Why Poems Written from the Head Ultimately Fail
Poet Adrienne Rich, speaking wisely even early in her career, said this very eloquently: Instead of making poems about experiences, one needs to make poems that are experiences.
This is the common mistake: to make poems that are about life, but do not evoke it, or contain it. Most beginning poets fall into this trap; it may be a phase we all need to go through. This is a phase in which we learn our craft, the mechanics of our art, the grammar and syntax and crafty tools that we will use throughout our careening writerly careers. This is the period when we are solving problems: about writing; about poetry; about how to do poetry; even about how to survive while doing it. But this is a student phase. In life, as in art, we are meant to move on. We are meant to grow up, and become more than perpetual students. (In fact, we are meant to become teachers and sages; but that is a story for another time.)
Every time you hear a renowned poet or editor pining for the days when poetry had clear guidelines, clear rules, clear tendencies, and clear subject matters, you are listening to someone who remains stuck in their student days, or in nostalgia about them. Every time you listen to a modern poet complain about free verse, as a loss against rhymed and metered verse, and complain about how free verse signaled the death knell of all good things in poetry, you are listening to a poet stuck in their poetic childhood. Poets can be as puerile and infantile as anyone else. They whine about it more, perhaps, being verbal rather than non-verbal artists—and this whining comes from the truth which they all know in their bones, whether they admit it to themselves or not: the truth that they have been forced to grow up and face the fact that the world is an uncertain, imperfect, indeterminate, sometimes mysterious and frightening place.
When you listen to a poet pining for what is lost, when you are forced to listen to such sentimental nostalgia, you are listening to someone pining for order in the midst of chaos. You are listening to someone who wants a return to the apparent order of the universe of their childhoods, when things seemed to make sense. They are pining for a lost innocence, a paradise lost. At the root of many poets' quest for order within poetry is an unspoken (often unacknowledged) psychological desire for order in their otherwise chaotic lives; they cannot control their lives, they feel out of control in their personal lives, so they seek to impose order wherever they can. No person can be more dictatorial, more autocratic, than one who is afraid of the chaos within themselves. Fascism is a childish impulse given an adult expression. Poetry itself, like all adult things, is meant to be disorderly, contentious, and frequently baffling, and also enlightening and satisfying. The wise poet knows that all things must be in dynamic balance, not static and repressed fixed formalisms. This dynamic balance applies to mindset at least as much as it does to poetic form. Like the sage in the Taoist teachings, only when you have understood and embraced chaos, can you create genuine and enduring order.
So, poems written from the head ultimately fail because they are not mature poems. They are studies—études in the literal sense. They are signs, instead of living symbols. They have activated no energy from the unconscious. They are stale precisely because they do not contain all of life: life teeming in its rich variety and incomprehensible diversity. They contain only ideas, not things.
The poems that a maturing poet makes are not stuck in the head. They include the soma, the heart, the body, the soul, and they also include mystery. They come from places we don't always understand, and cannot always explain. The mark of a maturing and wise poet is to acknowledge that they often don't what they're doing until it's done. Guidance comes from within as well as from without: intuition has just as much place in poetry as do formal rules of construction, rime, grammar, and the other elements of craft. Those are all important and necessary elements: but only the immature poet allows them to dominate their poetry.
Here is the full quote from Adrienne Rich, originally given in 1964 as a statement at a poetry reading:
In the period in which my first two books were written I had a much more absolutist approach to the universe than I now have. I also felt—as many people still feel—that a poem was an arrangement of ideas and feelings, pre-determined, and it said what I had already decided it would say. There were occasional surprises, occasions of happy discovery that an unexpected turn could be taken, but control, technical mastery and intellectual clarity were the real goals, and for many reasons it was satisfying to be able to create this kind of formal order in poems.
Only gradually, within the last five or six years, did I begin to feel that these poems, even the ones I liked best and in which I felt I'd said most, were queerly limited, that in many cases I had suppressed, omitted, falsified even, certain disturbing elements, to gain that perfection of order. . . .
Today, I have to say that what I know I know through making poems. Like the novelist who finds that his characters begin to have a life of their own and to demand certain experiences, I find that I can no longer go to write a poem with a neat handful of materials and express those materials acrrording to a prior plan: the poem itself engenders new sensations, new awareness in me as it progresses. Without for one moment turning my back on conscious choice and selection, I have been increasingly willing to let the unconscious offer its materials, to listen to more than the one voice of a single idea. Perhaps a simple way of putting it would be to say that instead of poems about experiences I am getting poems that are experiences, that contribute to my knowledge and my emotional life even while they reflect and assimilate it. In my earlier poems I told you, as precisely and eloquently as I knew how, about something; in the more recent poems something is happening, something has happened to me and, if I have been a good parent to the poem, something will happen to you who read it. —from Adrienne Rich's Poetry, the Norton Critical Edition (1975), edited by Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi, p. 89