Monday, March 23, 2015

Thoughts on poetry

Firstly, let me say to all my legion of readers: please don’t listen to me at all. Write what you want to write. If you’re feeling it, don’t agonize over it—just write it. Don’t worry about the poetry that comes out when you’re needing to express yourself. My thoughts are those of an amateur poet, with very little practice in the last ten years or so. These are thoughts based on reading some amateur poetry recently, and on poetry that the writer wants to, eventually, make public. So, take what you can use from it.

Ahem. Disclaimer complete, moving on.

In my consumption of poetry, I’ve tried to put my finger on what, in my opinion, makes a poem transcend the category of “brain dump” for me, and enter the world of “more widely appealing.” (You like my categories? I made them myself.) For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out what made one “bad” and another “good,” but I think I’ve figured it out, to a large extent.

Firstly, poetry should capture the essence of a moment in the fewest syllables possible. This is why, while a word like “luminescence” sounds poetic, “glow” is probably more fitting in a poem. Also, words like “amazing” and “incredible” aren’t overly long, but they are surprisingly non-specific. A sunset can be amazing for an entirely different reason from witnessing a birth, or an individual’s achievements. “Incredible” literally means “unbelievable,” and it can have positive or negative connotations—I need more details to understand why something is so unbelievable, which means that it’s redundant. Make me want to use the word “amazing” or “incredible” once I’ve heard your reasons for it.

Secondly, poetry needs cadence, or else it’s prose. It doesn’t have to rhyme or follow Iambic Pentameter or haiku or limerick, but from one line to the next, cadence (and theme) should be similar. Don’t switch between euphuistic, sesquipedalian words and brief, utilitarian words. Don’t go from a three-word line to a twenty-six word line to a seven-word line, and so on. We, as the readers of your poetry, are searching for a rhythm: a similarity, a pattern, something our mind can lace itself into and get dragged along by. Poetry can be so hard to read anyway, cadence helps us follow it. Don’t make it harder on us.

Thirdly, metaphor is your friend. You’re trying to take something that gives you feels and explain to the rest of the world at large what those feels are and why you have them—ultimately, you want to give them those feels too. Take the thing that is giving you feels and turn it into something universal. That sunset? Make it the warm heartbeat of the mother in the womb. That hideous truck that you loathe? Make it the discarded sock on the roadside. Simile is okay for poetry, but metaphor is great. In fact, make the metaphor so grandiose that we as readers don’t know you’re talking about a sunset or a truck until we’ve gathered enough clues to find your source materials.

Fourthly, and along those same lines, don’t spell it out for us. There have been so many poems that I’ve absolutely loved—right up until the moment that the poet ends the poem with something like “and that’s why I don’t want to see you again” or “that’s how I knew it was true love” or whatever the fuck. A poem, more than other writing, is meant to be a mirror we see ourselves in. Even if we didn’t get the exact message you’re trying to get across to us, that’s okay—we got our own message out of it. If you can’t make us see whatever it is you see in the body of the poem, finishing the poem with an explainer isn’t going to make it better. It’s sorta like explaining a joke. If I didn’t get it the first time, having it explained isn’t likely to make it funny… and if I did get it the first time, having it explained is really not going to make it funny.

Several (many, lots) years ago, I had a GeoCities website where I hosted some poetry. There were several that I think are were actually good, or at least were on the right track. Sadly, that website disappeared one day and took all my poems with it. I have a few left over from the early aughts, and I’ma post one here now, even though I think it lacks mightily. Not fair of me to criticize without showing off all my flaws, right? So, I stand naked before you, and share my poetry.

(written 9/1/02)

Why do you sleep with the lights on?
What in the dark reaches for you
Brushes your cheek
and scares you to hide in false sunlight
From its caressing hands?
What comfort do you get
From exploring the night behind the glass
Of a windshield?
Are your headlights sufficient protection
From the fingers of the darkness?
Will you ever drive far enough to escape
The feel of its skin?

Tell me
Do you feel its cold touch
In the arms of a lover?
Does your mind ache for
Its lover’s embrace?
It repulses you
It draws you
You shiver in the dark and wait
For its touch
And you turn on the lights
To dispel the chill on its fingertips
And to dispel also
The terrifying ecstasy it brings
For you know
If you let it hold you
Death waits in its arms.

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