So why write poetry, anyhow?

August 8th, 2010

The author in China, drinking tea with ground up turtle shell jelly.

Not for the money, that’s for sure.  Booklist and Library Journal ignored To Join the Lost, which is what I guess they do to titles not offered by the already bankable (I don’t think either of them regularly reviews poetry anyway), and without the imprimatur of those two gatekeepers one’s chance is greatly diminished of entering the literary Valhalla represented by a review in the New York Times or other national publication, and since it is reviews that spur sales one is stuck with whatever business one’s hometown paper can inspire (if one is lucky enough to obtain their notice, which I have been) and of course friends and relatives.  That stack of cartons in the living room, author’s copies, isn’t likely to get much smaller any time soon.

But it’s an itch I cannot help but scratch.  A college professor once told me, “Seth, words come too easily to you.”  True of prose, not of poetry.  Poetry is hard.  I can bash out five hundred, a thousand words of prose without any effort at all.  Ten lines of verse is a good day.  Is it the challenge?

Partly.  There are several kinds of challenge here.  There is the gamesmanship of working in form.  If you’re not thinking about form when you write, as you write, with every word that you write, then you’re not paying attention to the thing that makes it poetry rather than prose.  You still may luck into a good poem, but it’s less likely.  The part of me that likes doing crossword puzzles, also likes this aspect of my art.  It may seem odd to say, for a guy who is in the midst of a fifteen thousand line epic narrative, but I really like working in haiku.  Sonnets, on the other hand, leave me cold.  I like to read them, but writing them is a chore.  Something about having to wrap up my thought with the quasi-aphoristic finality of the final couplet turns me off.  My mind likes concision, so long as its open-ended.

The much more important challenge is this.  There is a level at which it is very hard to say something true.  Almost any statement I can make, I can contradict.  It lacks nuance, or dimension, or fails to connect with some overwhelmingly complex underlying reality.  One feels this way when engaged in a very important conversation with a loved one.  Everything must be stated either very carefully, with consideration and respect for all the precision and power every statement deserves, or with the fluent virtuosity of a jazz musician at the height of his improvisational powers, possessed by the passion appropriate to what he is uttering and therefore true to it because incarnating it.  I find it hard to reach this level in prose, because the words come too easily and get between me and myself.

In poetry the demands of rhythm and form and the compressive force of having to make lines before one makes sentences, all militate against any easy prolixity.  It slows me down.  It makes me pay attention, word by word.  Paying attention, word by word, I pay attention to what the words represent, because I am conscious of the gaps between the words.  It is like meditation, in that sense.  In meditation, one is conscious of the gaps between thoughts, on the rare occasions when one can sense them.  At those moments, the thoughts drift away.  Then, the next second, the ego jumps in and supplies a new thought.  Oh well.  But when one is writing poetry, and pauses to be aware of what lurks behind the words, that lurking reality leaps in and dictates, literally dictates, like someone giving dictation to a secretary, and one has the opportunity to act as scribe.  And that is the moment of exaltation, in which I know that I am coming as close as I can to capturing a truth verbally.  That’s why I write poetry.

Anybody reading this is going to say, “What are you doing, talking about reality and truth?  Most of what you write comes straight out of your own imagination.  It’s all about stuff inside your own head!”  But this post isn’t about epistemology.  I’ll save that for another day.

This entry was posted on Sunday, August 8th, 2010 at 2:12 pm and is filed under Poetry. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 Responses to “So why write poetry, anyhow?”

  1. Joan Price Says:

    Every new poet or wannabe poet should read this post, Seth. I picture the teenage Seth I knew decades ago reading this and pondering, “Do I want to be a poet?” and answering, “Yes, because I AM a poet.” Am I right?

    Personally, this post makes me glad I write prose! I must say, though, that I can’t turn it out as effortlessly as you do!

  2. Seth Steinzor Says:

    Joan, when I was a teenager I probably would have called myself a poet – at least after you and Vicky did – but I wouldn’t have meant the same thing by it then that I do now. I was several decades away from learning to listen for the spaces between the words. I knew there was something mysterious happening there, that is different from the mysterious things that happen in prose, but I had no idea where to look for it except for a vague notion that it had something to do with form. But all the poets I took for models back then – Cummings, Whitman, Dylan – were engaged in exploding form, one way or another, so that was very confusing.

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