Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Writing of a Poem: Stumbling Blocks and Words

Have you ever had the most brilliant idea for a poem, or the most poignant image trapped in your head, and find that when you write it down it just doesn't live up to the grandeur you know you want to convey? You write the poem (or essay, or whatever you write), and it simply doesn't have the shine you know it should. It doesn't speak to you, or hit you in the gut the way it did before you had to wrap it into words. Most writers with lofty goals will know what I'm talking about here...if you don't, write some more. You'll get to this place eventually.

I have been in this place for the better part of two weeks. I catch snippets of images, and when I write them down, they seem stale and empty. I also find, the more I examine my own work from a semi-unbiased position, that I think I am trying to do too many things within a single poem. My better poems (according to both my own preferences and those of my current MFA mentor) are very succinct, focus on a few stark, striking images and wording, and have very short, powerful lines. On the other hand, most of my poetry uses a mid-page lines and have a veritable avalanche of imagery in them. And, much like I just threw in the word "veritable" in the last sentence, when I let the images run away with me and just write, I have a tendency to forget about standardizing my diction, and I just run with the flow of the words. Randomly throwing in elevated diction was one of the big critiques I received on my last packet of MFA work. It's a result of my casting about to find just the right word...and I do love words. I devour them. I savor the good ones. I have the very bad habit of occasionally being struck by a word that is seldom-used, considered high-diction, and tossing it whole into a poem that it likely doesn't sound right in. The problem, I find, is that to me, it does sound right, until someone points out that it probably doesn't belong.

My bad habit of tending to get too verbose is my poetry is one I can relatively easily go back and edit; grading essays and research papers has given me the skill to at least go back and identify where I got carried away, to go back and tauten where I left the poem loose and saggy. Words, on the other hand...I have a harder time with this. I'm going to have to make a conscious effort to beware of random elevated diction, and i often find it difficult to identify in my own work.

Which leads me to the lesson of the day: having outside readers, whether they be related to a writing program, a workshop, or even just a group of friends who are willing to read your work and provide thoughtful critique, is an invaluable resource. They will find meanings you didn't realize were in your work, they will identify weaknesses you are too close to see, and that will make you a better writer, painful as it may be.

In my case, I have decided to restrain myself by focusing on keeping my lines short and my poems tight. I am also consciously working on keeping the verbosity to a minimum, painful as it may be. Interestingly enough, the poems that have resulted are better, as first drafts, than my usual. Working this way also slows my brain, which is usually in a rather fricative state, much the way I imagine meditation does, allowing me to concentrate on minute details, and marinating in a thought until I can tease out exactly what I want to say. A few of my pieces, "Recovery," "Mistress," "A Walk at Dawn," and "A Visit with My Mother After the Divorce," are all poems that I've tried this with, have met with great approval from mentors and readers, and are the ones I hope to place in a well-respected print journal in the coming months.

Best of luck with your writing. If you do happen to be in a rut, I highly recommend setting some uncomfortable rules for yourself, to see how discipline affects your writing. You may not be pleased with the result, and you will have learned something from that, as well, but if it works for you, all the better.

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