Thursday, August 27, 2009

Shaping a Poem

I've just finished judging the entries for the seventeen-year-olds in the Power of the Pen contest run by the public library. The choice this year was more challenging than last; for the first time I gave out several Honourable Mentions, something I had never needed to do before. There were five poems vying for two places. I gave the three that didn't win or place those honourable mentions.

The entries became a goad to write about shape in poetry, as it differs from form. Most of the entries were centered rather than left margin justified as is the usual manner. Centering, especially three or four word sentences for no specific effect, becomes very annoying. Almost as bad is the "concrete" poem. We all know them: the love poem shaped like a heart, the angel poem shaped like wings, the one about trees taking the form of a tree.

But sometimes a poem takes on a shape of its own, something internal that is part of its manner of expression. It may indent different lines from the margin for emphasis of those lines. Different margins for differing length of line may be used. The first word of a line may be placed in relationship to a word or phrase in the previous line, stressing how it expands or defines that word or phrase. The reasons go on.

Here is an example of its use by e. e. cummings.

The main reason for these words now is because the poem I chose as winner in its category for the Power of the Pen uses such placement of lines on the page and uses it well. By this means it emphasises both shape and meaning of the poem.
I pray it doesn't happen again. A different librarian is in charge this time and I hope she can see the rationale behind keeping the format, that the poem as it appears is more than a string of words.
Like a cubist painting is more than lines and colours.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Sh_t and Bricks

I've done my share of editorial work, both as a general editor selecting work by merit for publication and as a line editor pointing out mistakes in spelling, grammar, construction, etc. Nothing bothers me more than to receive a manuscript, for a single poem or for a book, which the author has not carefully prepared.

It feels as if the poet (writer, whatever) has taken what he has produced, dumped it loose on my doorstep, and asked me to see if there is a jewel in there. Most times I am turned away by the stench and texture alone; for a special reason I may dirty my hands.

What really annoys me is that a writer, finding that he can't do anything with his work, expects that I can and will, that I will grub through the material and find the lumps that may be precious stones, that I will turn worthless material into solid brick and build a structure with them.
That's not my job. My job is to see that the material offered is suitable for the purpose intended. To inspect the single poem and on its merits, not vague promises or possibilities, to decide whether it can be used in a work to which it has been submitted.

The same holds for a longer manuscript. I need to see that quality is maintained throughout, not to provide that quality. I need to see that the bricks fit together, not make or shape the individual brick.

It is so important that a writer learns early to be his own primary editor. He has to be able to recognize the smell of what he produces and measure that against what others make. He has to understand that you can't simply dry it out and give it a different shape. A brick made of sh_t is still pure sh_t and not much of a brick compared to other bricks.

So, before you hand me your crap, be aware of the smell of it. I may need it for fertilizer.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Judging and Quality

It's the middle of August. This is again the time that I consider the nature and merits of those who judge contests, poetry contests specifically. At the moment, I'm looking at judging from both sides; we are trying to round up a set of judges for the Acorn-Plantos Award for People's Poetry (a book award, nation wide) that I administer, and I've received my allotment of the local secondary school entries for "Power of the Pen" through the public library. On the one hand I have to find suitable judges; on the other, I have to be one.

What do I look for in a judge? First, a good knowledge of the matter she is judging. Just as the criminal judge on the bench must know the law and how it applies, how to measure an accused against a law abiding society, so must a judge of poetry have knowledge of what it is and how the items before him measure against the standards set, in this case the work of Acorn, Purdy, Livesay, Plantos, etc. Second, she should be honest. A corrupt judge is a stain on an ordered society. A judge of anything, be it talent, Olympic sport, poetry, dogs, must put in the time and dedication required. A personal bias is always present, should be expected; but the awareness of that bias should hold the judge to a high standard.

That's a lot to ask of someone; that's a lot to ask of myself. And still, because I accepted the task, to fulfill it I need to hold myself to the same rigorous standard. If perhaps I think a young person's poem is garbage, I need to see it in the light it was written: with what understanding of the craft, as an assignment, a venting of emotion. And then in all fairness I should suggest ways of betterment. That's what it's about in younger years, getting to know if this is or could be your "thing," your means of expression. It took me time to find that, and I have no right to discourage anyone. Remain honest, to yourself and your craft.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bad Poetry

A heart-to-heart discussion with a friend and fellow "poet" left me thinking about bad poetry, what it is and what causes it. When I met him years ago, his writing held some promise and I encouraged him, showed him the kind of changes to make to his work so that it would be more acceptable and understandable, more catching to the eye and ear. I continued over the years to press him to advance his knowledge of poetry, how it works, how it is structured. Now it seems all my effort was for naught.

He showed me a manuscript he wanted to prepare for publication. Some of the poems he'd sent to me over the years for comment and advice, and I had freely given it. The problem I could so easily see was that he had done nothing with the advice: no rewrite, no structural changes, nothing. The best of the poems he presented we had worked on together twenty years before when I was explaining the basics of writing poetry to him. Since then, nothing had changed; he hadn't moved forward in his knowledge and understanding of poetry.

He said he had a whole file of poetry that he thought wasn't worth much. I asked him how he differentiated between the two. It came out that if someone said they liked it, or approved in any way, he kept it. Otherwise it went into this file. Neither was worked on again.

If only.

If only he could move beyong rhymimg couplets; if only his rhyming couplets had regular rhythms. If only he could get away from "fact" into the realm of simile, of metaphor, of the many nuances of language that is poetry. If only he could begin with a feeling rather than an experience. If only he would read and study others. If only he could be less self-centered and more aware of everything around him, not just the little bits that touch him directly.

I haven't given up on him, not completely. Meanwhile he continues to write bad poetry, and inflict it on others who will say they like it out of pity or ignorance.

There have been bad poets before. I had the dubious honour of exploring the work of Hamilton's William Murray. In the nineteenth century there was James McIntyre of Ingersoll with his poems in praise of cheese. And the Scot William MacGonagall with poems of death and disaster. Poets who could not see or would not recognize their limitations.

And so the tradition continues.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Toward Haiku

I went to "Purdyfest," a newish literary festival held in the Belleville/Trenton area, home to the late Al Purdy and a movement to protect his heritage. This year began early, on the Thursday, with what was billed as a "haiku" day. I wasn't quite sure what to expect (except that mention was made that the attendees would be invited to take part in a linked group writing.)

Now I find that to be receptive and expressive to haiku I need to have a certain mind-set. No, that's not quite right. I need to open my spirit to a special way of experiencing the world, one that is available to me only if I try. I did so and found that the haiku sensibility stayed with me the whole weekend, not just that day.

The afternoon, after we got to know each other, had two experienced writers from the Ottawa area explain different forms of Japanese verse and their practice in modern English. One then explained 'renga' or the linked verses, using a recent collaboration of her own as example. When she was satisfied we had some idea of what we were doing, she led us in the creation of a renga, or at least as much as we had time for that afternoon/evening.

The renga begins with a hokku; she wanted three short lines about the 'place' we were at; mine was chosen. It then continued, three lines alternating with two, each participant writing and submitting for each verse with the renga master choosing which one would best fit the (changing) rules and qualities as she presented them. We only finished ten verses, with all the choices and explanations that needed to be made.

The next day saw unofficial continuations of the discussion as well as the launch of three collections of poetry in the haiku/tanka tradition.

The wonderful thing for me was that that spirit, that way of seeing and experiencing the world through haiku moments, did not diminish. I came away with more than thirty rough haiku, awaiting careful construction.
Because they are not finished to my satisfaction I will not present any here, with this exception. This is the 'hokku' or beginning verse that headed the renga:
tall trees, tall grass
a river
runs through it