Courage to Create
You might very well be The One.
William Shakespeare, step aside!
Don’t be afraid of your own ambition.
In English literature there are some wonderful poems, but there are more not so wonderful poems, and even more really bad ones. I take no pleasure in saying this. It’s just that what we revere becomes the model for what we create, and misplaced reverence has produced models that will not empower the next generation of poets. I believe that poetry, at its best, is the essence of communication between human beings-more powerful than prose, more accurate than mathematics. I believe that the next generation of poets is as least as important to us as the next generation of scientists and elected leaders and mothers and fathers. I believe that the Golden Age of Poetry in English lies ahead of us, and I’m hoping you’re the one who writes it. And you know who you are-you who deep inside want to write the great poems and believe you just might pull it off; you who are slightly ashamed of the insatiable inner beast that wants to outshine Robert Frost, to eclipse Emily Dickinson, to best Big-Will-the-Bard himself. And I’m writing this to tell you to stop being ashamed of your own ambition, because I believe in you too, I believe that you may very well might be The One, and I want to help.
So this and what follows are some practical tips (some general, some specific) to help you find your own path to full power as a poet and to shorten the time itâ€™ll take you to get there.
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The Sweaty Muse
Good writing is hard work.
There’s a really dangerous idea out there, an idea that’ll clip the wings off your poems while they’re still in the nest. I call it The Instant Muse, and it goes something like this: “My poems are inspired by an inner voice, they emerge whole and complete, which is why I never rewrite.”
Poems do sometimes emerge “whole and complete,” and the experience is sheer bliss, so poets tend to talk about it with mystical reverence. But it’s the very rare exception to the rule that creative writing, especially poetry, is hard work requiring multiple rewrites over extended periods of time. For me, 30 to 40 rewrites over the course of a year is not uncommon.
Is this right for you? Maybe; maybe not. Some of you may hear yourself thinking, “But I enjoy the flow of spontaneous writing and I don’t want to rewrite for hours.” In such matters you have every right to follow your heart. There are lots of weekend-warriors who enjoy shooting hoops but have no ambition to star in the NBA. There are also lots of poets who enjoy spontaneous writing and don’t feel the need to hammer their work till it glistens. Such poets are real poets just as those weekend-warriors are real athletes. But listen closely for as you read one of your poems the inner question “Is it good?” may begin to transform itself into “Is it really good?” or even into something like “Is it as good as Walt Whitman?” which is the voice of hunger, the voice of the insatiable beast; and if that’s what you being to hear you have an obligation to yourself and to future generations to roll up your sleeves and begin to hammer your poems till they glow in the dark, for nothing short of perfection will make the hunger go away.
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To express? Or… To evoke!
A poem is like a kiss
The poet designs the game, the reader plays it.
We’re about to discuss a very small thing that can make a very big difference in your work as a poet. It’s one of those simple things that’s very hard to say.
Now days we tend to think of poetry as a form self-expression in which poets express their innermost thoughts and feelings. Scholars call this confessional poetry, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, but it has come to dominate the world of contemporary poetry, and as a young poet confessional poetry is often the only model you’ll encounter.
Self-expression is a wonderful thing, but it’s only a first step. It’s what Virginia Woolf alluded to when she wrote “the impulse toward autobiography” being spent, the writer begins “to use writing as an art, not as a method of self-expression” (A Room of One’s Own, 1929).
So while you’re expressing yourself, try to express yourself to someone else, to embrace the underlying but often ignored notion that communication is the essence of a poem, that the search for poetic voice is driven by the hunger to be heard.
Here’s what I’m suggesting you do. First of all, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about this philosophically and never think about it when you write. Just try to develop a sense of audience, a subtle awareness that you’re writing to communicate to another person, and try to think of your poem as an interaction: like hugging a child, or kissing someone you love, or fighting off an attacker.
This subtle sense of other is what will help you develop the power to evoke, and that’s what great artists do. They do not express, they EVOKE, and the difference is what happens inside the audience, inside the person with whom the art is communicating. Here’s how it works:
- To express: If I express to you my feeling of sweet-sadness about getting old, you say to yourself, “Poor Brod, he’s sad about getting old, but he’s just going to have to get over it because it happens to everyone, and besides, I have problems of my own.”
- To evoke: If instead of expressing my sadness to you, I tell you the things that happen as I age: how I notice the little brown spots that begin to appear on the back of my hands, how I’ve gotten use to the ache in my fingers when I wring the washcloth, how when I put away the Christmas decorations I take special care to label the boxes in case I’m no longer around next year to unpack them. As I tell you these things, you imagine them happening to you: you imagine brown spots and aches and facing the inevitable. Suddenly it’s you who are getting old, and the feeling of sweet-sadness happens inside you, it’s your feeling, not mine, and you canâ€™t help but care about it. My poem says things that cause you to perform an act of imagination, and you become an active participant in the art.
This business of stimulating the internal action of the audience is like the relationship between a videogame designer and a videogame player. The designer creates the game, but the player gets to play it. This is powerful stuff: to successfully evoke your thoughts and feeling inside someone else so that they experience those thoughts and feelings as their own. In the end, it’s the joy of being an artist, what for me makes the “sadness” of aging “sweet.”
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