I cringed when I realized it’d been more than a month and I still hadn’t responded to your comment. I am very sorry. Life off-line has been hectic. I’ve been waiting for a break in the action to put down some thoughts but even when a few quiet moments arrive, I haven’t been able think coherently. I’ve wondered about this. Why am I so mentally stuck on your questions?
Well, ok, it’s really one question I’m stuck on: the poems I’m holding back. After thinking about it for a long time I have to give up and simply say: My own motives for holding them back are unclear to me. Probably because the terrain those poems describe is very personal and it could be I’m not ready to give them up for public consumption. So I’m going to put that question aside for now.
Backing up a little, I really liked you’re description of how you wrote those pieces we were discussing. By “liked” I mean it opened my mind to new possibilities. One is the idea of approaching prose the way you would a poem. I re-read “Heart of a Poem” and I think I can see what you mean. The feel is looser. I don’t sense an attempt to argue an idea as much as to absorb one.
Poetry doesn’t contrive. It simply is. And I felt that in “Heart of a Poem.” You said something about putting it down one sentence at a time. I wish I could write prose that way, but I can’t. I can’t get to the place in prose where it just exists. It simply is. I don’t know why.
I tried doing what you describe, just writing a sentence, then another, and I ended up writing another poem. Or rather, I’m still writing it, it’s in draft form. But here’s the second thing I learned both from reading your last correspondence and from good old fashioned trial and error: writing a heap of words in order to get to a poem is not a bad thing.
That’s what preceded the poem I’m working on: a heap of words. Because of them, the poem I’m writing is not necessarily one I would have written otherwise. I’m not exactly sure why. It could be that once I got all those words out and piled up, I could see what I had to play with. A similar thing happens when I am asked to write in a form I wouldn’t normally write in otherwise. I end up expanding my tool box a little.
I don’t know where this poem will end up, if it will fly or not, but I’m trying to work this process. I’m already “back-writing” (heaping up words) for another poem in the hopes that . . . well, that there really is another poem.
Sometimes I wonder if the reason why I write poetry is because it is for slow moving minds. You can’t speed read poetry. You can’t write it on a lark either, at least I can’t. I read and write poetry because I’ve read and written poetry and it’s habit forming. The more I write it the less I think about writing anything else unless I have to or really really want to. When it comes to this correspondence I am in the category of “really really want to” but it still takes me forever to wrap my brain around what it is I really want to say.
I don’t have a teacher side of my brain like you do, and I’m envious of you that your teacher half can pull your poet half aside and give him a talking to (I love that image you created). So when I write this stuff, I spend a lot of time (like, say, about a month) second guessing myself. I think this is where my concern over my approach to poetry seeming impersonal came from. In hindsight, I don’t think I was responding to my poetry (you’re right, “Paths” is very personal, as are many others I’ve written) as much as I was responding to all that stuff I had written about myth. I think I described in real terms the mechanics of how I write a poem, but I don’t think about that when I’m writing a poem. When I’m writing a poem I’m simply trying to follow a moment. All this other stuff happens, of course, but its like an engine under the hood of a car, and I’m not used to writing about the engine. I’m used to driving the car.
Over the past several years, I’ve focused on poetry to the exclusion of other forms and one thing I decided early on was that I would feel my way through it. So in some ways I have spent the better part of ten years ignoring the “engine” of poetry in favor of simply driving the “car.” I’ve not learned poetry with my head in the hood, I’ve learned it out on the road. I’m not saying this is the only way to learn how to write poetry or even the best way. I’m just saying this is the way that makes sense to me and that is available to me. By “available” I guess I mean all the poets I read or hear about or stumble across or get my hands on. They are my instructors. Higher education beyond a BA is too expensive for me.
When I’m writing a poem, I try to follow where it’s going and not exert too much control over it. In order to do this the first thing I have to sacrifice is the assumption that I have control over its meaning. When I say “meaning” I’m not referring to individual words or sentences or the intuitive flow of images and themes. I’m referring to the missing object of this sentence: “My poem is about [blank].” I try to never fill in the blank when I’m writing it. After I write it maybe I will. If someone asks me to, or if I am referring to the whole thing as an object, like “that poem I wrote about my uncle.” But I place my speculation on the same level as any other reader’s at that point.
So when you proposed the question, “Do you think it’s possible to write poems that speak to truths we can’t quite see clearly from where we stand?” my initial response was: Yes. As a matter of principal, Yes!
But this approach probably necessitates muddying the distinction between the poet and the speaker in the poem. I’m shooting from the hip here. I’m not totally sure, but I derive my belief of this from the fact that both perspectives make sense to me. The speaker is me and the speaker is not me. Both at the same time. There’s a line in Allen Grossman’s “Summa Lyrica”: “We observe that the speaker in the poem has not heard of the author and refuses to explore the question.” That’s pretty much me. And yet I’d be a fool to say that the poems I write are not about me.
I think if I were to say anything definite about poetry it would be that it is a bundle of paradoxes, and that to write poetry is to attempt to place yourself in the balanced center of each one. I can err too far in the direction of any of the things I’ve written here (or previously). And part of the reason I second guess myself with regards to this is that I’m going from pure intuition on this.
To return to where I began, I think one of the big reasons why I hold back certain poems is because I worry they are unbalanced toward the personal. There is no tension in the paradox of me and the speaker. It is all, or too much, of me. That bothers me. The reason why I give up control over meaning is because I think that should belong to the reader. The poet has intention (in terms of following the flow of the poem — I do make choices to go in one direction or another, depending on where I think the poem is going), but the reader is the one who derives meaning. But like I say, I’m shooting from the hip on a lot of this. I don’t have the level of schooling that I see after the names of poets getting published these days.
Thanks for your patience with this, Patrick. I really appreciate your insight and I always learn from it. Unfortunately I’ve been in something of a slump over the past month. I want to get back to creating, but something needs to jar loose. It’s entirely possible that, after having written all this, I will then contradict myself and post those poems I’ve been holding back! This may be the thing that needs to jar loose. I don’t know. But I do know that I don’t often get the opportunity to discuss these things. So I appreciate the chance to learn from your point of view and any thoughts you may have on all this.
Once again I’m sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I’ll try to be more on the ball next time!