Contemporary Poets' Typical Missteps
Some of what I say here I've said before. I might be repeating myself, but what I imagine myself doing is restating, perhaps clarifying. At some point I want to compile these lessons learned from experience into one larger tome, eliminate most of the repetitions, and organize these thoughts a bit more formally. Till then, I'll just muddle through.
These are problems I keep seeing poets get stuck in, even mature and experienced poets. Because I've given some of these comments as active critiques, no doubt some wag will reject them as personal bias. Actually they're steps towards a more objective understanding and criticism of contemporary poetry in general. These are missteps I see contemporary poets make all the time; and not just beginners. Many of these thoughts are rooted in one very simple truth that always seems to need restatement:
Poetry is not prose.
I've written previously about the purpose, if any, of poetry; and about how the objection to some experimental poetry on the part of formalist poets is essentially a moral objection rather than a purely technical or aesthetic one.
With these points in mind, here, then, is a small re-summation of practical, pragmatic and solution-oriented comments about typical missteps many poets continue to make:
1. Much poetry is over-written. It's common for poets to write "up a level" in terms of formal syntax and grammar; they tend to use filler words for effect or to fill out a form, words that add no meaning or music. Many poets feel they must somehow separate out the language of their poems from everyday language—they're not wrong in fact—but how they separate out the language of poetry matters a great deal. Nobody today talks like they did when the King james Bible was made; if they do, they generally seem mannered and stilted; yet far too many poets still think that such ritualized style is what "poetic language" must be.
This is particularly risky when poets write in fixed, inherited historical forms, in formal meter. It actually takes a lot to master formal verse; one of the most common missteps in formal verse is to cling to obvious effects such as using end-rhymes and fixed meters that create sing-songy effects. If you look at great sonnets, you'll see more slant-rhymes and off-rhymes than you imagined; but that's what makes it work. A master of the sonnet can be very oblique about the form without destroying it; a master uses a form's strengths without getting caught in its traps.
One useful general definition of poetry is that it is exalted or heightened speech, and it carries more power than the everyday word. Many poets take that to mean that they must write in an exalted style; this leads to a lot of imitation Victorian poetry, warmed-over Tennyson and Swinburne. But great poetry has often been written using very plain speech, and colloquial speech. What exalts these poems is not the style per se, the style of the language used, but the synergy of the poem's language and music and subject. The combination of all these factors.
A lot of poems can be improved with only minor tightening, a little compression and concision, some judicious removal of flab and unnecessary verbiage. Overwriting is one of those things that's very easy to fix in revision.
2. One harmful effect of overwriting is distancing, creating an artificial and unnecessary gap between the poet's experience of the poem, and the reader's. While the writer may have a clear feeling or experience in his or her mind, conveying that experience so that the reader feels it in their own soma is another matter.
A poet who has developed great facility with words must be careful not to take their skill and turn it into a shield against the world. Facile writing can be witty to the point of being dominantly intellectual and neglecting other modes. The poet might feel the experience that led to the poem, but overwriting can get between the poet's experience, and reader's. The reader might not be able to feel what the poet did—in the body, somatically, in their own person and with their own experience. It might not be a recreation.
William Wordsworth's dictum about poetry was that it is "emotion recollected in tranquility." At his most philosophical, Wordsworth's poetic dictum was effective for his own poetry; as in The Prelude. But where this dictum fails is that it has little chance of evoking in the reader's own body and self the experience of the poem. It's all filtered through the mind and the intellect, rather than the heart. This tends to promote a style of writing that is detached, academic, even pedantic—in short, one step removed from reality. The poem can become pedantic, a lecture. This is the truth that lies behind that hoary advice in poetry critique: Show, don't tell. Poetry that is too much of the head, too pedantic does not evoke in us a feeling or an experience (show) but rather it tells us what to feel (tell). A poem that tells you what to feel or think is removed from the soma, from the self. It has little chance of moving you. It is commentary rather than bone-deep knowing. This style of writing makes a poem less immediate to the reader, not more.
Another trap that Wordsworthian style tends to land us in is passive constructions, passive verb forms, passive and detached: this further removes us from feeling and action, cushioning us from feeling rather than involving us.
Jack Kerouac's dictum of free-flowing spontaneous first thought spilling out unedited onto the page is the opposite of Wordsworth's. It's not the better style, it's just a different technique. Another technique for direct poetic expression is haiku, which aesthetically is best when spontaneous and momentary. My question is, therefore, which is the best style to use as a container for the poem to carry an experience? Which style works better?
For me, poems don't succeed when the container doesn't match the contents. A lot of formal poetry is dry and bland precisely because it ends up on the Wordsworthian end of the poetic spectrum: too thought-out, too formal, too passive, too removed from direct experience. A lot of formal poems are single ideas shoehorned into fixed forms; they're usually padded, therefore, and often imprecise. This affects the poem's tone of voice, sometimes for the better, but not always.
Does the form support the subject matter, or take away from it? There is probably a way to preserve formal structure yet also make the poem visceral and vivid, less talkative. One option is to retain the form and compress some of the language.
3. Ambiguity in poetry is neither bad nor a sign of weakness. Not having all the answers is no failure; it's just human. One of the traps many poets fall into is trying to explain and justify every decision, every choice, every nuance. Life itself is messy, uncertain, ambiguous; poetry can reflect that, and not be only the imposition of order onto chaos.
Far too many poets quickly become defensive when questioned about their poems. Far too few are open about admitting they didn't always know what they were doing, when writing. But not knowing what we're doing, all the time, is why poetry remains an art, rather than a science. Poetry is not engineering.
This issue is related to overwriting in poetry, and may sometimes be one cause of overwriting. What we're getting at here is the temptation to believe that you can control the outcome: that you can control how people interpret and respond to your poem.
I once knew a poet who believed that his poem failed if the reader did not receive precisely the meaning he intended them to receive, as though his poems were telepathic transmissions; he had no tolerance for alternative meanings or for ambiguity; he was an impossible person to chat with, in the long run, as he became increasingly obsessive-compulsive about determining his meanings in his poems. He had succumbed to the ideology that Poetry is communication, and only communication. He had no ability to see that nuance and mystery also belong in poetry. His poetry became dull and predictable and pedantic, because he tried to force ever more clarity and certainty into his poems. (The key word here is "force," since clarity as a general principle in poetry is no bad thing.) He seemed unable to understand that poetry is, and should be, more than merely communication. If poetry were only about communication, reading the phone book would a normative aesthetic experience. His poems eventually came to have the appearance of prose essays, broken into arbitrary lines.
The truth is, once your poem is released out there into the world, it's on its own, beyond your control: people will come up with interpretations and find meanings in your poem you never imagined or anticipated. Some people will even wildly misread your poem, even as some others understand you completely.
Don't view this as a bad thing. What you need to understand is that all readings of your poem may be more or less valid, not just the reading(s) you prefer. Don't demand conformity—you will only become a fascist—and don't get trapped into justifying or over-explaining either the poem, or your motivations in writing it. Don't whine about being misunderstood.
Either learn to live with being misunderstood—which is in fact a deep and profound Mystery that can teach one much about living—or learn to write better and with more clarity so that your arrows do not go so far astray, but better hit the target you're aiming at. The importance of craft to poetry is that it is what helps you improve your aim. In its best applications, your poetic craft supports your poem and sharpens both your vision and your execution.
Don't overthink your poem and don't overprotect your personal interpretation of your poem. Don't try to force the reader to receive your meaning, and only your meaning. Allow for other readers to find things that are indeed in there, that you didn't know about till they were pointed out to you. Accept that this will happen, no matter what you try to do to prevent it. Learn to live with mystery, and become comfortable with a certain level of uncertainty. In this, poetry is just like life.
Trying to overcontrol an outcome shows a lack of trust in both the reader and in your poem—and the reader will pick up on that, sooner or later, and probably be offended. Poets (and others) who demand clarity and order beyond a reasonable point are heading for neuroses.
4. You are not required to use full prose grammar and syntax in your poems, if you don't want to, or if the poem doesn't need you to. A lot of poets use full grammar and syntax rules out of habit rather than out of necessity.
Are you using formal grammar in your poem because it is essential to the internal logic of the poem? Are you using formal speech in your poem because that's how the character's voice, or poetic voice, in your poem must speak? Does your poetic voice necessitate your style of speech?
Or are you using formal grammar in your poem merely out of habit, because that's how you were taught to write prose?
This is one arena in which education can sometimes be at fault. Sometimes one has to go through a process of unlearning the rules, after one has received a strong indoctrination in them. Some artists are better at this than others.
The main point here is that, in the long haul, almost nothing you learned in school is essential to your artistic life. This is because the only thing they can teach you in school is craft. They cannot teach inspiration, they cannot teach you or give you purpose. You have to discover those for yourself. What school can give you is the tools that will help you better express or realize your inspiration. School is actually rather good at imparting craft; the misstep that many poets make is in thinking that school can impart anything more than that.
The only things that an MFA in poetry workshop program can give are: time to read and write; exposure, via reading, to a lot of poetry you might not have discovered on your own; and lessons in the craft of poetry. For some poets that may be enough. For many others, though, it has led to a situation where craft is viewed as the essential, even dominant, element of poetry-making. Oh, look, you can write a technically-perfect sonnet, that must make you a good poet, yes? Not really, no.
Mastering the craft is useless if you have nothing to say. One criticism of the MFA workshop system is that it produces lots of (unemployed) poets who write interchangeable small lyrics about small topics. There is truth in that accusation. The mistake lies in the false idea that the MFA workshop system ever had the potential to do anything more than that. If you didn't go in with a vision, with a fire in your heart, don't expect to come out with one. Maybe you will; but it's a gamble, not a certainty.
5. Do not rely on habits. Do rely on freshness of mind, your own mind, if not necessarily on freshness of expression.
Identify your habits, then consciously choose whether or not you want to change them. Good habits lead to discipline, the good fruits of practice. Bad habits are what get you stuck.
6. Not every poem you write is great, or even very good. Accept the fact the we all write lots of études, practice-pieces, or studies. Accept the fact that we all write more bad poems than good, and that we'll have to throw away a fair number of poems till we get it right. Even acknowledged great poets occasionally wrote mediocre or just plain awful poets. If you look into the juvenilia of even your favorite poet, you'll probably discover some early poem that leaves you underwhelmed.
There is a bit of beginner's luck with some poets, who have a small body of work when they're starting out that is very good; but even good instincts must eventually be honed via practice, or one ends up repeating oneself, and never growing as either a poet or a person. (Of course, many poets who are lauded too young in their careers get stuck in just this trap.)
This is about practice, and there is no shame in it. It's about practicing a technique, an art, a tool, and/or a style until you get it right. It can take years to get there; it can take a lifetime.
One of the most common mistakes poets still young in their art make is to leap to the conclusion, now that they're written some poems, that they're a good poet. It can take years to learn how to dance, how to play music, how to design a building; yet people who have written one chapbook's worth of poems already call themselves poets. The idea of apprenticeship and learning-by-doing has fallen away from literature—and not usually to literature's benefit. In some ways, calling oneself a poet, because one has written a few poems, is too easy, too facile.
I still hesitate to call myself a poet, years down this road. I think I may have written one or two great poems, a few good ones, and more than a few bad. But I don't really know; my expertise remains provisional, and my attitude remains that of a beginner. It is not for me to judge. Time is the only true judge of enduring quality; time will tell.
There will always be prodigies, rare geniuses who absorb and grasp the tropes and styles amazingly fast, whose talent in their art(s) is unmistakable from a young age. Chances are you're not one of them. But that doesn't mean you can't write a great poem, someday. The issue here is impatience: you'll just have to work harder, and take longer to get to the summit of your art. That in itself is a journey worth undertaking, when the journey itself is the goal.
7. Consistency matters: maintain your poem's internal logic. A poem's internal logic matters a great deal in terms of connecting with the reader, and bringing the reader into the poem. Respect your poem's internal logic: you are creating a world in the poem, and the world must obey its own rules, even if those rules are nothing like the everyday world's. The internal world of the poem, that the reader is brought into, has its own laws, and they can be arbitrary laws, but they need to be logically consistent or the poem will lose power and weaken. Many poems start out strong, then break their rules established early in the poem, and taper off to a soft, unsatisfying ending. Have a good reason for whatever the poem does; if you want to involve the reader, don't just leave this to fate.
Pick the right kind of style for your poem, and stick with it throughout the poem. Be consistent in how you apply that style. Don't be sloppy about your technique. If you write a poem in formal, punctuated, grammatical metrical verse, don't drop the punctuation for no good reason. If you poem is a poem of questions, end with a question, not a statement or a clunky answer. Don't break your style, mid-poem, unless you do it for a specific, artistic reason. Be consistent, and respect your poem enough to stay true to its vision. And don't for god's sake start a poem out with rhyme and meter then abandon those partway through for no good reason.
Don't privilege either free verse or formal metric poetry. Don't privilege any form over another. You may find that you have a knack for particular forms and styles, which can be developed through practice. (I have almost no feel for sonnets, but I do have a knack for haiku.) Realize that every kind of poetry that exists serves as a template for you to keep in your toolbag, and use when you need it. Sometimes the most important decision you'll make, when writing or revising your poem, is to find the appropriate container, the right vessel of style, in which to put your poem's topic or subject matter. Nor does this exclude poetic -isms such as aleatoric techniques and some of the more extreme techniques of the experimental avant-garde; these too are styles you can use as you see fit, if the poem requires them. None are privileged over any other—except perhaps in the minds of poetic ideologues who are politically committed to one poetic -ism or another; such people are boors, and should generally be avoided or ignored.
All of these suggestions can be ignored (they're not rules, so they can't be "broken") if you have a specific reason for doing so. If you change style mid-poem, there must a psychological purpose for doing so, or some other purpose, perhaps a transformation in the poem's actors, which can be enhanced by transforming the poem's style in parallel. The language and style of the poem can reflect the psychology of the actors in the poem (including your own, for example in a first-person lyric), and enhance the reader's experience of the poem by bringing them along.
i can make a case that, when handled properly, changing styles mid-poem can be a higher level of internal logic and consistency. Just as in chaos theory—where turbulence is a chaotic state that happens when the energy of the system is transitioning to a higher level of stability; and where there are higher types of order that emerge from within apparent chaos—moving between styles mid-poem can have a purpose. This is something you might even try. But again, the way to achieve good results if you attempt it is to do it with intention and care.
Basically, don't be haphazard, don't be sloppy. Care enough about your art to practice it well, with thoughtfulness and care. Respect yourself, and your poem. Don't take anything for granted. Have a good aesthetic or artistic reason for doing what you do; think about it, in the coolness of revision if not in the white heat of writing. And don't, by being sloppy, let the poem remain in conflict with itself, confused and unfocused: nothing saps a poem's energy more quickly than a lack of internally consistent logic, whatever that logic is.
8. The workshop has become a way of life. Most poets write for other poets as their first readers, whether they're seeking critique or just an audience. I'm not convinced this is a good thing. It tends to make poetry ever more insular, ever more isolated, ever more irrelevant, ever more "academic" in the pejorative sense. Since poetry has become a specialized artform, you may be stuck with getting more responses from poets than non-poets; it's just the way of the world, for now.
I do not suggest one pander to one's mythos of "the common man," or any such nonsense. I don't support in any way the idea that poetry must be "written down" to find an audience, or that it has be dumbed down or simplified. I think the idea of writing for the lowest common denominator is inherently flawed, not because writing down is the problem, though it is, but because writing for anybody but yourself is the problem. The audience comes second. You, the poet, are your first audience. Write for yourself: be true to your own voice first and foremost. The rest will follow.
And don't give in to the automatic, habitual response to share all of your writing with your poetry critique group, with your workshop, with your friends. There are great things that poets can learn from the workshop process; but there are also limits to what one can learn in that environment. Accept that there are limits.
Keep an occasional poem private, to yourself. Look at it in secret. Apply to it everything you've learned from giving and receiving critiques in your workshop setting; but do it on your own, with no one looking over your shoulder, except perhaps your muse. Do the rewrites in private till you are satisfied. Then set the poem aside as finished, never having taken it through the workshop process. Do this at least for a minimum of one out of ten poems.
This is practice in developing your inner compass, your internal sense of what works and what doesn't. This is about trusting yourself, and having faith in your own poetic vision. It is necessary, at some point, to strike off on your own, and stop taking so much advice about poetry from other poets. At some point, you must wean yourself from your addiction to workshops—which can be an addiction to praise, an addiction to abuse—giving or receiving—or some complicated blend of all of these.
9. There are limits to poetry. There are things your words are inadequate to say. I can visualize in my mind images that I cannot put adequately into words; that's one reason I make visual art, as well as music. An experience that lasts for an eternal moment, a deep insight you have that takes only a second to know, can take you page after inadequate page to get down, and still be lacking something in the telling.
Any poet who claims that poetry is the "highest" or "greatest" artform is revealing their utter bias towards what they know how to do, and nothing more. Most such poets have no clue about how to operate in other mediums. The first poet that ever made this argument to me, for example, is comically tone-deaf towards music. If poetry were indeed the "highest" artform, there would be no instrumental music—which can on occasion be more sublime and powerful than even the greatest poem.
Knowing your limits, however, can be the first step towards transcending them. It is perfectly possible to make a poem that transcends its own limits, and takes on its own life—this is one marker of great art, in any medium. Great poems have done this, and have become sublime.
Don't expect to get there quickly, except by chance or luck. But the effort itself is a kind of journey towards mastery, and a worthwhile one. Know your limits, and the limits of your art; then work to overcome them. That's what all artists strive to do.