Saturday, September 09, 2006

Conscious Craft or Dictation? 2

Continuing on this topic, I dialogued about it earlier this year with poet and friend Ed Wickliffe. The dialogue began when another poet asked: What makes a good poem good? I replied, in part:

What I think is typical of good and great poems is the experience of being aware of something greater than oneself, present, when reading the poem. I realize this is an aesthetic, somatic emphasis, rather than an emphasis on technique or craft alone.

If you try to establish a criteria of greatness based solely on the technical and craft aspects of the writing, you will rapidly run into trouble, as example after example is brought forward of great poems that are not technically perfect, don't have top-notch syntax and grammar and rhetoric, in fact break or defy many of the rules of rhetoric and craft, yet are still sublime, powerful poems. On the other hand, there are thousands of examples of perfectly-crafted, perfectly-written poems that leave one completely cold, unmoved, and bored, and which poems do not linger in the memory.

The greatness of a poem happens in part when the synergy of all the poem's aspects converge to make something greater than the whole. This greater sum of course includes the technical aspects of the poem; but it also transcends them, and is not limited to them. So, one needs to add up all the aspects of the poem, including its re-readability, and its ability to linger in one's memory, in order to locate its nexus of greatness. A truly great poem is one that you get something more out of, each time you re-read it.

I will always argue that the technical aspects of writing—the craft of writing—are there in service of the inspiration. They are very important, yes, and I have never said they are not. But they are not an end in themselves, as, frankly, many writers seem to think they are.

As many masters of their particular arts and crafts have said over the centuries: After you have learned the craft, set it aside. After you have mastered the techniques, forget about them. That is when one becomes a true beginner.

In my opinion, most poets cling to the tools, and never get around to setting them aside, and so never get to that level of real mastery. That level of real mastery is where great poems will start to appear. Before that, it's usually just a happy, non-repeatable accident. So, by all means, learn the technicalities! But then, give them away, and stop clinging to them, as too many poets do.

This problem arises, of course, because one can teach the technical aspects of writing, but one cannot teach how to write a great poem. So, when one is fresh from a writing seminar, full of new tools and ideas, it is easy to mistake the craft for the inspiration, and confuse them with each other.

The Sonnets to Orpheus come to mind. Rainer Maria Rilke had mastered the craft and techniques of poetry for quite some time when these Sonnets came to him, and he threw away all the rules. These poems break all the rules, rules of length, diction, technical form, even rhyme—and yet they remain recognizably sonnets in their essense. That's the paradox of a great poem: it often breaks all the rules learned by the poet in all the years prior to its writing.

If the counter-argument is, "well, Rilke was special, we can't all be like that," I would say that that's a betrayal of one's own poetry, not to at least aspire to that level of mastery. Humility aside, it seems a mountain worth climbing. Maybe we won't all get to that level, but if we don't even make the attempt, how can we expect to ever produce a great poem ourselves? Again, we could be lucky and write one or two great poems by accident. But who wants to do anything by accident, when it's possible to learn to do it with intention, and consciousness fully engaged, fully alive, fully involved in the act of creation?

Note too, that when Rilke wrote about the process of writing he Sonnets, and the last Duino Elegies, he called it a "great giving," and spoke about it in transpersonal, non-ego-centered ways. In the letters he wrote to friends during those fevered days and nights in February 1922, what he expressed was gratitude, rather than pride. Perhaps this, too, is a necessary prerequisite for making a great poem: genuine humility, rather than self-deprecation or false modesty; genuine receptiveness, rather than an attempt to totally Control what appears when the pen hits the page.

Ed replied to the above comments with the following:

Do you mean you never make simultaneous craft decisions when writing? You never think what might work, and what might not work with your subject and voice? You make a columnar poem without intending to? A good enjambment is coincidence? Your rhythm or tempo is accidental? Alliteration is pure chance? A poem is only a crap shoot of random characteristics?

I think we talk meaninglessly when we talk about forgetting craft. The only one who ever forgets craft is the person who knows nothing about it. For example, I would make a terrible blacksmith, but a respectable wordsmith. The difference being that I understand something about the craft of one, but not the other.

Let's say I have this artistic inspiration about a wrought iron sculpture; it's like nothing anyone's ever seen. Too bad I can't make it happen. I don't have the craft skill for it.

To which I replied:

I do agree with you on one important underlying point: never give up the tools too soon. Where that point is reached, wherein one forgets the tools, will vary from person to person. It can take years to reach it.

I've been writing poems for 30 years. I've been driving for the same number of years. I've been playing, composing, and performing music for 40 years. I've been a serious photographer and visual artist for around 20 years. I'm a damn good driver; I've driven around half a million miles in my life, and been involved in only three or four accidents in all that time. Do I think about the mechanics of driving when I'm driving? Absolutely not. That could be a fatal distraction. Instead, I know my vehicle very well, and know exactly how it will respond under almost all road conditions. As for poetry, music, and visual art, I'll leave that up to others to judge.

Have you have ever read anything from the yogic traditions? The descriptions of the process of attaining mastery written in that tradition are sublime. One does indeed forget about the craft aspects, after a certain level of practice, on this road, in the sense that they are no longer in the forefront of consciousness. You forget about them the way you forget about driving a vehicle: you just drive, and your attention is not on how the motor is doing, or if the tires are in perfect form, until and unless the motor fails, and needs your attention.

I guarantee you that no musician, except the very earliest beginner, sits down to play and thinks, "Now I have to put my hands here, now I have to move my hands here." If they did that, beyond the first stages of learning to play music, they wouldn't ever actually make anything like real music. The music starts to happen when we stop thinking about how to move our hands, but trust our hands to move where they must to support what we are hearing.

The practiced blacksmith is thinking about the end result, molding the metal to match what is in his mind. He is not thinking, "now I have to pick up the hammer and strike it exactly like this with exactly this force." He picks up the hammer and hits the metal, just so. Ever actually done any blacksmithing? I have, and carpentry, and stonework, and weaving, and other crafts. The tools become part of you, an extension of your hands, and you do indeed "forget about them," in exactly the same way you forget about the mechanics of walking: you just walk.

To answer the questions, specifically, and I really don't care if anyone believes me or not, but this is the truth, the truth of my experience and artistic practice discipline:

Do you mean you never make simultaneous craft decisions when writing?

Pretty much never. Not absolutely never, of course, no-one would claim that, but they are not in the forefront of consciousness. And I don't stop the process of writing the poem itself, I don't stop to consider them. That is what editing is for, and editing comes later, not during the writing process. Stopping in the middle of writing a poem to make a craft decision can outright kill the mood, and thus kill the poem. Here we approach another statement repeated by many writers and writing teachers: Turn off your internal critic/editor when writing; edit later. This is not to say, never edit at all. Usually even a good first draft needs some detail work.

You never think what might work, and what might not work with your subject and voice?

No, I don't. Nor do I know what the voice is going to be when I start writing. Usually I know what the subject is going to be, and usually the subject is a liminal experience. The question makes writing a poem sound like an intellectual exercise, that one can write an outline for, beforehand.  It isn't at all like that, for me. Again, if there is a problem, the problem-solving comes later, during revision.  

If a poem doesn't work, for one reason or another, I often set it aside and let it percolate, rather than trying immediately to "fix" it; I might also do a fresh take on the same subject, in a new poem. Emptying the mind of pre-conceived thoughts and plans is exactly what it's all about; and this is a form of meditation, of course, the "beginner's mind" that they talk about in those aesthetic disciplines that have been influenced by Zen. (For example: haiku-writing, calligraphy, flower arrangement, archery, room design, and the art of drawing the sword.)

You make a columnar poem without intending to?

All the time. The poem's form tends to shape itself as I write; often enough, the form is a product of the content, and emerges organically during the process of writing. I have written matrix poems, which can be read in multiple directions, not by setting out to write a matrix poem, but because the words seemed to want to come out that way. I almost never set out writing with a form in mind, with the exception of haiku and its related forms (haibun, haiga, tanka, renga). I can spend time as much re-writing a haiku as I might spend editing a longer, no-form poem. What I set out to write with intention and concentration is A Poem—not A Formal Poem, not A Sonnet, just A Poem—and I wait to see what emerges. Since I'm a visual artist, a calligrapher and typographer, I often look at the poem's shape on the page, immediately after writing it down, and do some tweaks; but again, this happens during re-writing and editing, not during the initial writing itself. I grant that the distinction might be unclear to an observer watching me scrawl in my journal.

A good enjambment is coincidence?

I don't believe in coincidence, I believe in synchronicity; but a good enjambment is often instinctual or intuitive. Again, these technical detials can also be improved during revision. The sensation I get, often, is a like physical shift—not at all a verbal experience—of some part of me saying, Start a new line here. After three or four times feeling that sensation, at the beginning of writing, the poem's form tends to emerge. Sometimes I get a visual in advance, an imprint of the layout on the page, but not that often. The point is, enjambment is a somatic experience, not a pre-made intellectual choice. Writing is a physical act, not just an intellectual one.

Your rhythm or tempo is accidental?

I wouldn't say accidental, because I'm a musician and I have a good, well-trained ear. But do I consciously think about it as I write? No. It just flows, or syncopates, as it goes. Sometimes in crit someone will point out that I've written a five-beat line, and my response is a bemused and appreciative, "Oh, I did? Cool. Thanks." Believe me, I personally have encountered hundreds of musicians who never forget the tools, either; so, the road towards mastery is found in all the creative arts.  

Masters of various arts have more in common with each other, despite their varying arts, then they do with non-masters of their same art. One recognizes these people when one meets them. They have an observably similar approach to their work, be it sculpture, poetry, music, or blacksmithing. One can learn a lot just by watching how they work. Some of the opinions I have stated in this thread have been derived from, or bolstered by, watching master craftsmen perform their arts.

Alliteration is pure chance?

Often enough; but again, as a musician, I notice them when they occur, but as an improvising musician I don't necessarily plan them in advance. Again, as the words arise, I write them down. Sometimes, I might change them during revision to emphasize something like alliteration, or some other musical effect. But I find thinking about it in advance to be stifling; and if I think about it when writing, it turns into an intellectual gimmick, a parlor trick, rather than a poem. I think sometimes we forget to make a distinction between what is a writing exercise, and what is a poem. Some of that is intention; some of it is serendipity. But yes, I would say, more of it is "chance" than many poets consider.  

A poem is only a crap shoot of random characteristics?

This reveals a bias, with the loaded term "crap shoot," towards intellectual and conscious control of the craft. No, of course, it's not a crap shoot, because nothing human-produced can ever be totally at-random. (Nor, according to chaos theory, is randomness really possible; chaotic systems exhibit another kind of order, on another level. Attractors are points of recurrent stability within a system, not truly random although never exactly repeated.) Everything I have ever written, everything I have ever learned, have ever heard, goes into the writing of a new poem; one can hardly call that a "crap shoot of random characteristics." But "forgetting the tools" means you're not consciously thinking about them, as I've said above, it doesn't mean they're not present somewhere in you—it means you don't have them in the forefront of your awareness as you set about Making.

So: writing a poem (for me) is not a purely intellectual, conscious-level game. It is a product of the integrated head, heart, and hands of the whole person, not merely a mental exercise. It is emotion, intellect, and soma, working in ballanced alliance together. In fact, I don't think about it at all. I rarely even set out to write a poem; they emerge when they're ready. As i've said before, poetry is not my primary art, music is—heretical as that is state openly on a poetry board, it's the truth.

I make no claims to mastery, and I make no claims towards having written great poems. Others will judge that. But yes, this is indeed what is not-in-my-mind as I write a poem.

The short answer to all this is very simple: Craft can be internalized. And perhaps it should be.

A.E. Housman once commented: Poetry indeed seems to me more physical than intellectual.  A year or two ago, in common with others, I received from America a request that I would define poetry.  I replied that I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat, but that I thought we both recognized the object by the symptoms which it provokes in us.

I think Housman is on to something: poetry is more physical than intellectual. Regardless of the details of the somatic response I might have to a poem, which could differ from person to person, I agree with Housman that most of the memorable great poems I have ever read made me feel a shift happen in my body; I had a physical response, of some kind, if not one identical to Housman's.

Perhaps great poetry makes one feel—somatically, kinesthetically, physically—connected to the poem, its contents, its vision and/or story. But perhaps a great also poem satisfies on more than one level, intellectual and physical, somatic and emotional, mind and body. Perhaps what Housman meant, at root, was that a purely intellectual satisfaction is not enough, by itself. Craft and the technicalities are primarily a function of intellect, and analysis; which is why they are not enough, by themselves, to make a great poem. Or every technically perfect poem would be a great poem, which is obviously not true; thus, there is something else essential, as well.

It seems to me that great poetry, as opposed to merely satisfactory poetry, will "touch" or "move" one (both physical frames of reference) on multiple levels: physical, intellectual, spiritual, emotional. It can stand up to intellectual appreciation, even if it breaks those pesky "rules" of technique and craft again and again. It can also stand up to a purely experiential (somatic) read-through. It's like a totally satisfying meal in the company of convivial friends, where all the senses ar stimulated to satiation, the conversation is sublime, and the mutual affection present is deepened by the experience. Wine and cheese, indeed.

I've always appreciated Yeats' poetic take on this subject. I think it's an ars poetica, without being explicitly stated as such. One of my music composition mentors, George Cacioppo, also wrote a sublime piece of music inspired by this poem, Moves Upon Silence.

William Butler Yeats: Long-Legged Fly

That civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand under his head.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.
She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,
That nobody looks; her feet
Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope's chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

So, in the end, how do we tell what makes a good or great poem?

Dan Schneider formulates this as follows—and on the whole, based on experience and lots of reading, I tend to agree:

Great poems have a quality in common with each other, that is recognizable if not always definable. Great poems written by different poets have more in common with each other than do great poems and lesser poems written by the same poet. For example, a great poem by Whitman and a great poem by Yeats share more of the same feel, the same sense of sublime beauty, than do a great poem by Whitman and a lesser poem by Whitman.

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