An Approach to Discussing Poetry

I hope that there will be many lively and probing discussions of the poetry that appears on this site. As such, it’s probably a good idea to take a moment to think about what a meaningful approach to discussing poetry might be. Once again, I turn to Mary Oliver.

In her Poetry Handbook, she gives two reasons why getting together with others to discuss poetry is valuable. First, it allows participants to learn the language of poetry. [I confess, this is not particularly important to me. I want a poem that captures, the sensation of being alive. For me, that doesn’t come from fretting over anapests and trochees. But, I am not the only poet companion. Others may disagree. And I do concede that there is much to be gained from being able to speak intelligently about the constructs of formal poetry.]

The second reason, is that talking to others about poetry can encourage us to write more, and better, poems. But, how do we do it? How do we help each other become our best poet selves?

We must begin by recognizing that the purpose of discussing poetry with others is to help them improve their technique, not to ridicule their idea. It is okay to say that the execution of the poem does not work. In fact it is necessary; we won’t get better if we don’t try to understand the weaknesses in our poems. But, it is not okay to criticize the impulse that gave birth to the poem. We must always honor a fellow poet’s intention, and treat it with respect.

This being the case, the poet has a concomitant obligation to be brave. Fellow poets will honor your intention, but your intention must be honest and true. Go as far to the edge of that barely grasped thought as you can. You saw something in the girl’s eyes as you passed her this morning. What was it? Climb out far onto the wavering limb of your sensibility, and we will be here to support you.

Finally, do not make this, or any other, website more important than it should be. Poetry is written in solitude. Gather here to share, but leave here to return to the quiet room. The best that this site can offer is advice on how to enjoy more productive solitudes.

These then, are the rules of being a Poet Companion:

1) Criticize a fellow poet’s technique, but never their intention.
2) Have the courage to write poetry that is true.
3) Cherish your fellows, but cherish your solitude more.

Far more important than discussing, or even sharing, poetry, is writing poetry, and that is the product of a conversation that you can have with no one but yourself.


Lunchtime Thoughts on “Patterns”

So, Elaine, what I think is going on in your poem is you are trying to visually depict the way the music sounds to you. As I mentioned to Sally earlier, Glass says that his compositions are built on “repetitive structures.” I think that you caught on to that, and that’s why your own poem contains many repetitions. But, you’re also an attentive listener, and noticed that, while Glass’ phrases repeat, they also change over time in subtle ways. That’s why your phrases also repeat, but change (“with me FLY” versus “FLY with me”). As in Glass’ music, they also overlap:

Arpeggio climb:  with me FLY                with me FLY
FLY  with me                  FLY with me

What I see here is a poem that is meant to be read horizontally, as well as vertically. Horizontally, you tell the “story” of the poem. Vertically, you show how Glass’ music phases in and out of itself. This is a great way depict this music!

One further thing about the look of the poem, before I talk about content. Your use of white space reminds me of the work of ee cummings, who sort of refused to see the page as a square in which things were supposed to go in certain places. That’s a pretty revolutionary idea. [It reminds me of Toulouse-Lautrec, who was so forward-thinking as to defy the convention of putting the subjects of his paintings in the dead center. See, for example, Equestrienne (At the Cirque Fernando). Notice how the clown at top is lopped off at the waist by the picture frame. The spectators to the right are also partially obscured by the edge of the picture.] If you’re interested in that sort of thing, there is an entire movement, known as visual poetry or “vispo”, that is focused on the way a poem looks on the page. Personally, I’m more interested in what a poem says than how it looks, but different strokes, etc.

As for the content of your poem, you ask: Why speak when notes can sing? Why must all music be program music?

Are you saying that the act of living is itself an art and, therefore, music should not try to represent something in life? It should instead, simply be music?

First, I would note that absolute music is still being written. In fact, the piece that I suggested for this prompt: Glass’ Second Piano Etude, is an example. The piece you chose is from a movie and so, yes, it happens to be programmatic, but not all of Glass’ works are.

Second, I think you have a very strong sense that art and its creator are inseparable in some important way. And even the perceiver of the art is bound up in the art. I think this is the point of your poem Definition of Art. So, maybe when people speak, they are singing at the same time? Is that what you are saying? [I would note here that Leoš Janáček is famous for putting actual speech patterns in his music, just as Messiaen included actual bird calls. So they would probably agree with that idea.]

I don’t know of this relates, but I am thinking here of the ending to Jack Gilbert’s poem To See If Something Comes Next. “Maybe,” he writes, “it is like the Noh: whenever the script says dances, whatever the actor does next is a dance. If he stands still, he is dancing.”

And I think that is the impression I get of your world view after reading these two poems that you have given us. I feel like you are saying that the art and the artist are the same and that the simple act of being is a type of art.

Or am I completely wrong?