Every Line of Poetry Is Discovery

Over the past year or so in my teaching work, I have found myself most wanting to impart the joy of discovery that writing can be to my students. Writing is an astounding identity, also ripe with reasons to doubt oneself, grow increasingly frustrated, or simply ache for the time to rest within oneself long enough to hear what needs to be captured. Sometimes I feel I am really just catching butterflies.

This afternoon, I finished reading James Longenbach‘s The Art of the Poetic Line. Longenbach’s book is one of the notable Graywolf series of books on craft, genre, and prosody. At a later point in this treatise, he proferred a thought that echoed what I have been attempting to communicate to my students of all ages:

Whatever shape it takes, this kind of movement is what makes a poem feel like an act of discovery rather than an act of recitation – an event that happens on the page rather than a recounting of an event that happened prior to the page. Lineation is a powerful tool for creating such movement, but not because a poet chooses simply to write pentameter lines or syntactically complete lines or no lines at all. What matters within any particular formal decorum is variation: the making of pattern along with the simultaneous disruption of pattern…This kind of movement – the establishment of a formal decorum in which even the smallest variation from it feels thrilling – is what makes the act of reading a poem feel like the act of writing a poem. It is what makes a poem an experience we need to have more than once, an act of discovery that is contingent not simply upon what we learn but on the temporal process of discovering how it feels to learn again what we’ve always known.
                               [pg. 112-113, The Art of the Poetic Line, Graywolf, 2008]

I repeatedly remind my students to ask themselves, “What is the rush?” There is a lot at stake: the difference between an adequate poem and something that is magical or striking. We must strive for the latter. There are those who are similar to production potters; the goal is to crank out as much as possible. I admire the truly prolific poet but if the goal is to get the poem done in order to take on the next and the next and the next, is the poet truly sitting within the work to discover its fullest capacity?

It is not uncommon, as an editor of a literary journal, to see potential that the poet has missed, that may be accomplished with simple edits as well as looking at different possibilities for line ends, enjambment, tighter language, even reordering stanzas and lines. There is a rush to be done and get the poem out the door. Many poems are close to hitting the mark but this ain’t horseshoes.

James Tate once spoke to a group of writers at the Asheville Poetry Festival; I believe it was 1995. Among the indelible comments he made that day was his belief that a poem should take a grand journey that, when over, we ask, “How did I get here?” but in looking back at the poem, the route is completely obvious.

We cannot intend or plan much of what comprises a great poem. Last night with a new class of adult writers, I discussed how I consider our creative work in this way: this is a journey; the bus is being driven by the piece. I am riding shotgun holding the map. The readers will be seated in back, going along for the ride, trusting the poem and me well enough to believe that we will arrive at a destination proving it was worth their time. The poem is the driving force of everything. And everything is important, every choice is critical, right down to the smallest shift in punctuation. No one proved that as clearly as Lucille Clifton in her magnificent, stark poem, dialysis. When originally published, as it appears in Blessing the Boats, the last line, Blessed be even this? is a chilling question. When I heard Ms. Clifton read this poem upon release of the collection, she read it as published and then she read it as she had grown to understand its meaning: Blessed be even this. More than once I have said Ms. Clifton is the kind of woman I want to be when I grow up.

Today, a friend wished me the opportunity for joy. I would love to resume joy as a way of being, the way Ms. Clifton taught by example. In a small step of accommodating that wish, I chose to slow down from everything else to immerse in my own poetry for the evening. I sat on my deck with my work, my computer, my iced tea, the cardinals’ shrill chirps punctuating the forgiving hour. I worked until I could no longer read my new edits on poems from 2011 and the crickets were tuning up. I pushed stanzas around like wheelbarrows. I chopped lines like wood to see the rings. I found places to trim and advantageous enjambments. I threw other language from the poems entirely.  I also submitted five poems for consideration, beating a deadline in the process. I was poet first and all the other identities had to wait.

The mosquitoes were hiding around my ankles to escape the bats. It was time to come in.    

Thanks again for following my blog. I appreciate your consideration of my words and thoughts.

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