Writing poetry that sings by guest blogger Tai Carmen who maintains a weekly blog called Parallax:A place for dreamers
Tai Carmen ( www.taicarmen.com):
If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash. ~ Leonard Cohen
My grandfather was the first to draw my attention to poetry. He knew Yeats’ “Song of Wandering Aengus” by heart. I went out to the hazel wood, he’d begin with a storyteller’s cool pacing. Because a fire was in my head! Said with more urgency, and I knew that the fire was the artist’s spark and restlessness, and that same fire burned in my grandfather’s head, as it did in mine.
Later in college, a favorite poetry professor, Barry Spacks, would use the word shimmer to describe a moment of poetic magic in a verse; other times, sing. As in, “By the second stanza the poem really starts to sing.” I love the self-illustrating, intuitive leap of those word choices—how they don’t underestimate us with some plodding, practical description in conflict with their own meaning, but have faith in our ability to catch the finer essence of their emotional truth. It reminded me of an Robert Frost line I’d seen taped to my grandfather’s old orange typewriter: If it is a wild tune, it is a poem.
To produce this singing, this shimmer, we must catch the reader off guard. In the Hindu sacred arts, surprise is one of the essential elements of beauty—so, too, in poetry. A fresh image or surprising coupling of words creates its own chemical spark in the psyche of the reader, experienced as goosebumps, thrill, etc.
To surprise the reader, the writer must first surprise his or herself. This process of discovery for the writer is key. The grip on the known must be loosened. Good poems come to those who surrender. To facilitate this process, the initial creation should be completely free-associative. The first draft is for play, experimentation, liberating unconscious connections. As French poet Arthur Rimbaud said, “A poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses . . . ”
After the initial Dionysian abandon, comes the Apollonian stage of carving order out of chaos. Note: the Apollonian editor (aka, the analytic mind) is a pushy bugger, and tends to want to get in on the action prematurely, so make sure to give the Dionysian spirit (creative self/subconscious/imagination) plenty of time to play.
At the editing stage, in my process, I’ll read the piece aloud, and every time I find a mouthful phrase, smooth out the sentence, remove words, simplify to streamline flow—removing excess verbiage to reveal the inner music of the words. Be ruthlessly objective—it’s worth it. As the great Mark Twain said, “When in doubt,
ike it out.” This should be a survival of the fittest kind of scenario. If your eyes start to glaze over at all, hit delete. Look, shrewd-eyed, for errant clichés, flimsy assertions, and any oblique language that could alienate the reader. The reader is the target of the communication, so if your high words go over his head, you’ve lost sight of your goal as poet, which is to speak to the heart of man.
The paradox here is that occasionally an illogical but none-the-less stimulating phrase—something surreal, say, that evokes a feeling even while its meaning may be subjective and ambiguous—can be the quickest arrow to the reader’s heart, bypassing the brain for her feeling center. So, I guess you could say it’s okay to go over the reader’s head, if you make contact with her heart in the process. But it’s a rare line that achieves this victory, and personally I like to mix in the flight-of-fancy phrases very sparingly—first gaining the reader’s trust with concrete imagery and context. People already expect poetry to be self-indulgently inaccessible—I like to prove them wrong.
To make a poem sing, to use fresh language, we must see the world with new eyes each day. Familiarity can breed a kind of trance state if we aren’t careful, the eyes become unseeing of what they know too well—a pitfall for the human mind in general. We can pass a radiant patch of pale green moss on a wall and not think twice, but the poetic eye catches the color, the texture, cherishing details.
The poet helps humankind remember wonder. And for that we must keep our own wonder alive. In a world of mechanized routine, the hope of the future lies in resisting falling into such a collective trance state that we cease to see through fresh eyes and feed that “fire in the head” that we all have—the restless search, which drives us out into the hazel woods of the world. It’s to this inner spark poetry speaks.
Robert Frost:Then there is this wildness whereof it is spoken. Granted again that it has an equal claim with sound to being a poem’s better half. If it is a wild tune, it is a Poem. Our problem then is, as modern abstractionists, to have the wildness pure; to be wild with nothing to be wild about. We bring up as aberrationists, giving way to undirected associations and kicking ourselves from one chance suggestion to another in all directions as of a hot afternoon in the life of a grasshopper. Theme alone can steady us down. just as the first mystery was how a poem could have a tune in such a straightness as metre, so the second mystery is how a poem can have wildness and at the same time a subject that shall be fulfilled.
It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life-not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion. Read More:http://www.mrbauld.com/frostfig.html
…Currently at work on her first novel, Carmen maintains a weekly blog, Parallax: A Place For Dreamers, and moonlights as the front-woman for indie rock band Sugar in Wartime. For more details, and to stay posted on current projects and events, please visit www.taicarmen.com