Thursday, April 29, 2010

Rewriting: Self-Editing

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.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Poetry Is Dangerous

Since April 21 is Al Purdy Day, I think it appropriate to consider this phrase I heard from Al back in the eighties when he did a reading in Hamilton. I don’t remember the ins and outs of the discussion that led to this remark but it did stick with me, and to such an extent that I had it engraved into a bracelet.

So, poetry is dangerous? Aside from possibly irritating someone bigger and stronger, how can there be anything “dangerous” about playing around with words? Al gives a tongue in cheek glimpse of the dangers in his poem “At the Quinte Hotel” but it can run deeper than a bar brawl.

There is, of course, the physical: when some macho man takes delight in manhandling the wimp poet. That is the least of a poet’s worries. It is the ambiguous influences of poetry on a life that are more dangerous and perhaps not as easily recognized.

Poetry, the making and writing, the publishing and performing – “chasing the Muse” – can become as consuming as an addiction. When all of the poet’s time revolves around poetry, the “normal” aspects of life suffer. Poets may isolate themselves from their family and loved ones. Their circle of friends becomes a collection of only those who deal with poetry. You seldom find a fervent poet who writes “on the side” no matter how good or dedicated they are. And how much good is a life spent scrambling from grant to award and all the stops between?

We poets cannot live by words and poems only. We need to live, to dig our fingers into the soil and cup water in our hands even if metaphorically. To exist otherwise is dangerous. Dangerous to ourselves and how others perceive us but also dangerous for our work, for our mission. If we isolate ourselves from living as others live, how can we experience that life, explain its joys and sorrows, explore its meanings. Isn’t that why we are poets?

So keep a wary eye out for what poetry may be doing to you. We know it’s not easy; when it begins to seem so remember, the muse is cunning and powerful. Or as Al Purdy warned me, “Poetry is dangerous.”

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Fire, The Fire!

A few days ago I picked up second hand an anthology of contemporary African-American poetry published toward the end of the twentieth century titled Catch the Fire!!! It’s interesting and important because it identifies current rap and hip-hop artists as part of the stream of black writers/poets/artists of the U. S.

The book is divided into six segments; each is introduced by a black cultural figure of importance with reflections and encouragements. The overriding theme of the book urges the young poets to be positive and passionate, to catch and spread the fire actively. The editor and many of the younger poets included are wordsmiths, presenters of ideas in the language of their culture and the immediacy of post literary media – black street talk with rap beats, to be performed as spoken word and disseminated as recordings.

The work in this volume lives up to that challenge. It burns with passion. There are poems from some of the well-known and established poets and writers: Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Quincy Troupe, and Sonia Sanchez. These establish the immediacy and the tradition. But much of the collection consists of work by younger poets, often rap and slam artists, who try to burn the fire of their performance onto the black and white of the page.

It all shows that there is a tradition of black poetry - revolutionary perhaps, passionate certainly – that flows through American letters. Much of it is, as mentioned before, available only through performances or recordings. And this is where the more established poets come in with advice and direction. They urge the young to write and then look at their work, not simply to consider performance but the writing as literature. To not only listen to their contemporaries but also to read them, study them, find what works and what doesn’t. To delve into the craft of poetry beyond rhyme and rhythm and into simile and metaphor. To read and use everything you can until you’ve worked out something you feel comfortable with, a voice, and a positive attitude you can share. Use poetry to reach outside yourself so it can become part of everyone else.

And with such advice it is easy to see how rap and hip-hop, filtered though the experience of black people’s existence, is real poetry. It may not have the ancient, European forms and cadences but the power and confidence cannot be denied. The fire that exists on the stage is being transferred to the page. And the page will be all the better for it, will not be consumed.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Morning Light

They’re here again, those mornings with soft light breaking at dawn, hanging on for endless moments before burning its way into the day. I have always loved to sit out and watch the sun rise, more so than to watch it set. When I lived as a night owl I would stay up to watch a sunrise before going to bed; when I worked shifts I missed being available for either the rising or the setting sun. Such magic must be observed. There are enough days in a life without it.
The light available before sunrise seems to grow as if it were alive. Not only does it expand to fill space, it often seems to diffuse and enter into all the solid matter and for a short time gives the material world a spiritual essence. This is what makes the music of classical Indian music, especially the ragas written for this time of day, so moving for me. I have gotten into the habit of spending the time between the first coffee and a solid breakfast in meditation and contemplation. Once I used to do so with music playing, ragas or streams of Celtic instrumentations. Nowadays, unless a great number of irritations are present, I prefer the silence and the natural rhythms of birds and winds, and even the hum of traffic may blend in.

And then there’s the poetry. Since medieval times songs and words have been written for and about this time of day. Even in today’s English verse a lyrical poem about dawn, whether in praise or about love, with joy or pain or contemplation, is known as an aubade (from the French and Proven├žal). At times I write a poem directly influenced by one specific sunrise, but recently I was nosing around some of my earlier work, both published and unpublished, and marveled at how often the sunrise in one way or another influenced my poetry. Even without specific mention of the time of day, I could feel the serene effect through the images used. I had been writing aubades even before I understood what they were.

I continue to write poems under the influence of the rising sun. Sometimes they remain compact as haiku or tanka. Sometimes the imagery becomes incorporated in something other. And sometimes it becomes a complete lyrical expression of praise and contentment in and of itself.

As a poet and as a human being, I remain entranced by the rising sun. No wonder world religions use the symbol with great power.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hiking Over Trails of Poetry

I belong to a group that does a fair amount of hiking together. The hikes are usually scouted beforehand and rated as to the degree of difficulty involved. We don’t include (in that rating) areas with paved surfaces often specifically designated for walking, roller blading, or cycling. Such are simply walks or strolls. Hikes take place on natural surfaces.
Now there are a number of different terrains and types of trails that we encounter and rate. There is the well-traveled route, often a rail trail or other such path with more or less easy access and level progress, the kind comfortable enough to take a child in a wagon or stroller with little effort. Much of the journey can be covered walking abreast with a companion. Any trail consisting of mainly such is considered “easy.”

A “moderate” hike usually takes place in places where there are hills and/or ravines involved. Progress is often single file, the surface can be uneven and wind though trees and around rock; care must be taken with footing in places. It is excellent exercise and soothes the mind.

A “difficult” hike is one in which steep climbs or scrambles are likely to be encountered. Many of the local ones involve creek beds and deep ravines. There’s a saying that for one of these hikes you need all four limbs to get around. They can provide an exhilarating challenge, a change from the usual.
Then, of course, there are extreme hikes that require special knowledge, skills, and equipment. Activities such as climbing frozen waterfalls or traversing rock faces are not ones we would consider.

So what has all this to do with poetry? While hiking images suggesting poems will often come to me; again while working on a poem a sudden memory of something observed or experienced during a hike may lend to a poem’s clarity. And stepping aside, observing people’s involvement with poetry is much like identifying the levels of a hike.

The stroll or walk on prepared surfaces can be seen as the everyday experience of poetry, the stuff we encounter in greeting cards and such. Nice, but no challenge whatsoever.

The “easy” hike is one for which you prepare, leave your daily comings and goings. It is much like picking up a volume of poetry where you know what to expect but reading that is not part of your daily life. It can be a gentle, controlled excursion through a landscape not quite familiar but not threatening.

We can then compare the “moderate” hike to exploring poems or poetry that presents a challenge to us in its use of language, of form or lack thereof, of not immediately evident meaning. This type of poetry involves the mind as hiking terrain would the body.

The “difficult” poetry hike would be through material you might not consider poems. Even many readers and lovers of poetry have difficulty accepting such presentations as prose poetry, dub or spoken word. They seem to follow a different set of rules that seem to disconnect them for what we might consider the “norm” and thus engage all our attention and effort to make our way through. And here too, the journey can be one of discovery and exhilaration.

Even in poetry the “extreme” can be present, poetry that uses foreign or classical languages, that refers to obscure events or mythologies to make its way to meanings that still never seem clear.

And always it’s good to remember: one person’s easy is another person’s moderate. Difficulty in poetry as in hiking is subjective. What I suggest is that everyone should challenge themselves, in hiking and in reading poetry.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Early this spring, when we went through an unnatural warm spell, I stopped and talked to a neighbour who was clearing her yard of winter's debris. We talked about the weather's effect on tender spring plants and how an expected long frost and snowstorm could damage the crocuses already in bloom and the lilies-of-the-valley sprouting in her back yard. We agreed that such changes could also affect human behavior. She then confided that she was worried about her thirteen year old daughter. The young lady claimed to be very much in love with a young man and the mother felt she was too immature to feel so deeply, that she would be emotionally hurt. I had no advice to offer but I did write a tanka about the crocuses a few days later.

After some thought and careful consideration, the tanka turned out like this:

so early this spring
crocuses struggle
to bloom
how can I warn you
of impending frost?

Then I realised that this was not only a poem about a natural phenomenon, a thoughtful observation and its emotional impact, but also a metaphor for the situation the neighbour lady and I had talked about.

Her daughter, like a crocus, was doing her best to bloom as she was meant to; her mother thought the time was not 'ripe,' that it was too soon. She could see the possible difficulties, the hard frost looming in the near future, and felt inadequate to give her a warning she would heed.

Life and poetry, young girls and crocuses: oh, how they mingle!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Causes and Poets

Not long ago I became involved in a discussion of language as used (and misused) in support of a cause. It began with the ‘truths’ that political parties and such would use to enhance their image, how they would use words and phrases commonly understood as admirable to distract attention from some things or ideas that were not as acceptable to many people. From there it evolved into the language of war and conflict with terms such as “ friendly fire” and “collateral damage.” In this context propaganda was also discussed, using language to portray as good something that might seem unpalatable.

From there the conversation flowed into a discussion of advertising and how, because of the money and resources available to that industry, the language it uses to sell dominates all our media. Often terms and slogans invented or manipulated by advertisers become a part of our language. Many of these are memorable because of their inherent poetry, whether simile or image or simply a new use of terminology. I mentioned how I had published a poem many years ago which described a deep and sensual relationship using words and phrases from an advertisement for a brand of liquor, a “found” poem so to speak.

The whole discussion left me with a disquieting feeling somewhere between my throat and my ears. I asked myself if this is the function of poetry, of a poetic exploration of language. We are so far from the marks set by such as Chaucer, Milton, Spencer and Shakespeare.

I truly believe that today’s poetry needs to become more separate from the personal and emotional expression. One way is through the use of concrete images to carry such emotion in new ways. Another, and one that hasn’t justly been explored to my knowledge, is by writing excellent poetry about causes, about necessary social changes. Where is the poet of the recycling movement, the compost pile? Where is she who would explore the plight of whales and dolphins in terms that involve the heart and the mind?

When the chance arises, I will attempt to write for a cause. I have long been a member of Poets for Peace. It’s not a great step from my usual themes of love and respect for land and life to protesting destruction by means of arms or machinery; I have done both, physically and poetically. Recently I participated in a relief for Haiti poetry project undertaken by a New York poet. (Make a donation to a charity involved in the relief effort and one of your poems gets published on the web site.) Such involvement is only the beginning.

Poets need to speak out, to speak up for the needed changes in society to improve our environment and ourselves. We, the ones who should be the masters of language, cannot abdicate our social responsibilities and leave the beauty of words and phrases in the hands of sellers of beer and deodorants. We should not leave it to political speechwriters to tell us how to interpret the world.

The causes exist. Struggles have been engaged. Poets are needed to speak and support or the world may be changed by glib phrasings from those looking only for a good way to make a buck.