21 June 2011

How to Write a Poem (Part 1): Poetry and Empathy

I believe the greatest superpower is empathy. But I mean real empathy. Not just the run-of-the-mill “I empathize.” I mean really understanding another person’s feelings. Paradoxically, I believe (kind of agreeing with Nietzsche) that this is practically impossible (that’s why I call it a superpower). But if it is achievable, or achievable to a degree, then it will happen through practice. Accordingly, one of my main goals as a writer is to connect with the audience (you)—real communication that will let us understand each other. I strive for absolute clarity—and I’ll even repeat things here and there just to make sure you get it. As Tony Hoagland says (slightly out of context), “I believe in saying it all and taking it all back and saying it all again for good measure...” (48).

On the opposite end of the court, I’ve also been practicing speed reading. I try to let my brain suck in details as rapidly as it can. Mainly because there are so many great books and never—never—enough time to get it all inside. My case is particularly bad, as my mind is like a sieve, and by the time I’ve crammed a couple books into it, the grains of some other book have already dropped out the bottom. Of course, if it’s what I consider a classic, I’ll reread it. Otherwise, about all that stays is the residue called a title (if that).

Now let’s take these readerly and writerly concepts and flip them upside down. (We’re moving from prose to poetry.) Poetry is gold—it’s the most dense, thus most valuable of literary metals. As a poetry reader, if I expect to get anything out of it, I have to shift my speed-reading into neutral, coast for a while, put on the brakes, back it up, let it idle, maybe open the door and push it forward with my foot a little bit, and so on. The old paradigm of speed just doesn’t work.

As a poetry writer (I mean poet, but I wanted parallel sentences), instead of following my normal ideal of perfect clarity, I tend toward a bare-bones, bare-naked style, where you have to read it several times to understand. Instead of giving you a 100-word poem, I give you a 25-word poem that you have to read 4 times if you want the 100-word meaning. Almost like they’re riddles. (I do have a soft spot for riddles.) But I struggle, because I face a catch-22 (okay, that’s one book I didn’t entirely forget): If I write explicitly, it becomes prose—an essay. But I’m not trying to write essays, I’m trying to write poems. On the other hand, if I write in riddles, the reader doesn’t like it (do you).

Still, the bottom line remains the same—I’m here to communicate with another person—a real audience (you). If my poetry doesn’t fit you, it might as well not exist. Elaine Equi said, “I deliberately try to make my work as accessible, reader-friendly, and entertaining (a bad thing for serious poets I guess) as possible.” That line fits my philosophy for essays (and novels) to a tee. But for some reason I struggle with being too obscure in my poetry—which is turning my back on the audience (you). Because I want to become a better poet, I’ve written down a few things I’ve learned this semester that, when followed, help poetry fit the audience while still being good poetry (breaking the catch-22). Mostly, this is for my own benefit so what I’ve learned from Professor Lance Larsen and my workshop peers doesn’t escape so quickly through the sieve. But I hope it’s also helpful to anyone who wants to become a more reader-friendly writer and poet (you).

To Be Continued...

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— J