I have been trying to observe my process this month to figure out how poetry happens, but I have to confess that I’m as much in the dark as I ever was—despite having written a poem every day this month.
One thing I know about myself as a writer is that I like some constraint. I write best when there is a box, a shape, a space to fill.
For April’s daily poem challenge, I have given myself the constraint of writing each day off of a passage in Virginia Woolf’s Diary. The Diary was a choice I made without a great deal of reflection. I needed a book that was currently available on my own shelves. It needed to be nonfiction and not written expressly to be poetic though I hoped to find poetic elements in it. I worried that anything too worked and crafted would get in my way as I tried to write off of it. It needed to be long, so I’d have plenty of options to find something to write about. I also wanted to return to something I’d read—and read carefully, closely—before.
The Diary has proven to be a good choice, though it is not perfect for my project. It is more tinselly than I remembered—so much bother about dresses and so very many dinners and parties and teas and luncheons. Lines that seemed funny or trenchant when I first read the diaries in my 20s now seem cruel, unkind, lacking compassion and perspective. The Diary often seems like her playground for practicing character sketches—trying to capture people on the page, all their little quirks and flaws and difficulties. Their goodness too, sometimes, though she doesn’t write much about the very best people in her life. And there is not nearly enough nature though I know she was out walking most days.
Still, VW has a brilliant mind, and she is a brilliant stylist, and I am taking daily delight in rereading the Diary and rummaging through it. Grounding my poems in her words and thoughts has led me to all kinds of subjects I wouldn’t have written about otherwise, and surprise is one of my favorite things about writing poetry.
Sometimes I only have to read a line or two before I’m struck by something I could write about. Other times, I have to read 15 or 20 pages of entries to find a seed for a poem. Sometimes I start with a form I’d like to try and then try to find a topic to suit; other times, I start with the line from Woolf and write free verse or find a form that suits the line. For the first couple of weeks, I read the Diary at night, copied passages that seemed especially wise or beautiful into my notebook, slept on them, began working on them subconsciously, and then was ready to try a poem in the morning.
Lately, though, as the month stretches on, it’s felt a bit more like a poetry factory around here. Time to write the poem, I remind myself late morning after other tasks are done. I open the Diary and start the search. Earlier in the month, writing poems felt artistic, mystical—being open to possibilities, trying to let the book speak to me. Now, I’ve moved to the poetry on demand part of the challenge. When it’s time to publish a poem, I go write one. When I read the poems later, I usually cannot tell the difference.
Which is interesting to me. It continues to be very difficult for me to tell when a poem works, when it does what it is supposed to do. I tend to know when to stop working on a piece of prose, when I’ve done all I can to it for that moment at least and it feels satisfactorily realized according to what I was trying to say or what I was trying to achieve. Even when I decide I’m finished with a piece of prose and have no more time to work on it, I know what I would still like to tinker with, what could be improved and should be revised.
But I’m often deeply unsure with a poem. I used to think that was my inexperience as a poet, but now I am beginning to believe that is a fundamental truth about poetry. There is something working at more of a subconscious or unconscious level in poetry. It is its own thing, apart from me, in a way that prose is not. I think I’m seeking a feeling of completion with a poem, a sense that it has come to be and can exist without context, as an object. It is doing something poem-like—something with image, sound, metaphor, language, line, shape, meaning—that pleases me, satisfies me for that moment. I couldn’t necessarily articulate even what it is that I’m responding to. It’s more a feeling or a perception.
Some poems go through pages of drafting as I try to figure out what I’m trying to say and how to say it. Occasionally, poems come together quickly with just a few words changed from first to final draft. My bias is to believe that more effort always leads to better results, but sometimes more work leads to an overworked, forced, unnatural, ugly poem. Continuing to work at a piece of prose tends to improve it. Continuing to work at a poem sometimes—though by no means regularly–makes it worse.
Prose feels so much more forgiving. I love the rangy expansiveness of it. You can just keep stuffing more in, and it makes room. Poetry’s intensity and selection—its saturation, to borrow VW’s word—feels like a very different kind of writing. Poetry always feels like it requires much more effort and mental work—except sometimes when it doesn’t.
When I spend a month writing prose every day, at the end of the month I can figure out what I’ve learned from the experience, pinpoint how I’ve developed as a writer, point to specific craft moves I tried, see a progression in how I chose subjects and crafted pieces.
A month of writing poems leaves me as mystified at the end of the month about how writing works as I was at the beginning. I can’t draw any meaningful conclusions. I can observe things about one poem that weren’t true at all about another one. The poems I think are my best are rated by some readers with much more experience reading and writing poetry as my worst. The poems I think aren’t very good are sometimes the poems those readers think work best. There is absolutely no meaningful map for me about how to do this work.
Each day, I have to figure it out all over again.
I think about Natalie Goldberg’s words about the importance of beginner’s mind in Writing Down the Bones:
When I teach a beginning class, it is good. I have to come back to beginner’s mind, the first way I thought and felt about writing. In a sense, that beginner’s mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write. There is no security, no assurance that because we wrote something good two months ago, we will do it again. Actually, every time we begin, we wonder how we ever did it before. Each time is a new journey with no maps.
And that, ultimately, is probably the best thing that writing poetry for a month does for me as a writer. It puts me squarely in beginner’s mind—and keeps me there.