Some Thoughts on the Process of Writing Poetry: Slice of Life #sol20

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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.

9 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Process of Writing Poetry: Slice of Life #sol20

  1. I enjoyed reading about the process you go through when writing poetry and how your perspective on it changed as the month wore on. I admire anyone who can write poetry because I think it is a gift to be able to choose the right words to convey a thought or feeling in such a concise manner. This is something I am not able to do and even though I have written poems for this blog I do not consider myself a poet.

  2. I wish there were a ‘love’ button at the end of this essay. “Actually, every time we begin, we wonder how we ever did it before.” I have certainly never done it before in the way that you do. So many things come to mind as I read this piece. I wish I had followed your footsteps as I did last year and wrote poetry every day this month. It would have helped my spirit and given me a challenge of a different kind. I love how you characterize poetry as living outside the writer and prose as always making room for edits. So, so many things. Things for expanding me today. I will think on this for a while now.

  3. I love this: “…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.”…that TS Eliot idea that a poem is felt before it’s even understood and “Prose feels so much more forgiving. I love the rangy expansiveness of it. ” reminds me of Mark Twain’s wry comment about meaning to write a shorter letter, but I ran out of time (poetry is so economical). The end of that paragraph makes the top of my head come off (Thanks, Emily D.):”Poetry always feels like it requires much more effort and mental work—except sometimes when it doesn’t.” This post is the best prose can do. Thanks.

  4. I’ve had many of the same reactions to writing poetry this month. I’ve wondered if back-to-back writing challenges and all the screen time required if each has exhausted me so that my poems now feel more forced than those I wrote earlier this month. I don’t know what poem I’ll write until I see the daily prompt on Ethical ELA. Most days I write the poem before attempting other tasks. I’m often surprised by the response to some poems and the absence of response to others, especially when I’ve commented on 18-20 poems from participants. I’m looking forward to the month ending so I’m onscreen less and in my notebook more. I really appreciate the opportunity to read about your process today.

  5. I certainly enjoyed reading about your writing attempts. Your depth of comparison between writing prose to writing poetry gives me much to think about. I’ve never thought about it in that way. Now I want to read your poetry! I agree that writing feels like starting anew every time I sit down to write.

  6. Your reflection is powerful and I agree with so much of what you beautifully articulate. Breaking it down piece by piece feels contrary. I love the puzzling out poetry requires. The play with the process. It isn’t something I can name. Perhaps this is why I find teaching poetry so difficult.

    “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.” – Yes!

  7. I read this yesterday and somehow got distracted from leaving a comment. But then I got my daily Writer’s Almanac with this from Louise Gluck, whose birthday is today. “She has a word of wisdom for young poets: It never gets easier to write. In the Yale Daily News, she said, “The fantasy exists that once certain hurdles have been gotten through, this art turns much simpler, that inspiration never falters, and public opinion is always affirmative, and there’s no struggle, there’s no torment, there’s no sense that the thing you’ve embarked on is a catastrophe.”
    Of course, she says most eloquently what I was going to say. It doesn’t get easier. But in many ways that’s the joy of it. Having taken the puzzle out of the box, spread all the pieces on the table, and started. The puzzle gets done. But then you want to try another. And another. That’s what poetry writing is like for me. Keep at it. It’s a journey, not a single step.

  8. This is fascinating because I think this is why I’ve been having so much trouble with Instagram. It’s a different way of thinking for me, and that can sometimes be uncomfortable. I admire that you are willing to stretch yourself in this way. I mostly just shrug and give up.

  9. Pingback: The Week in Reading #imwayr 4/27/20 | the dirigible plum

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