Fixations of Inspiration

Repetition? Okay, so now I’m aware of a recurring image in my poetry: the sky. While, in some aspects, I feel embarrassed that I never really thought twice about it, I feel conflicted about whether or not I should fight it. If the sky is a source of inspiration for me, why should I stifle it? Maybe the issue is that this is a popular, stereotypical poetry image.

The discourse I’m trying to begin here, though, isn’t about sky imagery. It’s about inspiration. Certainly I’m not the only writer who becomes obsessed with something so much that it, almost literally, consumes her? When I’m in one of these obsessive states, almost all of my poetry is conceived with the same topic as inspiration, or eventually ends up with a synonymous meaning. While I was not aware of the sky repetition, I am aware that this could come off as beating the topic to death. However, if it serves the purpose of producing poetry, why stop?

I suppose that the question I want to pose is whether or not these fixations can be stifling to one’s poetry, or if stifling them can be? Writing about the same things all the time eventually fizzles out the excitement and becomes boring to the writer, but how quickly does it become so for the reader?

This question, then, leads me to wonder about whether we write poetry for ourselves or for an audience? It is a conversation that I’ve been having in another English class, (and I apologize for this post being more fluid than defined), and we have yet to come to a conclusive agreement. At this point, I feel that if one were to write only for an audience, the product would suffer. For example, say you want to write a novel, but you know it won’t appeal to a popular audience; do you sell out and write something that does? Or do you write what you want anyway? If one were to write only for oneself, then it might not appeal to others, but it would bring personal satisfaction. I guess the question, here, becomes: which is more important?

Let’s say, then, that I currently have a fascination with flowers (original, I know). All of my poetry encompasses flowers and the workshop points it out and says that they grow tired of it. But it’s the force urging me to continue writing right now. Do I stop in order to please them? Or do I let the fixation play itself out and enjoy myself in the process? Maybe I’m selfish, but I think the latter sounds better. What are your thoughts?

Reactions: “Some Notes on Organic Form”

Having been over Levertov’s essay a few times, I can’t say that I’m totally sold on what it presents me with. Initially, I was intrigued by Levertov’s “partial definition” of organic poetry as “a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man’s creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural allegories,” thinking that the author was drawing connections between organic poetry and archetypal criticism, which is something I’ve been reading about lately and find myself increasingly drawn to. If Levertov is stating that poetry, like the rest of human art, continually explores and examines specific facets of a larger awareness, then I’m in agreement, but as her argument progresses she begins to lose me. Firstly, what’s the distinction between organic poetry and everything else? As I understand it, Levertov’s description of art drawn from a “form beyond forms” can apply to all art, so it seems that any poetry can be designated as organic poetry. Levertov’s continuation from this point is where “Some Notes on Organic Form” starts becoming troublesome – she describes exactly how an organic poet would “go about such a poetry,” which seems inherently presumptuous to me. There are, obviously, similarities among the poems of specific eras or literary movements that can be pointed out, but to assume that a poet’s creative process follows a precise path because they belong to one of these eras or movements is a much larger leap. When you consider that organic form might be all poetry, then Levertov is claiming to be aware of every poet’s process.
My issues with “Some Notes” weren’t helped by the fact that Levertov chooses to write about the organic poet’s experience in language that felt to me as romanticizing the process: “first there must be an experience, a sequence or constellation of perceptions of sufficient interest, felt by the poet intensely enough to demand of him their equivalence in words: he is brought to speech.” I can understand the moments of inspiration that Levertov talks about, but I’m also aware that many of the poems that I have written started out with completely different subjects and motivations than they ended on. The author says that “condition of being a poet is that periodically such a cross section, or constellation, of experiences (in which one or another element may predominate) demands, or wakes in him this demand: the poem,” to which I would respond that the only condition of being a poet is being someone who produces work that can be called poetry. Later in the “Some Notes,” Levertov does make what I think are valid points about rhyme and echo as well as the interactions of content and form, but to generalize about the experience of all poets – and in saying “the condition of being a poet,” Levertov is talking about all poets – doesn’t feel particularly useful.

what is poetry?

To reiterate: “I hate this question”—me in class last week.

Because I’ve taken a class or two each semester that consists of studying and synthesizing poetry from a literary point of view this question has reared its ugly head in my direction a few times too many. It’s also a question delivered to early high school students first introduced to the realm of poetry with Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” or William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”. We are taught poetry has a set of specific aspects that dichotomize poetry and prose such as rhyme scheme and formal line breaks. This may or may not be too accurate.

We touched upon this question just briefly in class and I think it’s definitely a topic that deserves more air time in a poetry workshop. However, I believe that instead of “what is poetry”, the better question is “what is good poetry?”

I’m not even sure the latter sits completely well with me but it’s most certainly more worthwhile. Say we address the former: we discuss common shared aspects of  poems and compare to something that doesn’t and we debate…but then what? It’s a poem. So what? It’s prose. So what? We still read it as a piece of literature and form some sort of analysis.

The more important aspect to spend time on is the quality. What is the poem trying to do, what is the poem achieving, what is working for the poem and what isn’t? Does the poem seem to hold value to the speaker or writer? Does it hold value to the reader? Does it intrigue the reader? These are all questions that I think we, as readers and writers of poetry, should be spending our time and precious brain energy on.

Frank O’Hara’s “Animals,” Abstract vs. Concrete, and the Universal

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A brief poem of four stanzas with fluctuating line length and an ear for consonance and assonance, Frank O’Hara’s “Animals” is a great example of playing with abstractions and concrete images in order to take a particular sentiment and approach a universal feeling. First from “first rate,” to “tricks up our sleeves,” O’Hara uses idiomatic phrases, that position themselves alongside an abstraction like “Time,” both of which are not concrete, but remain familiar to the reader. Standing alone these phrases would not succeed, but coupled with concrete, and still familiar images, such as “apple in its mouth,” “speedometers,” and  “cocktails.” O’Hara manages to move towards universal emotions by lingering in an ambiguous, familiar range of idioms and familiar concrete images.

Jayne Thompson and “Letters to My Younger Self”

I recently went to listen to writer/activist Jayne Thompson speak and I found her work to be really intriguing. She is a creative writing professor, but also runs writing workshops for incarcerated men. She even published a book titled “Letters to My Younger Self,” which is an anthology of some of their work. During her presentation, she played a few recordings of men reading their own poems, and I was amazed to see how powerful their voices were. Here are men, many of whom have very little formal education, who are able to produce writing that evokes such a strong reaction. Literacy issues aside, I think what most got me was that they refuse to be silent despite their imprisonment. Thompson works with them precisely so that their voices are heard, voices that are so often forgotten in our country with THE highest incarceration rate in the world. Working with prison populations is not something I’ve ever thought about doing, but after hearing Thompson speak, I think it would be really interesting to be able to run similar workshops.

A Fear of Poetry

What is it that makes poetry such an enigma for students? Recently, one of my classes discussed our fears of poetry. Many of us remarked that in high school, there were seemingly two approaches to poetry: the first is to view it as something we all can create and there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” because it is subjective, and the second is to view each poem as a riddle that we must analyze in order to decode the writer’s intent. Both of these aren’t very helpful perspectives in fostering self-confidence in our abilities as readers. I remember having instructors in both of these categories. And neither made me feel any better about my writing.
A high school poetry class offered a space for supporting each other’s work, and also an easy elective for the seniors who wanted to glide through their final semesters. Unfortunately, I never walked away from one of my workshops with much to propel me forward. After so many years stifling creativity for the sake of testing form, students were afraid to give critiques. You either got a questionable amount of half-hearted compliments or murdered-cricket silence. You didn’t feel challenged –thus, I suspect that the quality of my poetry did not improve.
Meanwhile, most of the typical high school English classes that I experienced followed the second approach. We’d sit down with a poem, usually a very well-known one, and pick it apart line-by-line until students started coming up with “imaginative” answers to the question “What does it all mean?” Sometimes, we would focus on one line so much that, in their interpretations, students would disregard the rest of the poem. But these interpretations, unless they got lucky, only made sense in the context of that one line. Often, I would just refrain from participating because I didn’t want to stop liking the poetry we read.
To make matters worse, after reading poems using this second approach, it appears to be a common mindset of students that they have to write a poem that’s as well-crafted as the most famous poets and contain some earth-shattering, riddle-like hidden meaning. I won’t say that I didn’t succumb to this fear at one point. I mean, it’s no wonder so many people experience a fear of poetry! Certainly, this calls for an alteration in the teaching methods of poetry in schools; reading poetry should not breed fear, but provoke the desire to read more of it and to write.

Cecily Parks and Environmental Sociology

I would like to propose that Cecily Parks, author of O’Nights, is an environmental sociologist. Last semester I took an Environmental Sociology class in which we explored the history of the way that humans have thought of and interacted with the environment, and the way that that history has cumulated in the current human-environment interactions. In the collection O’Nights, Cecily Parks explores the tension between the “natural” and the “human.” She expresses a sense of envy of characteristics and activity of the non-human world that she is excluded from simply by the fact of her species. She writes of a swallow that she follows, “She dips her wings in her reflection/but I cannot.” She also points out the absurdity of her human thoughts and desires when set in the context of the ecological system of the earth. She writes, “I asked the stars, will you be my jewelry?” This reveals her desire to possess what is impossible to possess, and the absurdity and impossibility of human desire.

Parks also questions whether human concern with the environment is part of a desire to possess. She writes, “My fields were ill. They weren’t my fields./My trees were being killed. They weren’t my trees.” Environmental sociologists have proposed that theories of human-centric environmental conservation have damaged the ecosystems that they hoped to help. She writes, “We ask the snow to be wool for us.” Some of the ineffective environmental reform was the result of the assumption that a state of nature is perfect, simple, and predictable in the realm of human logic. Parks has a revelation that escapes many environmental theories when she writes, “Wilderness isn’t paradise.” Parks acknowledges and unpacks her own sociological biases, intellectually examining her relationship to nature but never shirking from her inherent human bias.

Parks’ poetry seems an appropriate, though unexpected medium for environmental sociology. The poems are aware that their content is shaped by the fact that they are poems, just as Parks is aware that her feelings about the natural world are shaped by the fact that she is human. In the second section of the collection she writes about her daily habits in contrast to those of the world outside the human world, acknowledging her insignificance in the context of the greater system of wilderness. She is able to synthesize her observations with a calculated awareness of her lens being shaped by her place a human and as a poet. She writes


if I in our dining room


dance, wheezily

singing so not even

our infestation of moths can hear: I will never be daughter

of the maple tree! I will never be

sister of the leaf!

Author versus Speaker

A simple yet crucial concept, especially when it comes to poetry, is the position of the author and the speaker. I’ll provide a brief recap: the author is the person who wrote the work, the speaker is the narrator or who is telling the story to the audience. In poetry, I think of the dramatic monologue by John Donne My Last Duchess, in which the author is Donne and the speaker is a fictional character. You can find the poem here.

I won’t belabor a straightforward idea, but I want to draw attention to it to remind writers of the possibilities of perspective and that “We lose vast amounts of possibilities in writing when we only focus on ourselves as subjects” (quoted from a blog that goes into further detail).

Poetry for an audience

Something I’ve struggled since the beginning of this workshop course is the audience I write for, more specifically one who doesn’t know my background. I find myself writing very specific and abstract poems about certain situations in my life that aren’t backed up by concrete imagery, something pointed out in my latest critique by Professor Smith. With my latest pieces (most recently “As I watch the seagulls fly away;”), I have been trying to stay away from such specific stories.

This one was about drifting apart from a friend, a poem crafted not out of a real conversation but our stances on 1) our drifting apart and 2) my leaving at the end of this year. I think that’s where the vague stance of the “you” and “we” came out especially.

Something else is that the connotations I have in my mind aren’t what everybody else has. For example, the connotation of seagulls might bring up summer walks along Port Jeff or Robert Moses Park in Long Island for some people, or the Atlantic City boardwalk, or a rocky beach along the coast of Oregon for some. Personally for me, the line

“what calls these grey-streaked,

curved beaks with scratches

from lunch-hours spent

hunting bread-crumbs ”

was written from a few moments watching seagulls (or gulls, as Evan pointed out) just happily go from bread crumb to bread crumb at lunch in front of Southside Cafe one day during freshman year. With this in mind, I think research as well as just broader consideration of what certain images (such as seagulls) might have for others.

I think the bottom-line is that it’s hard to juggle the line between concrete imagery that might have the wrong connotations to what I am trying to portray/the story I am trying to tell and abstractions that tell, rather than show, what I am trying to accomplish.

The former, with the wrong imagery, would be a poem with the wrong story and the latter would be a badly written poem that tells rather than shows its story. I hope by the end of this semester I can juggle this line better.

Poetry and Shape

Something we’ve talked about in class recently has been stuck in my head: form reflecting content, specifically shape poetry. It appears that there is a serious divide and debate about this, and it is something I never really thought about. While I have read many a shape poem, I didn’t particularly consider myself capable of crafting one of worth, one that transcended its shape. Sometimes, though, I agree that they might go too far.

The argument has been made that, possibly, shape poetry makes it easier to comprehend for those to which poetry is less accessible. Although I see where those arguing this are coming from, I also wonder why we shouldn’t utilize a visual aspect to our poetry as well? One of my favorite kinds of poetry, and subsequently one of the forms that began me on a poetry-writing journey, is ekphrastic poetry. Ekphrastic poetry is that which is inspired or incited by a work of art. It might be another point for debate, but at times I think that it behooves an ekphrastic poem to be printed alongside that which inspired it. Is this going a bit overboard? Beating the reader over the head with this image? I don’t know. I think it depends on how far from the original work of art the poem takes the writer –how much it deviates from the visual.

Last week, I posted on the blog about novels which combine literary forms, specifically an example from a book by Zadie Smith. For those who are not inclined toward shape poetry, do you dislike shape poetry when it stands by itself? Does it make a difference when there are connotations to characters and plot line of a novel?

Not only do I think that shape poetry is visually interesting, but I think it can be done well. It depends on whether or not the content is more insightful than a reflection of the shape. If the poem is simply describing the shape in which it is contained, with nothing to take away from it besides its existence, then I would agree with those against shape poetry. However, it does have its strengths. We shouldn’t completely discount it as being “gimmicky.” Doesn’t it make sense to fuse artistic mediums sometimes in order to create something stronger than it would be on its own? Thoughts?