Mark Strand’s poem, The Great Poet Returns, ends with the line:
Tell me, you people out there, what is poetry anyway?
Can anyone die without even a little?
We desperately need the power of words that form themselves into poetry. The message of this on-going column is that poetry is not only for reading and listening; poetry is for doing. You don’t have to pigeon-hole yourself into the passive category of reader-only. That is like going to the beach and only watching other people swim. You can do that of course, but on a hot day, wouldn’t you also like to splash into that Wide Lake of Poetry yourself? Read this article through to the end, and you’ll find yourself swimming in your own poetry before you know it. The experience will be exhilarating.
The main obstacle to us all being poets is that, as humans, we have this lifelong struggle going on inside us – between what are referred to as our left brains and our right brains. Your left brain, the practical, no-nonsense side, sees the people swimming in the Wide Lake of Poetry. Then it spots the Olympic style swimmers with the perfect form. And then, wagging an admonishing finger, it whispers to you: ‘You’d better not go into that lake! You’ll get wet and you didn’t even bring a towel. And once you get in there you won’t want to come out. You’re too old for this nonsense. We have productive things that have to be done if you ever expect to amount to anything. And besides, you’ll never learn to swim as well as those Olympians out there. You’ll just be clumsy. Come on, let’s get out of here!’
Your right brain, on the other hand, the fanciful side, is thinking that wading out and splashing and floating around in the Wide Lake of Poetry might not be a bad idea at all.
But I’m not a poet, you say? There’s that left side of your brain talking again. It will have to step aside. It means well, but it just doesn’t know. What you really mean when you say this is simply that you haven’t waded into the Wide Lake of Poetry yet. When you do that, it will not exactly be you who is making the poetry. You splash in the water that is common to us all, and the water becomes the poetry – for you, for the Olympians who are swimming out in the deep water, and for everyone in between. The transpersonal water that all of us share – this is the poetry and the only poetry worth counting. And it will help you – it will wash over you in unexpected waves of images and words.
So what do you have to know to get started? Not all that much.
Just a few rudiments about inspiration poetry and about the line breaks
for free verse poetic form. And then of course a couple of techniques
for getting the left brain to step aside and leave the right brain alone
to have some fun.
Forget about rhyme and meter as a way to define poetry. Don’t worry about the music of word flow. You all have your own music; you just have to find it.
Emily Dickinson tried to explain poetry this way:
“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know it is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
Word combinations become poetry when they profoundly jostle our psyches. There is a definite loss of control in creating this kind of poetry. Day dreaming, not making sense – the stuff that scares the hell out of our left brain sensibilities. Remember Shakespeare’s phrase from A Midsummer Night’s Dream: "the poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling." That passage continues:
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
The poems I am talking about -- you just write them down and let them reach back for you, and as they do, like nets thrown into that wide lake for fish you do not see, they bring back some kind of discovery you might have missed along the way. It is a different approach.
Get the words down without being reasonable and then figure out what
it is that you said.
Line Breaks and Cadences
So why lines and verses in the first place?
Writing a line
and breaking it where you think it is natural
to take a breath,
to digress just a little,
gives us all a chance
to “hear” it
and see it
in a way that emphasizes
how you really want it to be perceived.
See? That isn’t a poem, but the lines break the way I would say them
to you, if I were reading or reciting them. The cadence becomes my
word-music. As Marjorie Perloff said in her brilliant article on free verse:
“When the lines run all the way to the right margin, the result is prose,
Overcoming our Left Brains
The challenge of creativity-stimulation (and the poetry which it yields) is to convince the left side of your brain to take a nap and let the right side of your brain take over for awhile. The right side of your brain is the only part that can get you through to the “Eureka!” discoveries that lead to real progress, that lead to the unwrapping of meaning.
In poetry, we have a variety of ways to convince our left brains to step aside. The simplest way is to make a deal with it. Get the words down without being reasonable and then let your left brain help you figure out what it is that you said. Give your right brain the courage to take charge. Say to the left side of your brain: sit down and leave me alone. I will show this to you later, but not now. And I am NOT wasting my time! (This gets easier as you progress into your poetry creation because the left brain comes to discover from seeing what your right brain creates, that this whole thing isn’t as crazy as it thought it was after all.)
An Exercise in Poetry Creation and Discovery
This exercise was inspired by something the singer/songwriter Tom
Waits once said – that he really likes: ‘songs that have the names of cities
in them, and food, and weather.’
Write a flow of words that contains the names of at least two cities [which will require you to “visit” them in your mind and record some kind of word-snapshots.] and then, in the same piece, talk about the weather at least once, and some kind of food. And never think about the logic. Just do it. Let the words flow. They don’t even have to be sentences. Only break them into lines that signify how you might say them if you were just relaxing and talking. Be aware of the cadences that the words make, and let this help you decide where to end one line and begin another.
Before you begin, notice what has just happened. Your left brain has gotten immediately tricked into going along because the exercise begins with a set of instructions. Your left brain loves instructions. So right away it goes along with the routine. When you follow the instructions, your right brain gets turned loose, and off you swim, making nonsensical juxtapositions of probably unrelated recollections, seeing images and forming them into words, remembering places you have been, traveling mentally to places you may not have visited in your life experiences. And as you follow the instructions, you will immediately cast off the impulse to be sensible, and you will be writing poetry. You don’t have to swim out to the deep part of the lake. Just wade around and flutter your hands in the ripples, and get yourself wet.
This is what I did with it:
Long way from Snoopy-cactus Phoenix and those
oranges that fall on the ground
in the green street median
so you can’t even stop to eat them
in the traffic that is always going by --
long way up to Flagstaff
up, yes, up and up as you drive --
Flagstaff, where it snows when you don’t want it to,
and lightning and thunder are always,
and the only thing you ever think about eating
when you get there, is a
great big wedge of that
pale-crusted cherry pie
in the silver Diner
with its lights blazing all night,
the one that is filled with tired tourists
making their way back down
from the edge of the Grand Canyon.
And their eyes -- as they get back to the business of
eating their slices of pie, are still wide
and full of the deep wonders they have seen.
What does it all mean? Well I’m not completely sure. But I do know that it felt good to do it. And I didn’t think about where the poem was going as I wrote it, only that it had to get me from Phoenix to Flagstaff. That long drive out of the desert town’s hot congestion, where oranges in the middle of streets never seem to make sense, up Interstate 17 to the elevations of quieter Flagstaff. And it got me to thinking about loneliness, and pie, and people trying to find their own spiritual selves in natural settings, but needing to come down and be together eating.
The thing is to just do the exercise. Don’t even worry about writing sentences or making sense. Look at what you wrote later and try to find the meaning, and even then, don’t worry if your left brain can’t make complete sense of it. Just remember how satisfying it was to do it.