A few sugggestions about the craft of poetry

I’ve been asked by a business friend on the East Coast to host a one-hour Zoom session later this month on the craft of poetry — this in the wake of publishing, just this week, my second book of poetry, Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around.

Cover of the paperback edition of Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around (2021).

The title of the collection might seem to suggest there’s not much craft involved in writing poetry, or found poetry, anyway, which is what I’m doing here. But that suggestion is misleading.

In fact, finding poetry all around is very much a crafty case of keeping the senses alert and attuned to the possibilities of poetry. And then knowing what to do with these possibilities. If you aren’t alert to language, how can you be a poet? Language is your medium, the air you breathe, the soup in which you swim.

Your poetic senses or sense of poetry depends on language.

Here are some likely sources for poetry, especially found poetry: 

      • An odd remark by a friend or a passer-by
      • A line or two in a newspaper article
      • A passage in a book
      • An obituary
      • A dictionary entry
      • A song

Yes, it’s the job of the poet to be attentive, or attuned, to the music in the air. Not just melody but rhythm, stress, dissonance, oddity.

In the foreword to Lost & Found, I cite “selection and syntax” as principal tools a poet uses in turning everyday sources into poetry. He or she must know what is linguistically impressive, or odd, or resonant. Then has to know how to turn such oddities, whether long or short, into lines of verse.  (Verse means, at its root, a turning: the poet plows ground to the end of the line, then turns around and plows one more furrow, whether he’s writing iambic pentameter or free verse.)

But let me give a few real-world examples from the book:

      • “Frame”
      • “Poem in Form of To-do List”
      • “Orchidaceous”

“Frame” is the first poem in the book and a suitable gateway to the book as a whole. This short quatrain, founded on slant and repeated rhyme, might have taken root simply in the idea of losing and finding, as the title of the book proclaims. That and the notion of the frame, which I’ve meditated from time to time, because like many of you I’m interested in painting and decor, I mean hanging stuff on our walls that brightens or tones our day, gazing at it, admiring it, inviting friends to gaze and admire. 

Frame
By way of epigraph

I put a frame around it
so I can say I found it,
so I can say it’s yours and mine
for this brief space of time.

Wouldn’t it be supercool, I mean, if poets and writers, like painters, could hang their stuff on the wall and so impress or stop in their tracks the passerby or guest? I’m jealous of these confounded exhibitionists! Why can’t I do what they do with my craft?

“Frame” acts as an epigraph, or epigram, to all the poems of the book. I’m saying here that the material I’ve found, or cribbed, is art or poetry simply because I place it in the context of art, in this case, the framework or casework of a book. I separate a stray remark from the ephemeral world in which it is uttered and lost — you know, the kind of odd or funny remark we might laugh at one moment and forget the next. The poet wants to find the remark unforgettable, so arranges to put it in a frame where it won’t be forgotten. This kind of capture, like photography, freezes a moment and makes it available to the future.

But finding and freezing a remark is just half the battle: the poet also has to share what she’s captured with the world: “so I can say it’s yours and mine.” An authorial gesture becomes a communion, something she has in common with the audience she finds in writing the poems.

And, of course, that sharing, like all forms of human sharing, exists only “for this brief space of time.” You may consider this space to be the space of the poem, or the volume of poems, or the space of our lives. Life is indeed short, and if art is long it may not be forever but let’s enjoy it while we can. Indeed, it’s this poignant tension between the moment and the timeless that turns us to art as both producers and consumers.

The second poem I’ll cite here is another kind of animal. It doesn’t rely on rhyme, or even reason, to make its point, though the point may be much the same as that of “Frame.”

Poem in Form of To-do List

        • Finish Claudia’s website
        • Wash summer clothes
        • Practice Gregg shorthand
        • Organize your lives on hard drives
        • Buy 6-volt lantern for camping and tornadoes
        • Tell Jen you love her
        • Drive Mom to salon (if Mom were only here)
        • Snap pix of armadillos DOR (you’re not in Minnesota anymore)
        • Tell Diana how much you care
        • Study Djokovic’s lethal backhand
        • Tell Tom he’s a no good dirty bastard
        • Plan family reunion
        • Ask Jen what she meant by the child that died
        • Help in kitchen (only if she asks)
        • Meditate on where you’ve been and where the hell you’re going

This list poem may look like an everyday to-do list in some respects. In fact, I might have recorded some of these items in a practical, or transactional, list I was keeping a few summers back:

      • Claudia is a Mexican painter friend, whose website I created and kept for a number of years.
      • When summer approaches, you’d better get the summer clothes out of the attic and freshen them up, no?
      • Summer is the season of camping, and you don’t want to do all of it in the dark, do you? Get a light. And keep it in the closet, too, in the spring season of tornadoes. (My wife went through a tornado when she was a girl, or should I say a tornado went through her or her house, and she always keeps survivalist gear, including lights, in the closet.)

But a list of literal things to do tends to suggest things that are not literal, not practical or transactional — the things having to do with the brevity of light, life, leisure, summer:

      • Organize your lives, your various lives (as poet, spouse, parent, friend), on hard and durable drives, whether on your computer, or in the form of publications, or as impressions of the drive or life force you leave behind with friends and family.
      • Think of your dead mother and her faded beauty, her faded life.
      • The child that died? Maybe my wife, Jen, said something literal about a child that died. Maybe I was thinking of the times she had a miscarriage and abortion.

A list or catalog poem is not difficult, but depends as you see here on both the literal and the figurative. It’s an exercise in association. One thing, on the surface, suggests another, which may be lurking just below the surface or in chthonic depths.

Again, as with the “Frame” poem, this to-do poem dredges up stuff that ordinarily would be kept in mind briefly, then forgotten. Poetry, like other arts, seems to have as motive power the idea of saving, shaping, and preserving. The distraction and detritus of our mental life are transformed into something more durable, more formally impressive, more suggestive, more sharable.

Finally, in this blog, let me offer one of my dictionary poems for your consideration.

Myopia: Word of the Day
For Jen again

You say you can’t see anything beyond
the tip of your nose, my love, yet if this is
myopia it may owe, after all, to the Greek
myōpía, “nearsightedness,” i.e. (id est),
to use a Latinism, something contagious
and coming down to you, honestly enough,
through the obscure centuries, deriving
from mýein “to close the eyes or mouth”
(close kin to the Latin mūtus “inarticulate,
dumb, silent” or, as we’d say in English,
“mute,” which, true enough, sweetheart,
you have seldom been). Consider too mystikós,
“connected with the mysteries,” or “mystic,”
an enchanted Greek isle perhaps? Let’s not
forget also -ōpía, a combining form of ṓps
(stem ōp-), meaning “eye, face, countenance,”
and the gods know yours are beautiful: opa!
Yet what doth it profit a man, or woman,
to gain the entire world if he/she closes
the eyes, or mouth, and trips over the obvious,
a metaphorical sense, “inability or unwillingness
to act prudently,” developed in English only
at the hyperopic end of the 19th century.
So look, look, look, my true love, and see.
Here we are then, you and me, together
this blazing instant. Let that be a lesson.

Background here: my wife had cataract surgery recently, which didn’t go too well. Her vision seemed impaired, not improved, for some time after the operation.

Transitions, first book poetry
Cover of paperback version of Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989.

But dictionary poems? How ghastly! you might think. Who wants to rummage in a dictionary to write a poem or read it? Sorry, friends. I was an academic for maybe 15 years, teaching college English (writing and literature). I was in academe, that is, though never truly, fully of it. (But that’s another story, suggested in my first volume, Transitions.)

The dictionary, as I say somewhere in the endnotes to Lost & Found, can be considered “the history of our travels as a human race, our longings, mergings, conquests, accommodations to other tribes and peoples.” Take just about any word in the dictionary, read its definition, consult the etymology: where it came from, how it’s used now, where it might be going. Isn’t this about the most thrilling and “diverse” journey you can imagine? Every time we use an English word, we invoke our nameless, faceless ancestors, from whatever tribe, and the tribes they fought and fucked. We catch ourselves up in the history of the races, our races, however obscure, and our race to catch up, using such words, with the modern worlds of both commerce and art.

Well, this consideration may or may not be helpful to you if you’re a poet. It’s not a how-to guide, for sure. Not 10 Easy Steps to Transform Vague Emotions into Finished Poetry. No, it’s a few  suggestions, that’s all, about some of the resources we might use to transform raw materials. Or to understand how poets work with these materials.

      • Memory
      • Free association
      • Sound association (rhyme, off rhyme, repetition)
      • Transactive discourses (lists, thank you and welcome notes)
      • Dictionaries

That’s all I know, for now anyway. Any questions or suggestions? I’d be delighted to take them up and consider them in these pages.