writing coming out. It’s called, characteristic of his humor, The Erotics of Restraint: Essays on Literary Form. Here in an adapted extraction published on TheWalrus.ca, Glover speaks volumes about sentences:

A few key quotations from Douglas Glover, “The Power of a Good Sentence,” on TheWalrus.ca:

– “One day, I happened to read an essay called ‘On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature’ by Robert Louis Stevenson. He was talking about sentences, but instead of repeating platitudes, he showed how to construct sentences on the basis of conflict. Instead of just announcing a single thesis, a sentence begins by setting out two or more contrasting ideas; the sentence develops a conflict, intensifying toward a climax, a ‘knot’ Stevenson calls it, and then, after a moment of suspension, slides easily toward a close.”

– “Suddenly writing a sentence became an exciting prospect, a journey of discovery, a miniature story with a conflict and a plot, the outcome of which I might not know at the outset.”

– “The lesson is to inject conflict, rhythm, plot, and energy into your sentences by deploying relatively simple forms. Never leave a crude sentence snoozing on the page when there is the possibility of dramatic elaboration.”

Oh, dear.

And so I fall back, retreat — retreat!– to the beginning — or, is it really the beginning, or some waypoint on the spiral? — to begin again, to roll/push/shove/muscle/spin/turn/revolve/cycle/trundle my rock of carbuncled words and sentences up the rubbled hillside again.