Saturday, November 17, 2007

Four Things Meme

This girl tagged me with a poetry advice meme. Now, of course, I'm eager to give advice about writing poetry, because I'm not very good at it, and I haven't been doing it very long; it's always neophytes who are most eager to tell other people how to do things. (I won't tag anyone: I don't do tagging any more.) Have a look at my blogroll: there's a lot of people there whose advice would be much more valuable than mine. But here it is, four things to attend to and four to avoid in writing poetry.

What to Attend to

1) Read old poetry. We write within a tradition, whether we know it or not. Know it. If you're going to echo Shakespeare -- and you are -- then echo Shakespeare himself, not a second-, third-, or fourth-rate imitation of him.

2) Memorize poetry. I say this all the time. I'm saying it again. Memorized poetry lives with you, gets under your skin, in a way that read-and-half-forgotten poetry just never does. And don't give me that stuff about not being able to memorize things. Memorization is a skill that anyone can learn. It's absurd that in a culture that's downright hagridden by qualifying exams we don't teach memorization in school, but we ordinarily don't, so you have to learn it by yourself. Fortunately it's not that hard to learn, and it's an immensely useful skill in many endeavors.

3) Learn a language, or two, or three.You don't have to be fluent. You don't even have to be any good with it. Take classes for a year or two in a language -- preferably, one you just take a shine to and which will be perfectly useless to you forever -- and get to the point where you can understand its basic grammar, read its nursery rhymes, and have a glimpse of what the Germans call its Sprachgefühl, its "speechfeel." Languages have characteristic cadences and habits of sound and meaning. Liberate yourself from the delusion that your native language is "just the way it is." It isn't. It's far more wonderful than "just the way it is": it's a magnificent piece of collaborative art. But you can't see it as such without being able to stand outside it.

4) Play. Be silly, maudlin, obscene, vicious, petty, overwrought, oversimple. If it's bad you can throw it away later. But write it first, and decide how good it is later. Most of it will be bad. So what?

What to avoid

a) Advice. Like this.

b) Words that aren't natural to you. There's a temptation to reach for impressive, rarely-used words, even though you're not really at home with them. The words you use should be supple and well-worn, comfortable in your mind and heart. I'm all for learning new words. But don't use them in poetry right away. That's like marrying someone you just met last night. You'll regret it. Trust me.

c) Violent, garish imagery, unless it really does precisely what you want it to. Vivid is good, but only if it's also accurate. Don't carpet-bomb the reader with gripping images because one of the incidental effects of one of the images is one that you want. Most readers don't like random assault. They want to know that if you're seizing their attention, it's for a good reason.

d) Silent writing. Say it. Aloud. "Poetry must always sing," said Yeats. If you can't make it sing with your voice, readers won't be able to make it sing in their heads. It's easy to fool yourself into thinking that it sounds fine if you only read it silently. Read it aloud.

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