ON THE SELF AND OTHERS:
SOME THOUGHTS ON THE CRAFT OF POETRY
When I first started writing poetry, I began writing about the most interesting subject in the world. Me. I had loves and hates, deep disgust and infinite wonder to share. It was all about me. Me, me and more me. I found that every new experience was intensely interesting, and I wanted to share it with the world. It felt a bit selfish, but I reasoned that since I’m such a darned interesting guy, people would naturally gravitate toward my words.
It didn’t work out that way. When I tried sharing my poems, I discovered that few people understood them. Fewer yet expressed any liking for them. Even my mother said polite meaningless things after reading them, and no one expressed any desire to publish them. I found their indifference quite surprising, even alarming. How could the world react so coldly to the thoughts of a guy who was pretty much the nicest guy in the universe?
My experiences were common enough. Why didn’t people understand when I talked about them? How could the world be so stupid? All people had to do was to put themselves in my shoes. Then they would understand how I felt.
The problem, which I only discovered years later, was that my poetry failed to tell the reader the context of my feelings in a way that highlighted their universal character. The problem was complicated because at that time I didn’t perceive my life as progressing through a series of experiences others had had as well. To me, life was being born as I lived it. The waves were parting before my prow for the very first time.
It started to occur to me that if I wanted to have readers for my poems, I needed to include the reader in every verse. I had to start recognizing the universality of my experiences and connecting them with the experiences of my potential readers. What that meant in practice was that I had to start thinking about how my experiences have been paralleled by other people in their lives. When I found an equivalent, then I had a line of communication upon which I could string my personal narrative in a form that could be received on the other end.
Over time, I discovered that writing is at least half about the reader, maybe more than half. Finally, it came to me that the trick to writing good poetry, perhaps the trick to writing in general, is discovering how to approach public issues without losing the intensity of personal feelings. This realization created a change in my thinking about how to write poetry. It’s a subtle change, but suddenly I found I had an approach that attracted a readership. At this point, I began my career as a poet.
My experience is probably not all that unique. As youths we like to believe that life is being invented for the first time as we encounter it. As adults, we realize that other people have had all these encounters before. People, in fact, have much more in common than they have in opposition to one another.
The act of writing poetry can be as personal as the poet wants to make it, but the act of sharing poetry with others involves reaching out to our shared heritage of emotions and experiences. That green farmland is where poetry grows, not the rarified oxygen-starved high mountain air of the summits of individuality.
I remember a poem that was written by one of my fellow high school poets. It went something like, “Anguished indecision and tormenting fear / the agony of life / and / the realization of deep pain / that will not go away. / O life! O dear life / That mushroom cloud of exquisite agony!” The problem, of course, is that there is no topic here, no focus for the reader to engage the pain at any level that transcends the gap between sender and receiver. There is pain, but without a context for this pain which everyone can empathize. The reader only sees the outcome and not the human sources.
And the pain itself, though characterized, remains undifferentiated. The poem quickly degenerates into a parody of real emotion. It turns laughable because it is so non-descript. One of the secrets real poets know is that while writers virtually always write for themselves, out of ego, writers who wish to be read by others have to have a super-ego that comes along to lay out the connections that bring readers along.
Let’s illustrate this with a poem by the California poet, Robert Hass. In a recent interview he admits, “Everyone…wants to say in their own terms what it means to be alive. Poetry is the most common way, because the material of poetry is the stream of language that is constantly going on in our heads. It’s very low tech. Anyone can do it.”
By Robert Hass
When the swordsman fell in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai
in the gray rain,
in Cinemascope and the Tokugawa dynasty,
he fell straight as a pine, he fell
as Ajax fell in Homer
in chanted dactyls and the tree was so huge
the woodsman returned for two days
to that lucky place before he was done with the sawing
and on the third day he brought his uncle.
They stacked logs in the resinous air,
hacking the small limbs off,
tying those bundles separately.
The slabs near the root
were quartered and still they were awkwardly large;
the logs from midtree they halved:
ten bundles and four great piles of fragrant wood,
moons and quarter moons and half moons
ridged by the saw’s tooth.
The woodsman and the old man his uncle
are standing in midforest
on a floor of pine silt and spring mud.
They have stopped working
because they are tired and because
I have imagined no pack animal
or primitive wagon. They are too canny
to call in neighbors and come home
with a few logs after three days’ work.
They are waiting for me to do something
or for the overseer of the Great Lord
to come and arrest them.
How patient they are!
The old man smokes a pipe and spits.
The young man is thinking he would be rich
if he were already rich and had a mule.
Ten days of hauling
and on the seventh day they’ll probably
be caught, go home empty-handed
or worse. I don’t know
whether they’re Japanese or Mycenaean
and there’s nothing I can do.
The path from here to that village
is not translated. A hero, dying,
gives off stillness to the air.
A man and a woman walk from the movies
to the house in the silence of separate fidelities.
There are limits to imagination.
In his poem “Heroic Simile,” Robert Hass is playing with our expectations of meaning in poetry. This is a complex poem. He seems to be saying that nothing tells its own story except as the poet likens it to something else. In this poem, he draws out the comparison between the death of the samurai soldier and the falling of a great tree. The moviegoer who analyzes the film is like the woodchopper and his uncle who patiently chop up the tree into useable pieces and wait for a cart to carry it away. But the poet has lost interest in the wood chopper metaphor and so the tree remains on the forest floor with no way to be transported back to the village. The moviegoers, a man and a woman each lost in private reveries, walk away from the theatre and leave the whole grand saga of sixteenth century Japan behind as they amble back into their own twentieth century existences.
Art of any kind has only a fleeting second to make its impression. We are all impatient consumers and we need the useful bits pretty close to hand if we are to gather them into something before the inclination to process them evaporates in the face of the demanding present. If a poem is to work in the public forum, it has to proclaim itself quickly and clearly. There’s no time to waste.
Even the most intensely personal poet in twentieth century American literature knows this lesson. Back in the 1950s Robert Lowell of Harvard and Boston aristocracy, decided to abandon the public voice he had adopted as a young poet and write confessional verse, spilling all his secrets in public. The publication of his book Life Studies (1959) shocked his friends and neighbors who found their personal relations revealed in his intimate accounts of daily life. M.L. Rosenthal has said that the book reveals “the naked psyche of a suffering man in a hostile world.” Lowell suffered from manic depression and anguished his way through three marriages. One of the stable relationships he had was with Elizabeth Bishop who was surprised to find that she could talk poetry at an almost scientific level with Lowell.
“It was the first time I had ever actually talked with someone about how one writes poetry…like exchanging recipes for making a cake,” she said. Good poetry has to sound spontaneous and fresh, even if it comes from an anguished place in the soul, but it rarely emerges from the pen that way. Good poets, like Robert Hass, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell understand that we poets weave an illusion of reality in words, which takes a good deal more than a pen by the bedside to make the words ring down through the ages.
—from Rattle e.2 (1.2MB PDF)
Gary Lehmann teaches writing and poetry at the Rochester Institute of Technology. His essays, poetry and short stories are widely published––about 60 pieces a year. He is the director of the Athenaeum Poetry group which recently published its second chapbook, Poetic Visions. He is also author of a book of poetry entitled Public Lives and Private Secrets (Foothills Press, 2005), and co-author and editor of a book of poetry entitled The Span I Will Cross. His poem “Reporting from Fallujah” was nominated for the 2006 Pushcart Prize. His short play “My Health Care Worker Stole My Jewelry” was selected for professional production in January 2006 at Geva Theatre, Rochester, NY. (www.garylehmann.blogspot.com)