Writing Great Poetry—Step 1: Open a Vein . . .
My internal editor cringed when I found this poem yesterday morning, buried in a box of other writings also penned by my much younger self. I was just eighteen when I wrote this, sitting in my Datsun outside the UNLV student union, nervous about some impending event which I cannot recall. I dug through my purse for paper and pen, using the car’s cigarette lighter to heat the nub of the pen when it refused to write. I scribbled the words as the minutes ticked by, bringing me closer to whatever it was that made me nervous in the first place. And then, of course, the waiting ended. I did whatever the anxiety-inducing thing was, and I survived.
I have no idea why I kept it. Perhaps it became trapped between other papers, or maybe I’m such a packrat I just never threw it away. No matter the reason, the memory of it drifted back to me with weird clarity after almost forty years. Why? What is it about that little poem that stuck with me? Maybe because it’s a snapshot of my youthful anxiety and, truth be told, I’m not sure my adult anxiety looks any different. Thank goodness my writing skills have improved. 🙂
In many ways, our writings are like photographs, snapshots of who we are, or were, in a particular moment or stretch of time. They do more than just show how the quality of our work has evolved. Our writings also show something about ourselves.
More than straight prose, I believe poetry draws back the curtain on a writer’s state of mind. Do you agree or disagree? And just in case you’re not positive about the difference between poetry and prose, here’s a quote that explains it beautifully:
“When you write in prose, you cook the rice. When you write poetry, you turn rice into rice wine. Cooked rice doesn’t change its shape, but rice wine changes both in quality and shape. Cooked rice makes one full so one can live out one’s life span . . . wine, on the other hand, makes one drunk, makes the sad happy, and the happy sad. Its effect is sublimely beyond explanation.” —Wu Qiao
Poetry strikes me as an intensely personal thing, more than any other writing. For instance, with my novels I take on the persona of the character I’m creating. What is that character thinking and feeling in the moment? Whatever that is, that’s what I put on the page. It isn’t me, it’s the character. But with poetry, the poet himself is at the heart of it, and writing a moving poem requires a level of openness with which I’m uncertain I’m capable. If there’s an art to writing great poetry without first opening a vein, I don’t know what it is. Poets, if you’re out there, please weigh in on this. Am I making it more complicated than it is?
Because I love quotes, I found a few pertinent ones to share:
“Poems are other people’s snapshots in which we see our own lives.” —Charles Simic
“Poems, to me, do not come from ideas, they come from a series of images that you tuck away in the back of your brain. Little photographic snapshots. Then you get the major vision of the poem, which is like a giant magnet to which all these disparate little impressions fly and adhere, and there is the poem!” —Carolyn Kizer
“A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” —Robert Frost
“Wine is bottled poetry.” —Robert Louis Stevenson
Okay, so that last one doesn’t really fit the topic, but it couldn’t be overlooked. 🙂
And now, some questions for you. First, do you save everything you write? Or do you toss the stuff you know isn’t your best work—the crappy rough drafts, the late night musings, the scribbles on old receipts? What would your older writings tell the world about you? If you aren’t a writer, what is your reader’s view of poetry? Do you enjoy it? And if you’re a poet, please share one of your poems in the comments. Give us a peek through the door.
Thanks for hanging out with me! See you next week for more of the Naked Truth.
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