Monday, January 24, 2011

Brief Thoughts on Writing Poetry

I'm on a surprise visit to my brother in Portland, hence the gap since my last post.  Regular posting will recommence upon my return to Honolulu.

Writing poetry is difficult.  Anyone who has tried knows this.  Or rather, anyone who has tried and come out at the other end with a terrible, boring, poorly-constructed poem despite the desire and inspiration to write poetry in the first place knows this.  The thing is, there’s no mechanical process by which the writing of a poem is made easier.  Sure, the constraints of the sonnet form, for example, help to structure the poet’s thoughts, to force limitations on rambling by imposing metrical regularity and a rhyme scheme.  But, while in many ways it is thus easier to write a passable sonnet than a passable blank-verse rambling, it is also harder to produce anything at all.

I think, though, that the biggest barrier to writing poetry is a cultural one.  Poetry is written by the immature, by adolescents trying to cope with the wild emotional rollercoaster that they suddenly find themselves on.  Poetry expresses – poorly – their lust, their fear, their sadness, and their pleasure.  Who, having passed the age of 20, still experiences the world in colors as bright, in emotions as intense, as those of puberty?  Who – among those who have written poetry, anyway – is not embarrassed by the poems they have written as a youth?

What is there to write about, as an adult?  So much modern poetry, it seems to me, is either about itself, or about empty themes like the realities of urban life or political frustrations.  In some sense, I suspect, the themes of Whitman and Eliot and Kerouac and Stevens – our more recent “great” poets – have been exhausted.  How much more so the themes of Keats and Yeats and Tennyson?  That is not to say one may not write a great poem, in our modern age, about the fear of aging and death, but how could it compare with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” filled as it is with self-consciousness and shame at its own pretension, with a sense of pathetic lust, with imagery borrowed from the profound to the absurd?  Could there be a better statement of what it is to be a young man knowing that he will one day be an old man?

Instead, poetry has become the work of the clever, and indeed it must be exceedingly so to be purchased at all.  Or, rather, there are no poets anymore, at least not poets who’s primary occupation is poetry, because the act of writing good poetry might be opposed to the act of writing poetry that people are willing to purchase.  Even someone like Eliot, were he not famous, would likely never be read at all because his good poetry is hard to understand.  And hard-to-understand doesn’t cut it in the marketplace.  Why else would so many people go to see Little Fockers instead of, well, anything else?

The mistake, here, would be to think of poetry too much as an outcome, a mistake that is pervasive across our society.  Because we are so inundated with a historical account – of not just art, but science and politics and you name it – that is concerned mainly with the outcome of “great” poets and their great poems, we forget the hundreds and hundreds of poems that even those poets wrote which are not great.  We forget about first drafts, second drafts, third drafts.  We forget about the process of writing poetry, imagining that the great outcome might come from merely trying to write a single poem without practice, without thought, without the ability to write poetry, and not merely to have written poetry.

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