Thursday, February 16, 2012

This Business of Poetry

I was taken aback when I saw an advertisement (on the local parent network listserv) offering poetry classes. I read the ad with interest. $200.00 for six weeks, offered in the home of the teacher… Plus, you must purchase a book of poetry by someone I have never heard of … explore the specific poet’s work, first half the class, then “take cues” from the “unique voice” of the poet under examination as a jumping off point for your own writing, second half the class. Offered by a published poet and former editor of a magazine I’ve never heard of … MFA from a local college… blah, blah, blah.


Got me to thinking… poetry as a cottage industry?


If I had $200.00 to spend, it would be on an evening of music, a book or two, a cup of coffee, a tea cake, and thou…

Why is she offering this out of her home? Why doesn’t she have a classroom and office hours?

Here’s the thing: poetry is not a business. Not a cottage industry. Not some little shoppe on the square (although it could possibly be described as a house of cards) with cute little note cards, a book or two, pens, leather bound notebooks and calligraphed verses and such. More to the point, in this case, you can’t teach anyone how to write anything by using your approximation of someone else’s voice. I think it takes a lot of gall to ask people to pay you for teaching them how to express themselves in writing by using someone else’s voice or technique.

I figure that I might be doing a great service to the community by offering free discussions about poetry and writing right here, on this blog. Not daily, but occasionally, in this month and a half ramping up to National Poetry Month (April).

What Is This Thing Called Poetry?

We get the word from the ancient Greek ποιεω (poieo) and the word means “I create.”  When you look up the word “poetry” in Wikipedia (or, who knows, perhaps you have an antique lying around your house labeled “Dictionary” or another bearing the legend “Encyclopaedia”), you will find a lot of interesting information about what poetry is and of what it can consist. I won’t bother to repeat any of that here—if you can see this blog, you can look that up for yourself.

I would like to define poetry in a less academic sense, couched in a more personal reality. Poetry is an activity of the mind, using the tools of everyday vernacular language, in response to personal experience of life. In essence, poetry is a word game that you play with yourself. This game is, however, grounded in your unique experience of the world, which could be thought of as philosophical, particularly existential or hermeneutical, rather than confined to being literary, in the most basic sense of the word. This may be why Poetics, the study of and theorizing on the nature, principles and elements of artistic composition, is considered a philosophical activity. You will find books on poetics in the Philosophy section of your library and bookstore, but seldom, if never, in the Reference or “How To Do It” sections or even the Poetry section! Moreover, you are more likely to find the earliest Western book on the subject, Aristotle’s Poetics, in the Classics section than any of those other areas I mentioned.

Aesthetics is another branch of philosophy that has a bearing on a broad range of artistic endeavor; it is the study the nature of beauty and sensory values, usually within the context of culture.

Literary Criticism can straddle the divide between philosophy and literature—this is sometimes described, perhaps unkindly, as a method academics use to put their mark on someone else’s work. Literary Criticism tries to establish a philosophical and cultural framework around a work or a body of work, sometimes with the intent of guiding people toward meaning or understanding or validation of the work. Personally, I don’t take much stock in literary criticism, as it has a history of foisting ideologies on readers, rather than allowing the work to stand on its own within the context of the readers’ experience. Some authors have little sense of humor when it comes to a Literary Critic telling the reading public what to think about their work.

So, we have talked a little bit about poetry, poetics and aesthetics and literary criticism, but knowing about these disciplines doesn’t get you anywhere close to writing poetry. The good news is that there are some “How To Do It” guidebooks, called poetry handbooks. These you might well find in the Reference section of your library or bookstore. Such books will talk about diction, tone, voice, rhythm, meter, rhyme schemes, and such. Sometimes they will do this by examining actual poems by well-known poets, poems that may be already familiar to you. I like reading poetry handbooks that are written by well-known poets, as opposed to those written by well-meaning “publish or perish” academics you likely haven’t heard of or read anything about.

The interesting thing about poetry handbooks is that they don’t all say the same thing. Yes, there are set forms and formulations, but poetry is not a science. You can take the forms and formulas and jam a bunch of words into such, but will the end result be a poem? Chances are that if you hand a set of Scrabble tiles each to two people, each person will construct a different piece of writing from among them.

But now we are back to the notion of word game. And that is what poetry is: it is your creative act using words that talk about your experience of life. Poetry differs from prose in that it is laid out line by line in stanzas, whereas prose is organized in paragraphs following grammatical structure and perhaps more regular speech patterns. Poetry differs from prose also by virtue of its music—that is to say, your music.

Poetry is your music, your experience, your truth:

            Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.
~ PLATO, Ion

--NEXT TIME: What and Who is a Poet?--