Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How to Start a Poem

Although this class is mostly about the craft of a poem, the formal stuff, writing is essentially a pathless land. All poets have known about the formal stuff and known the history of poetry. But no guru or teacher can really tell you how to write a poem with what one of my ex-students called "the creamy filling." I think she meant the unnameable quality that makes it a poem.

Plus, poems are about the unsayable, as I've said several times. See how this is a Zen problem again?

Here are my thoughts about how to start a poem. For another opinion, ask someone else.

1. Something from the recent past sticks in your mind: an image, a memory. This works if you have no idea why it sticks in your mind. You're a poet. You get in the habit of writing it down. See where it goes. Maybe nowhere.

2. You heard some language that had a strange quality of meaningfulness and yet nonsense. Good entry point to a poem.

3. Poetry is often in repetition or a sense of unreality. You are driving. It's late. You get lost. You pass the corner of Elm and Maple. You get back on the expressway. Then exit again. Unbelievably you find yourself again at the corner of Elm and Maple.

4. Poetry, it will surprise no one, can be cobbled together from a feeling of nature. Cavafy, the modern Greek poem, writes about the blades of grass growing in the cracks in the sidewalk in Alexandria. Reznikoff has a poem about the hole in the ceiling of the Colisseum. See, it's not ordinary "nature," but nature seen anew. An old friend of mine wrote a poem about Matisse's "Open Window," a blue painting with a window that seems to suggest all kinds of possibility. The English pop star Jarvis Cocker wrote a poem about the dirty river that runs through Sheffield, tracing everywhere it goes - past an old "disused factory" and an old amusement park where the merry-go-round used to play an irritating, insistent tune.

5. Poetry, of course, comes from experiences of reading poetry. Sometimes after reading it just pours out.

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