Thursday, April 29, 2010
One of the most valuable lessons I learned early in my writing career was that of setting myself apart from my work and seeing it as someone else might. Perhaps it is strange for a poet to say that an author of fiction talking about his own process first explained this to me. The concepts he expounded rang true, so true that I took the ideas to an older poet who I admired as a mentor. He acknowledged that the poet, perhaps even more so than any other writer, had to edit his work relentlessly and carefully. A poem should be concise and precise, a polished jewel. (At the time he was writing and publishing a lot of haiku, and had the explanations and examples from his own work at hand.)
Certainly, this included mundane things like spelling, punctuation, tense, and all the small irritants that could lower the quality of one’s work. But even more important than this was the use of words, of language.
He taught me many things. He taught me to plan a poem, to start with a definite idea of what I wanted to say and how to say it whether directly or through metaphor or simile. Cut all the words and phrases you don’t need, he would instruct. You don’t have to describe an orange as round. There are no square ones. Don’t get sidetracked by another idea that influences or modifies your original. If necessary, turn that into its own poem. Be aware of the influence of even the smallest word: ‘the’ apple refers to one specific apple; ‘an’ apple refers to any apple the reader may envision. Apple without any article suggests the essence of being apple-like and somewhat unreal.
Poems often try to convey ethereal, unsubstantial matters using concrete and physical images. Remember that it is easier and perhaps more effective to describe a boundary as a wall rather than a force field although it is probably neither. Use words that describe common, everyday experiences (and delete one of those words; ‘common’ and ‘everyday’ are almost identical) to hold the readers/listeners attention so that they too will reach your conclusion with you. Whatever you do, don’t pad your work – be it poem, story, article, resume – because it will ring untrue to a careful reader.
Spelling and grammar speak for themselves. If you don’t spell correctly, the words may not mean what you think; if you have no idea of the order and relationship among words, you can’t control what they do or say. It’s as simple as that.
Always edit; if necessary, rewrite. Very few poems, if any, leap perfect to the page from an imperfect mind.