Posted by: Adam Roper | April 11, 2009

How to write poetry: Part 2

In her book on creativity and imagination, “Breath for the Bones“, author Luci Shaw includes a discussion on the creative process of poets and poems. The following is an excerpt from her book:

What makes for good poetry? The concentration of an idea or image to it’s essence, the crystallization words in words of imagination and experience, the marriage of music and metaphor, economy- a paring away of the nonessential so that every word and phrase has weight and carries significance with the meaning of the whole being hinted at the part; poems help us in our comprehension of the bigger picture.

Perhaps we should first of all ask what we expect of a great poet, the person in whom poems begin. In The Personal Heresy, C.S. Lewis says “The only two questions to about a poem, in the long run, are, firstly, whether it is interesting, enjoyable, attractive, and, secondly, whether its enjoyment wears well and helps or hinders you towards all the other things you would like to enjoy, or do, or be”.

But there are other criteria. First, we are on the alert of the appearance and reappearance of themes that speak to the imagination and sensibilities of any age.

Second, we hope to see those primal themes tied down to earth with the concrete detail that exhibits an understanding of the daily concerns of common humanity, and understanding expressed in specific, visual, and sensuous images (Lewis himself wrote earthy poetry. I am encouraged that his life was not limited to an ivory tower of the mind. He was asked by Mrs. Moore to scrub floors and help in making jam, tasks that kept him in touch the the ordinary mortal life).

Third, a great poet will continue over a lifetime to develop as an artist. With maturity should come depth, sureness, strength, insight, unself-conscious authority, and stylistic consistency without monotony.

Fourth, there must be a significant growth in quantity as well as in quality. A great poet adds steadily to a body of work, growing to significant proportions over the years.

Fifth, a great poet must be, in some sense, a pioneer, working close to the cutting edge of innovation, attempting the original, the untried. She or he must constantly reinvent a personal style, not rut-bound; must attempt the experimental, the stylistic branching out. Even if it fails, it constitutes a form of growth.

Finally, in our list of the attributes of a great poet, there must be a magic at work, for, as Calvin Linton once said, “One cannot really explain how authentic poems work, for they work by magic, producing effects surpassing their visible means”. A poem’s unique magic is like a human life- dissect the body and it is gone. It will not yeild its essence to ruthless analysis.

… I am often asked “How does a poem happen”? It’s usually a rather mysterious event. Sometimes I’m asked to write an ‘occasional poem’, designed specifically for a wedding or some other special event, but usually I find myself stirred by the sudden (and often inconvenient) arrival of an image or an idea or a resonant phrase that will not leave me alone.

… The creative process begins, largely, in observation. But you also must be able to differentiate analyzing observations and feelings, then verbalizing them, then recording those words.

I crave an element of spontaneity and surprise in the creative process for a poem, not just using the obvious but searching for the exact word or phrase that’s right. You may settle on a word that startles you, but it’s right.

In my own writing I try to use the “nonpoetic” words of ordinary speech, rather than long polysyllabic strings of impenetrable or lofty language. I love the possibilities of everyday words and seek to bring them together in some form of juxtaposition that makes not only intellectual but poetic sense. The music of each line rings in the ear. When that happens there’s a sort of resonance in poetry.

In a poem, many things work together- intelligence, music, rhythm, imagination. A poet learns but putting these elements together. Somehow we learn in the doing and by being our own best critics. The poem is wordplay. When it’s going well, when I have waves of poems coming, I feel absolutely euphoric. It’s a spontaneous, unpredictable joy, something that takes me.

Ah, such a great book. I love it.

More to come. Take care.


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