27 January 2007

The Trouble With Being A Poet

Billy Collins. I didn't realize how much I enjoyed Collins' poems until I started listening to his CD "Live". I didn't come to appreciate it until I was into about the tenth listening, while driving across the barren Wyoming plains. About then I recognized all the layers that are in some of the simple sounding poems.

I have an earlier CD of him reading his work, The Best Cigarette. He reads his poems. Period. I can picture Billy, a microphone, and an empty room. In Live something else happens. Is it the "relatively enormous audience" as he says in the introduction, or is it the chance to engage real people? Poetry is such a solitary process, like any writing. The switch from private scribbling to public presentation is an interesting one. I've had to retool my style a bit for the performance of the poem.

I can't assume that my work will always be read on the printed page. That calls for a different approach, especially if I am reading my work. There are a few words I like to use, I like the look of them on the page, the way they sound, the roll of vowels and consonants in my in my head. The problem is, I can't pronounce them. I look at them on the page, I hear them properly in my head, and then between brain and tongue, I slip. I stumble, mispronounce, or flip the word out of order. No matter how much I adore the word, there is no way I want to go to a public reading and trip all over the line containing The Word.

Cop-out? Not really. I know my tongue will betray me at certain times, with certain words, so I plan ahead. It's also forced me to quit using the same word as an easy out, a crutch, and search for more descriptive words. I've regulated the Words to placeholders, a comfortable relationship for both of us. I'm sure the Words were tired of being mangled also.

Poetry makes you obsessive about language. I love Word A Day sites, the dictionary, new poets and any other place that plays with the English language. The relationship between words and ideas is an obsession. There is a simple pleasure in stringing together vocabulary like popcorn for a Christmas tree. What do I want the reader to take from my poem? What do I want to say? What do I have to say? What is the best way of conveying these emotions through words?

Driving across the dry Wyoming landscape, visor blocking the sunset and brown grass stocking snow in a desperate attempt to survive, I find new meanings in the words Collins throws out so casually. "Here, a poem, take from it what you will". In a poem called "The Trouble With Poetry", Collins touches on what poetry can do to the poet,

"Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

"But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil."

That's what it feels like at times. When all goes well, we want to shout our lines from a car window while speeding down the street, when it's a struggle, the darkness presses close and envelops us. But there is always that thought, that just one poem, one stanza, one line, even one word will be the tipping point, flame will erupt from the end of your pencil, and all will be right with the world.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Ok, that's off topic (can't find anything intelligent to say about modern poetry), but I love that Dark Side Cookie. I'm tempted to filch it. :)

Constance Brewer said...

Hey, you're a fellow dark sider. Filch away. One warning, it has a blue background. I'll have to customize your dark side cookie for your blog.

Modern poetry isn't any harder than classical poetry. It's just not concerned with rhyming as much. Read some Billy Collins. He's rather refreshing. :)

Gabriele Campbell said...

A customised Dark Side Cookie would be cool. :)

The colour code for my background is #B6D6BB;

Constance Brewer said...

Cookie for you at the bottom of the right sidebar. Take it in good health. *g*

KC Heath said...

yes, I love these comments about poetry! I feel like I'm standing at the top of an ice-berg, however. I want to dive in the ocean but know it's cold. How to improve my poetry without drowning or freezing? Connie, can you begin immersing me s-l-o-w-l-y? ~kc

Constance Brewer said...


Revise, revise, revise, and read more poetry. Read poets you like, and poets you think you should like, and the oldies and the ones in literary magazines. Poetry daily is a good place to start, they have an archives.
Revision is the key, however - and having a good critique group/beta reader for your poetry. I learn a lot from a group I go to every time they critique a poem.