:: Article

Poetic Practices

By Mark Yakich.

There are so many things one could do other than write poems. Take a long walk. Examine a beautiful tree for disease. Pick up a rock; throw it into a lake or at a passing car. Pick a flower; tape it to that rock and drop it from the edge of a canyon. Do this over and over until a small part of the canyon is filled. For writing poems often feels as though it amounts to as much: arranging a pile of stones for someone else to haul elsewhere.

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A poet may argue that poetry and life interact in such a way that makes life more poetic, or that a certain kind of life drives and inspires poem-making. Either case belies the reason someone writes poems: it is simply something to do.

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Writing poetry is an act of cleaving—attracting you to and separating you from others at the same time. So ask yourself: What is it that you hope to get from writing poems? Sophistication? Empathy? A career path? Laid?

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The reward is not that the poems will be rewarded. The reward is intrinsic in the highs and lows of writing them, where the external reward may only be to take a break, to go for that walk, or to mind the precipices along the canyon.

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There’s no correct or tried-and-true method of going about writing a good poem, and yet that’s what many potential poets really would like.

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A multitude of guides will offer you exercises in writing in regular rhyme and meter. But if you don’t want to take up such conventional structures, create your own. Choose an arbitrary number of lines, say, 9 or 23, and a certain stock of words, say, from a self-help book on parenting or a magazine on horse breeding. The point is to give yourself a few basic parameters in which you can be “free” to create, and you have nothing to lose.

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The world wants order, and so does your poetry. Free verse is no freer than the right angles at the corners of the page that box in your poem. In a free verse poem, as in an abstract painting, the choices are terrifying and seemingly endless.

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Allen Ginsberg’s “first words, best words” is okay advice if you are going to go back and edit all those first words to make them the best of the best. Otherwise, you’re most likely going to find yourself looking at rambling diary entries, gussied up with line breaks.

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Instead of beginning your poem with an “idea,” begin with a set of random images (i.e., nouns) or sentence fragments gathered from a random text. Place images and fragments next to each other, again randomly, and witness how your mind demands making connections, making order out of apparent nonsense.

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Anticipate reader’s expectations: what some poets call “surprise.” Foiling or playing off expectations can mean writing the opposite of what a reader might expect—but even oppositions can become expected, clichéd. Consider all or other possibilities for your oppositions. What is, for example, the opposite of an orange? Is it an apple? A fig? A snowball? A tricycle? A scream?

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To imitate or not to imitate? There really is no question. Imitation is how you’ve learned to do things ever since you were a child. It is the route into and out of yourself. Find a poem you admire and try to copy not its contents, but its patterns of style, its syntax, its line breaks, its rhetorical structure.

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Avoid filling your poems with generalizations that aim to be “universal.” The imagination comes to universality through details and idiosyncracies. A detail is never a bad place to begin a poem; it is the bait on the hook of your line.

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If you truly want to write poems, make time for writing poems: two to four hour blocks every day. Until you are practiced, it will take the first two hours just to quiet your mind, to find a small open space. If after six months you are not yet obsessed with writing, there’s no reason to keep going.

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Work on one poem at a sitting. You most likely are distracted all day by all kinds of information. To concentrate on a single patch of words or lines for hours is not so much an act of singularity as it is of keeping everything else at bay.

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Work on multiple poems at a sitting. You will invariably circle around the same preoccupations at any given moment, but you may need to come at your preoccupations from a variety of angles in order to do the deep diving.

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Do not think of revision as correction; think of it as opening up the possibilities of what’s already on the page. Refrain from using the word revision, as it connotes that something is wrong, that something needs to be fixed. Use the word version, as in I’m going to write three new versions of this poem.

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One of the most important structures of a poem is the same as for prose: the sentence. Put [ ] around each of the sentences in your poem. (If you’ve scorned punctuation, try putting it back in to see what the new version yields.) Right away you will notice short, long, medium sentences. Are they balanced or imbalanced? What’s the effect of the long sentences, the short ones? What kind of effect would more variation or more regularization in sentence length have? Try breaking that long, gangly sentence into two or three sentences. Make a new version in which all the sentences are short, and another version of the poem that is one long sentence.

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Be calm for a moment. Observe closely how your breath goes in and out without your having to do anything. Feel it there at the back of your sinuses and throat. It keeps moving slowly in and out. Is that how you want your poems to come to you, without your having to do any work?

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Inspiration comes after writing, not before.

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Some will tell you that you must take risks in your poems. These risks are probably not going to be what you think they are. They will not be, for the vast majority, writing willy-nilly all over the page, spurting out shock-n-awe lines about so-called taboo subjects, or scrawling down sins that are personal or confessional. What then are these risks? For most, they will be writing in regularized forms such as the sonnet, sestina, or in rhymed couplets. Where, after all, is the risk in doing what you want to do? Risk is about what you don’t think you should be doing—challenging your own assumptions.

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Synesthesia is copacetic to use in a poem, but don’t tell others that you perceive the number seven as blue or that when you hear middle C you taste cherry tomatoes. It’s just going to embarrass you and make them feel inferior.

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Print out a few of your poems that you consider final versions (blown up to size 48 font), and tape them to a wall of your room, kitchen, office, etc. You need to see whether you can bear to look at, more or less live with, the poems in a tangible way. Also, affixing them to the wall allows you to make edits on the fly whenever you happen to notice the work. In the days or weeks or months that follow, the poems will show themselves as things of substance and lasting value—or they will not.

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Enter a poetry contest not to win, but to have a deadline.

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Some think it’s easy to stop writing poems if you aren’t getting published, but it’s quite the opposite. To quit poems can mean quitting oneself. As well, poetic ambition comes and goes—years without the desire to publish a poem, then for no particular reason one sends out a flurry of poems to literary magazines, and then that desire too fades away and it’s okay.

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The mood of writing will swing from frustration to elation—from thinking that you are a charlatan to believing you are a genius. The other 80 to 90 percent of the time writing will simply be work, tedium, frustration. Occasionally, though sometimes so infrequently that you question the whole enterprise, you will have a bright moment, analogous to “being in the zone” for an athlete, or you will have a light-headed, timeless moment à la le petit mort. The trick is to inhabit such a moment as deeply as possible without being overly self-conscious about the moment, and later to be able to recall the moment so that during all the other moments you long for it.

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Sleep is as good a muse as anything else.

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If you write about real events in your life that involve family or friends, don’t worry about the truth—literary, emotional, factual—worry about what you can live with once family and friends read the published work…which is often impossible to assess until after the work has been published.

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Instead of writing a poem for a certain person or audience, try writing a poem that you don’t want anyone to ever read.

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If you wake up one day at age 65 or 75 and feel badly because you have not written a novel or a memoir, don’t worry. There will still be time to write a few poems.

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There is no end-all-be-all in poetry. The finances certainly aren’t there, and fame is an illusion—but so too is pedestrian living. You cannot escape repetition and pain. But practicing bad instead of good habits promises a downward spiral. Artists are masochists unless they are sadists. You can get used to anything: the ecstatic and the atrocious. The taste of chocolate, mind-blowing sex—both reduced to a missing limb, a baby who has choked to death on a grape. To write a poem means not getting used to anything.

Adapted from Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Yakich teaches at Loyola University New Orleans. His most recent poetry collection is The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine, and his new book Poetry: A Survivor’s Guide was just released by Bloomsbury.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 19th, 2015.