Part One: IS WRITING POETRY AN ACT OF INSPIRATION OR OF CRAFT?
So, you don’t know your anapest from your Budapest, your meter from your liter,
you’re your Caesura from a salad. If it’s terminology you seek, nearly limitless sources are available to educate you. Where are they? None of these will be surprising; here they are:
At the library
In a bookstore
In a classroom
Before you stop reading because you are so eager to learn about styles in the vast sea of poetry or its attendant terminology, I interrupt you, mid-dash. Surrounding yourself with references is for another time. The title question I put to you is what we will address. If your answer is both, you are correct—and not. Here’s why I make that stand. Suppose you are making a complicated gourmet meal for a small convention of dignitaries accustomed to excellent meals. Now imagine that you just don’t feel like doing this banquet. You are bored and restless. You’d rather go surfing or spelunking. Sure, you can get your sous chef and staff to whip up the meal for you. Under your direction they’ve done it before. Whose triumph will the product be? Not, I submit, entirely yours, regardless of your conception and the number of times you have executed it in the past.
Here is where craft comes in. You are good at what you do because you have practiced, using tools of the trade and your creative inspiration which has, just now, alas! abandoned you. You have a reputation to maintain and you genuinely enjoy seeing people savor your meals. To blazes with caves, you are not going to cave in to your ennui. How will you proceed?
You will start by sweeping into your laboratory, the kitchen; you will issue orders while tying on your apron; you will check in with your workers an confirm who’s at which station. You will smile, if that’s your style, or growl, frown, furrow your brow if it’s not. What will you find? Within some moments after entering into your domain, your boredom has retreated and you tell yourself there will still be an ocean on your next day off. Your craft, composed of practice upon practice of trial, error, and adjustment sees you through.
Moreover, when all the main courses are down, you are struck by inspiration, which, just now, hello! is returned to you. Marzipan, you exclaim. Your staff turns to you, ready to jump at your command. “Add an inner layer of marzipan to the Baked Alaska. Dot it with fudge. Get it in the oven. Yes, you have time.”
So, craft and inspiration work for any undertaking; your clever mind has already put that together. Let us do it right now with poetry. We won’t worry about rhyme, meter, feet, and all the rest of what constitutes the intricacy of a great poem. No, what I will do next is not fun because I am neither inspired nor ripe for the challenge. I’m hungry, thirsty, and will resort to that part of craft which is practice. I will do this exercise anyway. When I am finished, you may stop reading; I want you to, and do the exercise for yourself. I am following the same steps I ask you to follow. Don’t peek at them just yet. Here’s my result.
like the ancient push broom
In the corner there,
I would be ready,
tuned to the moment,
my strength coils of fine steel;
ready, to unleash the power of bristle,
put it to the fine beige dust
of new wood and drifts of sand
onto the porch.
The old broom waits,
ready, asking to be used.
How can I deny it now,
itself dust-covered, longing.
Now, have at it. Here are the steps:
Look around the space you are in for about 30 seconds. Whatever your eye lands upon after 30 seconds is your topic.
While you think about the topic, fetch paper and pencil.
With your mind focused upon your topic, write down the first three words that come into your head. Avoid censoring yourself if you can.
Link the words in some way to your topic.
Pick a mood or state: Happy, sad, lonely, kind, etc. Add it to the rest of what’s on your paper.
Sit with your eyes closed for 30-60 seconds.
Turn your paper over, take a deep breath and begin to write.
If you need a reminder of your choices, take a quick glance at the other side of your paper. Refrain from dwelling.
Finish your writing.
Read what you have written silently and then aloud. You will have a poem, a poem you may later edit.
If it’s not your best work, so what? The point is, you did it, not through a lightning bolt of inspiration but through discipline. Discipline develops muscle because you are working. Discipline is a part of craft. I reckon this, though: inspiration, Divine or not, crept into your process somewhere and generally will.
Next time: More about craft: Feet, meter, and rhyme. Oh, yippee doodles!
Remember: Check Out PART TWO!