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A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Sunday, May 19, 2013

"Canticle of Clouds" by Jennifer Atkinson -- Poetry Daily, 5/18/2013

from Canticle of the Night Path
poem found here


First lines:
Stratus—stuff and nonsense;
                                           how things tear and frazzle;


writing habits, and not writing about yourself

— reformatted with one important edit 9/30/15

So I stumbled upon an article on the The The Poetry blog – an excellent blog, in the sense that it would be easy to loose an entire afternoon exploring it, and many doors would be opened to you – a four part article titled "Towards a Different Kind of Workshop" (here), written by Joe Weil. I don't agree with some of what he puts forward (the conflict lying in what underlies his thoughts); but, I very much do get behind the general idea of what he is proposing. (It is worth exploring, even if you are yourself a beginning or early-on explorer of words, as thoughts on a building your path of development.)

My favorite moment is in the first installment, down near the bottom: Weil's stated "goals I have for a beginning poet." I'll list them out, for their own merit, and, perhaps to prod you toward the articles:

  1. To find out if they truly like poetry, or only write it to “express” themselves.
  2. Find out what their aesthetics are, the limits of their aesthetics, and how these may be expanded.
  3. Learn to be responsive to language both as written and performed text.
  4. Gain exposure to major poems without having to take a lecture class.
  5. Have a learning experience with their own minds and with the teacher far more concentrated than is usually possible in a class that consists of lecture, papers, exam.
  6. Learn to write daily, rather than waiting for the last minute. This means they are not feeling they are doing a lot of work, but are, in fact, doing far more—minus bibliography, and all that formal stuff.

And bravo, Mr. Weil. That is a list I will put in many places so I never lose it.

I should say, though, I don't wholly jump behind the last, the sixth. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that it should be more apparent that the sixth is not quite of the same modality as the others: the first five stand also as general statements about aesthetic practice. That sixth, though, is more for the workshop runners than the students. And yes, with beginners, getting them to write every day is a very good class praxis. But when talking with people beyond that first class, I prefer to rather say, "discover how your pysche writes, and make your life such that you are as productive (productively productive) as you dare to be." Are you a morning writer? an evening writer? Do you need isolation and silence? or music? or white noise? bedroom? livingroom? den? coffeeshop? park? do you need to sit and dedicate time to write every day, or is it sometimes you need only to have paper at hand, to jot notes, while the idea for a poem develops in your head? I believe it was Charles Darwin that had a circular path in the woods behind his house that he would walk, monkishly, nearly every day, to work out his thoughts. (I think I have the correct person – I know there are others with similar.) James Dickey once said he kept a typewriter in every room, each with a different project, and he would go to where his thinking led him. (But that's Dickey, so take that with a grain of salt.) F. Scott Fitzgerald, when he was ready to write a novel, would move into a hotel in a different town, and bunker down, hole up, and isolate himself until the novel was done. Harlan Ellison perfers to write with music playing screamingly loud. (And often writes sans clothes . . . . and you might be surprised how important clothing – or lack thereof – can be to your creative self. I've known people who prefered to write in a robe, in a sweatshirt, or only in long pants, and even, once, in a bikini.)

So while I very much agree with the pedagogical philosophy of #6, once beyond beginner status, I find it very important that writers find how their independent psyche works best, and creates praxis out of where that leads them. (Which means, very much also, finding out where they are kidding themselves about where and how they are productive, and destroying those habits.)

That said, really and truly, what wholly flipped my flapjack with this list was #1. And let's all read it again:

  1. To find out if they truly like poetry, or only write it to “express” themselves.

This is of supreme importance. This is in no small way an indirect definition of literature (and aesthetic literature). Because it is pointing out that writing poetry is NOT about expressing yourself. It is about making things out of words. I know I bring him up a lot (and that is because I am working with him, currently), but it would behoove every "poet" to read the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth details how in writing a poem about an experience it is of critical importance to recognize that the poem is not a documentation of the experience: rather, the poet must step away from the experience, contemplate it, and change the direct experience into raw material for a poem, the latter of which is not, itself, experience..[FN]

[FN] Obviously, Wordsworth is not the only person to say this. But I find his presentation very helpful, even for the 200-year language gap. Frequently, when writers speak of this, they tend to speak more 'poetically' (mythically) as it were. The Preface is meant for everyone.

Poetry is not diary with line breaks. Diary with line breaks is diary with line breaks, and nothing more. Poetry – literature – is creating out of language, not dictating out of memory.

[FN] I am reminded of the line from Stardust Memories: "Well, I thought it was terrible...Sea gulls! Dead cars!...He has no balance left…garbage!…He’s pretentious. His filming style is too fancy. His insights are shallow and morbid. I’ve seen it all before. They try to document their private suffering and fob it off as art." (Which, by the way, was true. And that was the point of that moment in the movie: the central character, Sandy (Woody Allen), could not escape his own internal chaos in making the film, so it was wholly diaretic.

That said, and giving but brief comment to each, leaving the work of pondering the whole to you, let me tell you why I like this Poetry Daily poem, "Canticle of Clouds," a lot:

attention to sound
"how things tendril, spindle, and tuft" – and in case your forgot, the staggered line opens with "cirrus"
(important to note also how she never betrays the ideational moment or flow for a sound effect)
attention to line
look at the very effective (which means not at all trivial) split of "swell and rush / to judgment" (which might be hard to see if you can't already see it, so approach it from that side: why is it not trivial, silly, pointless? why does it work, why does it add to the poem? even, why is it demanded by the poem?)
attention to phrase
why did she write "see no, speak no evil," rather than write it in full? (A hint, because she is creating out of words)
exploration of structure
look at all that is going on: types of clouds, pithy sayings, the purpose of each line of each triplet – and most importantly, all effectively, and none betraying or being betrayed by any other
most importantly – it is not structured around, and reliant upon, some sentimental, emotional crap

This needs to be printed on posters and put on the walls of every poetry classroom:


(This means you.)

If writers would start their works assuming that that is true, and then create their works striving to defeat that accusation – which means hitting the books, but which also means recognizing that there are a million million other things to write about – U.S. poetics would be sooooooo much stronger. Not to mention your own poetics.

Here's the brute lesson: write poetry that is not about yourself; learn through writing not about yourself. Nothing transforms "writing poetry" into "expressing yourself" faster than writing about yourself. So until you have figured out how to write poetry – stay far, far away from your own emotions. You'll thank me in the end.

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