Defending Formalism and Transcendance
I will not be posting a poem today because I’ve taken a great deal of time to respond to a blog post by a fellow poet and blogger and the response outlines my opinions on what makes a good poem. I’ll post a poem tomorrow. I hope you enjoy this long, long post because it tells a little bit about who I am.
I read some good poetry advice over at Flashlight City Blues, a blog by Brice Maiurro. You can check it out here. But he asked for replies at the end of it and I can’t help jumping into the debate about what makes good poetry. There’s some things I agree with and others I vehemently disagree with, but I’ll try to be fair and I’ll be offering a lot of caveats; poetry can take many forms and be written in many styles and I’d be remiss if I were to claim anything I say can speak for all poetry or all poets. But let’s get started.
Maiurro is quite right about writing. Write constantly and you will get better. You may not become an award-winning poet, but if you’re writing for the love of poetry, you will write things you can be proud to share with others. I wrote prolifically at the end of high school and I find most of it pretty embarrassing now. I was writing the dross that Maiurro was talking about when he said that most poetry on the internet is terrible. I was writing what I thought was poetry: prose with line breaks in a column, often without punctuation, or verses with forced rhymes and a singsong rhythm. Yet, I think that’s a necessary step to improving your work. I agree that most poetry on the internet is bad, but I’d also like to applaud anyone writing poetry, even bad poetry. The thing that got me going, that motivated me to write and improve and innovate, was positive feedback I received from friends and family. Write constantly, but don’t write in a vacuum. Positive feedback will keep you motivated and constructive criticism, much as it hurts at first, will help you hone your words.
Part of writing in a vacuum is failing to read other poetry. Don’t trust poets that say they don’t read poetry. One of the most humbling experiences in poetry writing is learning that the totally cool new style you’re writing has already been done much better over a hundred years ago. Even if the only poetry you’ve read was in an English class you weren’t paying attention to, your first poems are probably going to sound like stilted imitations of the poetry you glossed over. Whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, the style of your writing is partly lifted from the things you read; for that matter, the way you speak is lifted from the way the people around you talk, hence why there are regional dialects and accents. The poets that don’t read poetry often say they don’t want to be influenced by others because they’re afraid it will destroy their originality. The problem is that they’re not wholly original and they’re not learning how to write from the masters. How can you know what a good poem looks and sounds like unless you’ve seen one written, heard it spoken aloud? I’m afraid it’s hubris to think you can do better than the Immortal Bard by ignoring him. And there’s hope for your originality yet. By reading, not only do you learn the techniques to make a good poem, but you also learn what you as a reader like in poetry. Instead of copying a poet’s style wholesale, you learn how to take stylistic bits and pieces that you like from many poets to form your own sense of style; to put it another way, your wardrobe may consist of mass-produced clothes bought at a department, but your fashion sense comes from the clothes you choose to wear and in what combination.
I would also like to echo Maiurro’s advice about taking poetry from everything. You can learn to write good poetry not just from other poets, but also from prose writers of any sort. Two of the most poetic books I’ve read were novels: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury and Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. However, you should take inspiration from anything you can. Like Maiurro’s experience listening to his sister, I remember being struck by something a man said at the airport. He said, “You sure full of fire,” to one of his coworkers. I’m inclined to agree that one of the hardest things to write is a natural sounding human voice, in no small part because a person can be casual and profound in the same moment. Take inspiration from music; musical lyrics are just poems with instrumental accompaniment. Take inspiration from whatever moves you because you need some emotional investment in what you write to give your writing that human element, that soul.
I’m afraid it’s now time to take Maiurro to task about a few things. Whatever you do, don’t listen to his claims that formal poetry is irrelevant in the modern day. In this respect, he wrong. Formal poetry, whether it’s a sonnet or a villanelle or any of the many forms, can still be innovative and speak to the times. Philip Larkin, Thom Gunn, Sylvia Plath, Marianne Moore, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman…the list of modern formal poets goes on. Some of them played with old forms and rhymes, Berryman experimented with a form of his own construction, but all of them were innovators; even well known free verse poets like Allen Ginsberg have tackled formal poetry. If you have any doubts about the life of the sonnet, I’d like to point you to Petrarch, Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Ted Berrigan to show how the sonnet form can stay relevant over the course of nearly 700 years; I’m particularly fond of “Carrion Comfort” by Hopkins. Formal poetry is not just for English professors and wannabe sonneteers. If there’s a problem with formal poetry, it’s that formal poetry is associated with new poets writing boring, predictable rhymes in rigid meters. It is a challenge to write formal poetry, which is why there’s a lot of bad formal poetry and why people like Maiurro are suspicious of it. Writing within a poetic structure is hard, but it’s also a constructive and rewarding experience. Writing in a poetic form forces you to adapt your poetry to a different structure and challenges you to be creative and phrase ideas in novel ways, compress or expand the words to fit the structure. Paradoxically, formal poetry forces a writer to innovate by using poetic structures that are hundreds, maybe even a thousand, years old. However, poetic forms shouldn’t be treated as immutable and rigid. By changing the sonnet’s structure and content, the sonneteers I mentioned earlier have kept the form fresh. Poets like Berryman prove that creating new forms give us new ways to express ourselves. Even Shakespeare would change up the meter in the usually iambic pentameter line for sake of a better cadence. Poetic forms need not be stale if the poet is willing to experiment.
Contrary to Maiurro’s opinion that haiku are “just small words,” I’d argue that they are actually very big words in a small space. The idea of the haiku is more complicated than just a three-line stanza of 5-7-5 syllables. The haiku for is just a minimalist approach to poetry. Haikus are a little like photographs; they capture a single poetic moment in stillframe. They require the poet to compress their poetry into a tight space where every syllable has to have significance. The haiku is an example of a form that’s really easy to use, but extremely hard to master. I don’t read a lot of haiku, but Jun Fujita is the only poet I can recommend for haiku in English, as opposed to in translation from the Japanese. If you want to see other examples of artfully compressed poetry like haiku, I’d suggest imagist poets like H.D. and Ezra Pound; and before some you ask, no, H.D. wasn’t the lady who invented high-definition screens…ha!
One of the biggest mistakes new poets make is using antiquated diction in an attempt to sound more poetic. I wholeheartedly agree with Maiurro that a good poem shouldn’t abuse thee and thou. However, I think there are some times when you can use it. Obviously, if you are writing in the style of another time period or the poem takes place in another time period, it would behoove you to use words and phrases appropriate to that time. I can even imagine how you might mix antiquated diction with modern colloquialisms, but I would be extremely wary of writing like that because it could easily turn out disjointed and ugly sounding or cutesy and obnoxious. Maiurro is correct in that you have to be honest and write like yourself, but I think you can do it with antiquated diction; just be warned that like formal poetry, it takes skill to use it right and it needs to be natural. Some take issue with elevated diction in poetry as well, but I think that it just depends on how and why you’re using it. Highfaluting vocabulary should not be used to make you sound smart, especially if you don’t know what it means. “Big” words should be used for the way they sound and the more nuanced meaning they may have. Unless you have a good reason to use ‘refractory’ or ‘intransigent,’ it might be simpler and clearer to say ‘stubborn.’ That being said, feel free to try and use new, ‘big’ words when you can; learning new vocabulary is a use it or lose it situation.
The last thing I disagree with Maiurro about is mostly aesthetic. He advises prospective poets to be down to earth and not to try and be deep; he also says it’s bad to be cryptic. I agree with him, but with a significant qualification. Some of my favorite poetry is deep and cryptic. My favorite poet is Yusef Komunyakaa and I’ve long held these words as a kind of poetic gospel. “Poetry is a kind of distilled insinuation. It’s a way of expanding and talking around an idea or a question. Sometimes, more actually gets said through such a technique than a full frontal assault.” In my opinion, the best poetry is mysterious enough to be mystical and transcendental but still within the realm of comprehension. I agree that trying to be deep or cryptic can sound like pseudointellectual babbling, but I think it would be better to risk being deep than risk being shallow. As a person, you should be down to earth; the world doesn’t need any more stuck up, pretentious artists. The truth of the matter is that all art requires some level of pretense. By declaring that you’ve written a poem, you’re declaring that what you’ve written is art, that it somehow transcends the ordinary. The trick is that you have to remain a humble, down to earth person, though you may write about deep, philosophical things. That humility is going to help for that inevitable time when you think you’ve written your magnum opus and everybody else thinks the poem is just ‘meh.’