Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Endless Edit 2: Hard Craft vs. Intuition

Another round of this polarized dichotomy came up awhile ago on a poetry critique board. It prompted me to restate some things I've said before, from possibly a new direction. (I have left the original dialogue form mostly intact here.) At some point, you have to realize that it isn't a real dichotomy but rather a fiction of criticism. (One begins at times to think that all such binary polarizations are fictions of criticism.) We'll get to the dichotomy itself at a later date.

Nonetheless, the question was asked: It seems to me that the more I learn about writing poetry, the harder it is to write poetry. At the moment, I like the "not one word extra" approach, so I ruthlessly chop out what does not conform to my calculated purpose.

From the way the question is stated, it sounds like it already assumed that poetry is an intellectual, mental process. Where's the intuition in that, at all? "Calculated purpose" implies a goal-oriented process, not a process of exploration or discovery.

Of course, having a purpose or goal is how poetry is taught in the classroom. Since no-one can actually teach inspiration or creativity, all that can really be taught is the craft, the tools. The problem is that many students then come to believe, because they're not reminded otherwise, that the craft is all that there is, and all that matters. Thus, we we get a lot of poetry which is very craft-oriented, and says things really well but really has nothing to say.

I am increasingly worried that the intuitive poetry which I wrote before is being ruined, and is being conformed into workshop-poetry or common poetry without balls or freshness.

Always be clear to separate the process of revision, or re-writing, from the initial process of writing. They are not the same processes, and they do not proceed along the same guidelines.

Writing can be very intuitive: you might be following the pen, writing down everything that comes up, or that you see, or that you remember, in no particular shape or order. You might start with a situation rather than an idea or a narrative, and see what arises. Revision is the rather more mental process of imposing order onto the mass of what you have initially written.

So you could, for example, write the way you've always written, your more intuitive way of writing, and use the poetic craft you've been studying and learning during revision.

If you start to use all that well-learned craft too soon in the process, you do risk blocking up the creative channels, and losing your connection to your more intuitive self. Self-editing too quickly in the writing process does indeed lead to constipation. The internal Editor is for later, and must be ignored or set aside when actually writing. Stop thinking about it so much, so early in the process of writing. Just write, and think about it later.

Last night, a friend told me I had ruined a poem of mine by chopping out words and lines, and by changing the structure to one which seemed to be right according to what the poetry wallahs say in their numerous guidebooks.

Believing what the "poetry wallahs" say in their guidebooks is always risky business. After all, they might not know any better than you, and they definitely don't know you better than you do. Your process of writing and revising might be quite unlike anything the "poetry wallahs" can imagine, or communicate, and you'll end up trying to force yourself to conform to generic ideas about writing that are not actually useful or beneficial to you. Far better to discover your own process than to genuflect to anyone else's ideas about our process, including mine.

It is tough to know how much cutting is too much.

You know you've cut out too much when the poem no longer coheres. There is a line where the poem crosses over into incoherence, and separates into random particles rather than remaining a unified whole.

The "when in doubt, cut it out" rule is like all poetry "rules"—there are times it's totally inappropriate. If you reify it into a defined Rule, you will inevitably run into trouble, contradiction, and times when it does more harm than good. This is true for all poetry "rules." That's why poetry is a creative art, rather than engineering: there are times when the rules don't apply, or can be broken brilliantly, or just don't matter. Adaptability and flexibility will carry you a lot farther than the rigid application of any given rule-set.

The trick is to learn to balance your instinct for the shape of the poem against what you've absorbed as guidelines (perhaps a better word than "rules" in this context). The goal, obviously, is to make the poem as good as it can get. But each poem is its own universe, too, and sometimes guideline X will apply while guideline Y is actively harmful. The trick is to learn what guideline is appropriate to each poem, and where, and when, and why. And to let go of the rest.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I think you and I are singing from the same song sheet. For me the words come first. I dump them on the page or (increasingly) on the screen and when that's done I'll see what I need to do to shape them and basically that's the way I've worked for thirty-five years. It's a good way, a balanced way, for me at least.

This is why I've never written a sonnet and only a handful of haiku because form is a secondary consideration – always.

I'll be honest I don't know how poetry is being taught in the classroom across the UK these days. In my day we got 'poetry appreciation' and 'poetry dissection' but the writing of poetry was only something we tackled in primary school and even then we were just asked to write a poem on such-and-such a topic and it was assumed – laughable really – that we would be able to do it. The thing is, we all did. Dire little ditties they were too but it emphasises something I've believed for a very long time, that the capacity poetry is something we all have within us. You only have to look at how picturesque language is especially amongst the poorer classes where the metaphor is king even if the majority of them have no idea what a metaphor actually is.

Poetic rules are like guidelines. In this country we drive on the left hand side of the road. Some drivers cling to the centre line, others hug the kerb but we all get from A to B in the end. Occasionally we need to cross over into the oncoming lane and that's just fine as long as we don't try and drive the whole way there in it.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

If poetry is being taught in the UK like it's being taught in the US, and I have no reason to believe it's not since it's one of those things that has been universally influenced by the workshop and academic mentalities, I imagine it's just as bad everywhere. I recently ran across this marvelous rant against creative writing classes, and it just seems to me to be so on target.

I do believe that creativity and the capacity for creativity are a fundamental human birthright. I think we all have that in potential. I don't think that means that we all have the ability to write poetry, or write music. I do think it means we are all creative in some way, but very much more individually than most people usually think. Most folks seem to think "creativity" only applies to the arts, but I think it applies to everything, from plumbing to cooking. It is a mindset, a way of approaching things. We all have it in potential, although I do sadly agree that we don't all bring it out and achieve that potential. Lots of folks let their innate creativity die on the vine; or it is choked off by circumstance and experience. What a waste that is. I can only think that the Creator, who wants to co-create with us, because that brings us closer towards oneness, can only weep for the loss.

10:33 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I'm working on a blog about Philip Larkin at the moment for Poem in Your Pocket Day on Thursday and I found a very rare interview with him that I'll probably quote a bit from but this is what he had to say about studying poetry:


You mention Auden, Thomas, Yeats, and Hardy as early influences in your introduction to the second edition of The North Ship. What in particular did you learn from your study of these four?


Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvellous, how is it done, could I do it? And that’s how you learn. At the end of it you can’t say, That’s Yeats, that’s Auden, because they’ve gone, they’re like scaffolding that’s been taken down.

3:55 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Sounds like classic irascible Larkin. (Although I can never agree with him about jazz, I agree with him about a lot of other things.)

The point has often been made, and I've repeated it myself, that the best way to learn to write is to read, read, read, read some more, write, read, read, read more, write, read, read, and read again.

Frankly, a lot of the craft can be learned by example, in this manner, rather than in the classroom by formal study. The classroom does tend to turn principles into Rules, and present things as more rigid than they are.

10:10 AM  

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