Thursday, April 5, 2012

This Business of Poetry, Part 10: Concluding Remarks and Welcome to National Poetry Month!

Ten installments of a free on-line poetry course is probably enough. Now that we have entered the month of April, it is National Poetry Month, and time to get back to the writing practice!

I would like to make some concluding remarks, as I bid you adieu, to continue on your journey with words.

This is my first observation: no one can really teach you how to write poetry. Yes, there are many forms and there are lots of mechanics to the many forms, but these can be learned by reading poetry and by studying poetry manuals. (Whenever you see photographs of poets and writers, these images are almost always captured in a room filled with books and papers—they must be reading a lot!) Most poets have an internal music and rhythm that either conforms or defies predefined styles; either way, no one can tell you what you are doing is wrong. Refining and reorganization can be suggested, and I highly recommend you do this with all your work.

Next, the enjoyment of poetry is so extremely subjective that you should never consider you are writing for others—the most authentic work is that which you write for yourself, rather than to try appealing to a public that may never materialize. My personal notion is that poetry evolves from an individual’s deep interaction with the world of experience.

Throughout history, poetry was a pursuit rather than a profession. Poets sent their poems to friends in letters or self-published small collections that would be given as gifts. A few people were able to establish a readership, but the work of most was not available to “the public” until long after the author’s death.

Today, many people have the idea that if they write poetry, they will be able to make a bunch of money or garner attention for themselves. This seldom happens, but if it does, the point of poetry is completely lost, because it is no longer a poet’s conversation with the experiential self.

MFA writing programs have created academic enclaves that tend to be ever so slightly elite or cultish. When you consider that the greatest poets of most ages never took a degree in the art of creative writing, it all looks a little silly and seems to have evolved for the sole purpose of keeping “professional” poets gainfully employed. The writing that results from the academic approach can seem, though it is not always the case,… well, academic, if not sterile or contrived—in order to appeal either to a general public (that may wonder, not knowing any better, if it need appreciate such work, particularly if it does not resonate with a truth that the average reader can sense) or to writers within the enclave.

The other end of the spectrum from the MFA program is the Poetry Slam; this is a live entertainment contest, held at a performance venue. Winners are chosen based on the judges' tastes, audience reactions, and the poets' "performances". These can be raucous affairs, far removed from the demeanor of a more traditional poetry reading. My father attended one recently; he was absolutely appalled. One woman read a poem my father thought was well crafted and beautiful, but she was shouted off the stage. The victor in this slam presented work that had popular appeal, but the work was rough and somewhat crude.

Perhaps there is a lesson in all this. I would say that poetry does not belong in any kind of ghetto. This is not to say that a writer might not become part of a movement, but the movement should never define the work or diminish the individual poet’s accomplishment.

If all you ever do is create a journal of your work, you have achieved something great. You are, after all, writing primarily to please yourself.

Should you decide to enter contests, you might get your work placed in publications, perhaps even win a small honorarium from time to time. Don’t make this, however, the object of your writing. Don’t be afraid to self-publish; this is the time-honored way for poets to expand their readership beyond family and friends. Here again, this should never be the object of your writing, and do not expect to really make any money.

Your poetry should be valuable to you because it is a testimony to your engagement with and observations of the world. (Off the top of your head, can you think of a person whose old personal journals have become published and recognized to be of value in modern times? I can: Leonardo da Vinci; a poet, a painter, a sculptor, an inventor and theorista renaissance man for all times!) Think of your writing as a gift that you give to yourself before all others, although you will share it more and more, as time goes on. Beyond this, who knows what can happen?

Your work amounts to the care you have lavished in conversation with yourself on your life’s journey. For that reason alone, it is priceless.

For now, best of everything to you, and WRITE ON!

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