Learning Curve

“When I began writing those poems I had had the dream that I would celebrate my sixtieth birthday with a book of joys, a book speaking of fulfillment and happiness. But on the final re-reading I saw clearly that is an elegiac book and that the seeds of parting were in it from the beginning. This is where poetry is so mysterious, the work more mature than the writer of it, always the messenger of growth. So perhaps we write toward what we will become from where we are.” — May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

A poem for me begins with a phrase that swims its way up from deep within my body, or a snatch of conversation that tumbles over and over on my tongue, or sometimes even a method—a collage poem or something excavated from someone else’s text. But it never starts with an idea. There is no plan for what I will write. Though I know I will discover something in the writing, I do not know until the words are secure on the page what my question is. Writing poetry—and actually all of my literary writing—is like speaking in tongues: I let go and let my better self takes over, the part that never strays from its intimate conversation with the Creator. I remember when my first chapbook was published how shocked I was when everyone said that the poems were so sexual. It took years for me to see that the poems I thought were just a celebration of music and musicians who moved me were also poems about hunger, about longing, about wanting to be touched. In retrospect it’s clear that the person I was then—caught between my fear of intimacy and my equal fear of being in relationship—would puzzle that out on the page. Writing is my way of thinking, it is my safe place to feel and my safe place to reveal myself to myself.

I have always thought my best poems were the ones I didn’t understand. I instinctively know that the logic of them makes sense, that they are “right,” but I usually can’t articulate why I feel that way, what is so right about them, or even what I am trying to say in them. Over time I’ve found that those poems, the ones where I almost can’t decide if they are successful or not, are usually the ones in which I’ve made some huge leap forward—in style, in understanding—and it may take months, and sometimes years, for me to understand what the attempt is.

Poems are mysterious creatures to me. I am suspicious of high school teachers who claim that what is going on in a poem can be assessed with multiple-choice tests. While I agree that there are many poets who are better at probing the mysteries of their poems than I am—I am not the type of reader (or writer) who needs every metaphor to be logical or every motive to be crystal clear for a poem to be satisfying—I also think that even the most ardent sleuths of their own work are, at most, just giving their best guess of what the poem is about. And that to me is the most joyful part of writing, that the more we write, the more still there is to be discovered.

Posted on February 1, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I love what you write about not always understanding your own poems, and also how your creative process works. Lately I do a lot of reading on writing, and many of the greats describe the way they go about creating in terms similar to this. I find it so comforting to know that inspiration may not arrive from on high like a bolt of lightning but more like a steady rumble that works its way to the surface.

    • I love that description of creativity as a steady rumble. I have experienced the bolt of lightning only once–with a poem I wrote while observing a life-drawing class. But that was at a time when I was writing creatively most every day and so I think I was just ultra-open. I think most often the bolt of lightning is not the idea itself but the instant what’s been rumbling around suddenly articulates itself in a way the conscious mind can grasp.

  2. You are wise and wonderful. I was just reflecting on how we learn about poetry in high school (then and now…). My parents’ generation memorized and spoke poems, that stuck to their ribs, and I am glad some of that is coming back now. But mostly literature seems to be taught in analytical mode–break it into parts, define & explain the part: theme, form, rhyme, etc. I think high school students are interested in meaning and the why of things, and in joy and the play of things. So teaching toward interpretation–“Why does the speaker of the poem say….?” and reading aloud or seeing the poem set to a musical background, etc. might work better. Innovative and joyful teachers are doing that, of course. But so many English teachers are scared of poetry, and so many teachers are forced into test- and measurement requirements that…well…alas.

  3. I’ve been reading your blog since you were on freshly pressed, and I wanted to let you know how much I enjoy it. This entry particularly struck me; you are exactly right about the weird instinctive elements of poetry-writing. We are supposed to believe that writers add layers of symbolism and meaning to a work intentionally, but I suspect that for most, a piece of writing is an inexplicable event–something they channel through them rather than something planned.

    • Thanks for your lovely comment Sara. It really does mean a lot. And to add one more comment on the mystery of writing—I guess I don’t know what the point of creative writing is if there’s nothing to discover, that’s what I love so much about it.

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