The shape of things to come. Sometimes it is just a grocery list, but sometimes it is a stanza. A stand-alone cohesion of poetic lines with a root, stem, and portent of flower or fruit. Is it a triplet, a quad? Will it roll unbridled like the Mississippi from the top of the page? Wild stallions are rare, thoroughbreds rounding the track demand a winner, the lonesome cowboy logo at the trailer park gate straddles the horse of a different color, and Judgement Day will be heralded by horns and hooves, each equestrian example evokes a cultural significance. A poem ought to fit its intent, like a saddle tailored to a Pony Express rider or a heavily armored jouster strutting before the court.
The poem will dictate its form, somewhat. Coming from the ether, to the voice, to the page generally has a way of landing in its own logic. The breath it takes to realize the line lends a natural timing to its length, then again, emphasis of a particular notion might break a word apart to be heard singularly. I come from the first generation after the Beat Poets to write free verse. To say the poetic mood swings of this era were erratic is just the tip of the ice cream float. Punctuation, the use of capital letters, the reasons for rhyme, the sacredness of subject matter, it all got psychedelicized, and unless you were Bob Dylan, or maybe Patti Smith, poetry obscured itself into a cocoon of oblivion and open mikes.
The popularity of Dub, Rap, and Freestyle relegated the printed page to an afterthought. What a poem/song looked like was just a temporary step toward how it sounded. A photograph of the penciled scribbling of the author was all the authenticity a marketing director needed to promote the current surge of oral literature. If the pendulum ever swings unplugged it will be the page, not the download, that sets the stage for history’s perusal of our musings. Writing it down is how we lift ourselves up. The comma, well placed, is how we mark our place in this world.
Poetry is tapping found jewels into the crowns of the crowd passing by, the more fitting the gem the more the recipient, the reader, feels recognized. That’s the reward of writing and re-writing poetry. The trip wire is that each line must lay in perfectly. There is no space for a clunky phrase. The choke hold of an inside joke steals the oxygen necessary to inspire a fire. Time is the one thing we share that none of us has, so we mustn’t bore the reader with sloppy almost good enough trough trophies. “Kill your darlings!” is the advice Stephen King gives about self-serving word play. Seems to be good advice as well as the formula for best-selling horror stories.
How do we know when we’re asking the reader to do too much to follow our steam engine of thought? Trial and error is an effective means of negotiating the learning curve, the danger being if you go over the cliff too many times you’ll run out of interested passengers.
Establishing a dedicated reader, or two, to test a piece for false starts, unconnected rabbit holes, and obliquity is a sound plan for sounding out new projects. Another person’s voice reading your stuff back to you is a tell-tale technique for exposing the stumbling stones we hoped were building blocks. It is also a luxury, so until you’ve moved into that neighborhood read your stuff aloud into some sort of recording device and play it back Jack, from the top.
The intimidation of the blank page is a frontier we aim to conquer, but the path we carve, the footprints we make in the blinding snow, or trace across the tide yielding beach, ought not to be so formidable as to exhaust the reader’s curiosity before the journey. Shaping the poem to be digestible, eye pleasing, and inviting is as much part of the art as measuring meaning into our meanderings. The ancient Asian poets stressed the beauty of calligraphy as a prerequisite to the inherent value of a poem. Fortunately for us, or at least me, handwriting is no longer a pillar of poetic principle.
If you want to get downright radical in your pursuit of poetic sensibility try reading another poets work. I know, I know, that’s far too extreme for most people and time consuming as well, not to mention the mystery of where to find poetry to read in the first place. Back in the nineties, when I was fronting a spoken word band, we were searching for a suitable name for our group and thought the local bookstores might be a good source of a literary references, upon finding that neither of the chain stores even had a poetry section we took the bullshit by the horns and called our group the Poetry Section in the spirit of the marketing strategy, ‘find a need and fill it’. More recently I took some professional counsel and subscribed to a few online poetry groups via Facebook etc. My interest level weaned rapidly due to the onslaught of tedium I was invited to scroll. Guess what, describing your lover’s body using flowery language isn’t an original idea. Read Song of Songs in the Bible and let the impulse rest. We’ll all thank you, and so will your lover.
If you’re inflicted, or is it gifted, with a poetic spirit I hope to offer some encouragement. If you’re not, I hope to stomp out the virus controlling your brain, or at least deprive it of oxygen before you turn your attention to country music, or Twitter. You can write better poetry. We all can. Maybe it’s not great, publishable, world changing, or a threat to Hallmark, but it can get better. A key is to use the right word for the situation. Bring exacting terminology to each rendition. There is a word for it, and it’s probably not the word ‘that’. Simply eliminating the word 'that' from most of your writing will propel you to efficient, and more evocative expression. Say what you mean meaningfully. Who could ask for anything more?
My sense of composition is each line of a poem must be poetry. To fill space and hope a closing line justifies a mediocre middle doesn’t cut it. The vein of gold verses that leads to the next rich deposit can be coaxed, but never forced. Push, but don’t rush. Sometimes I’ll go through the alphabet looking for the first letter of the as yet invisible next word. Repeating the sound of the last largest consonant might give an alliterative turn to the phrasing. Perhaps an internal rhyme is the chime to chart the lines progression. Some devices are subconscious, some are super conscious. The blind lead the blind by whistling, and holding hands. Most writing coaches say don’t stop the flow, rewrites are where the writing gets right. It may help to leave an asterisk or some other visual clue to a sticky spot that needs reworking, just repeating the word, word, word a few times is a handy way to flag a line for further review. Who knows it may work, work, work better than anticipated in the long, long run.
Ultimately the lines, the stanzas, must resolve into a satisfying poem. This is the moment when wishing you wrote something relaxes into the smile of realizing you did. It is savor time. Coffee cooled enough to gulp, a rolled down window on a summer day, a perfect roll of sea green foam, how we treasure the twinkle of our lucky star doesn’t matter as much as the knowledge we have passed the test of time and ink. Go ahead and read it again. The Spirit spoke to you in person. The message and the messenger deserve attention to detail. The next question to answer is whether or not to share it, and if so, with whom?