Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The secret to oatmeal and poems

The sweetest raisins won't disguise lumpy oatmeal.

Allow me to explain.

This weekend, I had something like an epiphany. That is, I'd known this concept for a long time; indeed, it's something I think we all know. But now, suddenly, it was clear, sharp and blazing: instead of knowing it, I felt it.

The idea is this: Poems often (usually?) have particular lines or turns of phrase that stand out, that particularly impress themselves upon the reader. Different readers may find different gems in the same poem, but that's not the point.

What hit me is that, when a poem is great, there isn't any bad line. Even if a word or phrase doesn't stand out in a good way, it doesn't stand out in a bad way either. A great poem doesn't have any distractions or specific flaws. Nothing gets in the way, no imperfection distracts the reader.

That may seem obvious (or it may not; for that matter, it may not even seem correct). But it changed how I view the writing process. To me, this idea means that every piece of the poem must be right. It's not enough to have one brilliant line, then not bother too much with the rest.

I think I pay attention to all sections, but there are always parts of the poem on which I focus more attention - maybe because they need it. But often, it's the parts that are already working well that I work on most.

It's not enough for the poem to fit technically; the effect has to be right. The crystal might look perfect on the shelf, but it's only when we hold it up to the light that we know how it splinters and scatters the daylight.

Just a thought - but one that makes me think that nearly every poem I've written could use more work.

By the way, this thought came to me as I was reading 80 Great Poems from Chaucer to Now, by Geoff Page - it's a collection of, well, eighty great poems - not necessarily The Best poems, but all great. He discusses each poem in technical, artistic, and historical contexts. But the poems all impress with their lack of obvious flaws, which is what lit the bulb for me.


Jamie said...

Well first off, that sounds like a really interesting book and one that might serve me well as a primer on how to look critically at poetry.

Secondly, don't touch Mother, Wherefore?

Jamie said...

Oh, and I should also say that your observation of the care and feeding of excellent poetry is wise and also an indictment. I know what you mean.

poetinahat said...

Speaking of editing flaws: I've corrected the title and author. One hasn't learned one's lesson, eh?

And thank you, Jamie - I don't know how long you spend editing your blog comments, but yours are a case in point. Every mot is juste.

Priene said...

I had a similar epiphany when I read a Mayakovsky line about having to search through a hundred tons of verbal ore for the sake of a single word. To be a good poet (let alone a great one), every word has to fit. Writing good lines is important, but that's a given in poetry, right? It's the weak points - the cliches, metrical imperfections and repetitions - which will stop you achieving the things you're capable of.

Maybe there are other ways of improving, but, the way I see it, a vital stage in becoming a good poet is becoming your own worst nightmare-critic-from-hell. If you get yourself shuddering every time you hit a wrong note, you're making progress.

On the other hand, I wouldn't recommend going back and reworking all your old material. Poetry is time-consuming, and the better you get, the more hours each one soaks up. It's more fun writing producing new work than rehashing the old and flawed.

poetinahat said...

I haven't read Mayakovsky since freshman year in college - but I loved the play then.

Good, and heartening, advice, Priene - many, many thanks. I must agree: when good enough is not good enough, then we are getting somewhere.

Priene said...

You've read the Bedbug? And I thought I was alone in the Western world.

Mostly, though, I love his poetry. You should have a read of his 'Conversation with a Tax Collector about Poetry', which is (as well as being a whinge about paying too much tax) a fine defence of poetry as a calling. It also gave me a similar epiphany, mainly because it was the first time I'd come across a great poet explaining what it took to do what they did.

xysea said...

Actually I quite like and agree with this blog. :)

Bartholomew von Klick said...

I dunno. I think that Perfect is the enemy of Finished. Of course, I avoid writing poetry whenever I can -- and this philosophy of mine might be why.

By the way, I think your Inauguration Poem contest is a cute idea. The poem from the ceremony was *awful.*