Unkind Thoughts on Poetry


Poems can be so irritating to write. Why? Some years ago I heard a dazzling great writer, maybe Margaret Atwood, provide one answer. She said you don't bid poems to come to you. They choose you, you don't choose them.

If this sounds romantic, maybe not. That perception helps explain a certain helplessness I feel in writing poetry, an absence of the grounding control I find and enjoy in the non-fiction writing world I inhabit. You can see the problem right away: in writing poetry you must submit.

At present a few poems of mine are paired with artwork in a new exhibit at the Sandwich Arts Alliance in Sandwich, Massachusetts. (see below). All of them were born out of a need to respond to Something, like the itch that demands your attention, like the unmovable grain of sand an unfortunate oyster must cope with. Writing poems, for me, is a matter of living joy, of course, but they begin with a non-negotiable need to convert experience and thought into words.

Ah, yes, words... Not just any words will do for a poem, not even a good word or a fine sentence or a really nice line. A poem demands the perfect word within the perfect sentence or perfect line. You, poor writer, may trot out every adjective, adverb, and verb in your (you thought) fairly extensive vocabulary, every clever synonym and elegant piece of punctuation. And staring back at you from the page, the poem sniffs, oh dear, dear, not quite the right tone. Or nuance. Or pace. Or just: No.

Poems do not compromise. Like the most stubborn child you have ever known, a poem will settle for nothing less than expression of its unique interpretation, its special vision. Believe me, they will wait months or years, even decades, for you to figure all that out. Poems are demanding, but they're also patient.

I wrote one titled "In the Meadow of My Mind" about fifteen years ago. I had towards it a pleased, successful feeling. True, there was a very teeny, very tiny blank space that the pleasure of success did not extend to or cover or fill. I chose to ignore it. I declared the poem finished, even shared it at several readings. But I knew what that teeny, tiny whiff of non-pleasure meant: The poem had spoken. Not quite good enough.

Four months ago I changed the title of that poem. It became "Creativity" which was always the subject of the poem. With that one-word change, pleasure bloomed and expanded, the blank space filled in, and the poem released me from my obligations. After fifteen years, it was completed. I don't pretend to understand the process of writing poetry which I so love, but it probably does explain why there are far more romances and graphic novels than poetry collections.

* NOTE: TO SEE HOW VISUAL ARTISTS ALSO DEAL WITH POETRY, VISIT THE SANDWICH ARTS ALLIANCE EXHIBIT AT THE NEWLY OPENED CENTER, 124 ROUTE 6A, SANDWICH. POETRY IS ON DISPLAY THERE BY PETE CORMIER, LISA KELLEHER, CHRISTINA LAURIE, MARGIE MCMAHON, CHRISTINA NORDSTROM, AND MARK SNYDER.


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