Tuesday, August 05, 2008

"Unwritten" Poetry Rules

Mary Biddinger asks whether we have any "unwritten" poetry rules we either always adhere to or think very carefully about before transgressing. Greg Rappeleye has an interesting list. I guess it was late in the evening: I included not just some personal rules but ideals and priorities regarding poetry. It became a bit of a manifesto. Anyway, here it is:

1. Poetry must engage and stimulate as much of the being of the writer and reader as possible – emotions, intuition, the senses, intellect, bodily rhythm and feeling. Emotion is primary: Poetry that fails to move fails as poetry. The most reliable gateway for such powerful, multi-leveled expression is through the image.

2. Many strategies are possible, but it’s most effective to put your poem in a three dimensional context – either deftly indicated or vividly described. Otherwise, what you’re likely to end up with are abstract ravings (OK, mumblings, musings) of a disembodied mind. Today’s world is definitely overpopulated – but it is even more overrun by disembodied minds.

3. Commentary distracts. Don’t just say how you feel, evoke it through imagery, metaphor, or your treatment of the subject – a variation on the old chestnut “show, don’t tell”. Poetry, like all forms of verbal expression, is a “coming to terms” – so those dear, clever abstract expressions that may have even brought on the poem serve as scaffolding that can be knocked away when the building is strong enough to stand on its own. (Here's a case in point from my own writing.)

There are masters, however, for whom commentary is essential to their aesthetic. Rilke and Wordsworth wrote whole stretches of “philosophic song” that make for fine reading. This is because those passages are original, profoundly thought out, stand up to intellectual scrutiny, and (of course) superbly expressed. But those passages are also sustained by others that pack powerful images and sensation.

4. Whatever you write, may it be “soundful.” ( Poetry “soundfulness” is a coinage, I believe, of my friend Mick Burrs… although a quick Google search reveals that Osho (aka Rajneesh) and others use the term in the context of meditation.) Rhythmic free-verse with slant or internal rhymes are current reliable mainstays. I firmly believe, though, that any poet worth his salt ought to be an absolute master of fixed forms, especially if he lives in the eighteenth century. End-stopped rhymes are the cat’s meow, again, if you live in the eighteenth century. In regard to fixed forms, I feel like the proverbial child playing with one or two pebbles on a vast beach.

5. More about fixed forms (clearly, I’m thinking about them more than doing them): they shouldn’t be too fixed (or they’ll fix you, like the vet fixed my cat). They’re a flexible framework – a skeleton of a moving body, as someone else put it -- not a pidgeonhole.

6. If you find yourself piling on two or three metaphors to describe/evoke one thing, it’s because you are still “coming to terms” – haven’t settled on the right metaphor. Beware too of adjectives, connectives, prepositional phrases, and other stuff like that. ;) More about that here.

7. Like Mary Biddinger, I don’t like poetry about poetry, writing about writing – although I’ve done it. Even though as she points out there are great ars poetica, writing about your writing as you write – however cleverly you do it – indicates you are running dry.

8. I don't like to use the word "love". The word has been so over- and insincerely used that it smacks of triteness and manipulation. I follow Rule #3 with this one. (Same goes in my personal life: sometimes my partner, Jocelyne, has problems with that!)

9. I'm really sparing with exclamation marks, using them, if ever, with great reluctance. Funny, I don't usually mind it when poets from other eras -- i.e. Shelley or Coleridge -- use them. Sometimes I even find myself applauding those guys for their emotional directness. For me, though, in this day and age, it's practically always trite and silly. Same for other noise-makers like caps and emphatic italics. Some day I'll write a poem where every word is capitalized and followed by an (!) just to get over my hangup.

10. First person present simple has been called the person/tense default of contemporary poetry, and for good reasons: immediacy, authenticity (although of course first person has its own subterfuges.) Speaking of persons: 2nd person – particularly the impersonal you – is perhaps the weakest person, hard to sustain over a long period: the reader is likely to say, “Hey, that’s not me you’re talking about!” 2nd person plural can be quite obnoxious, spreading the blame, as it were – and how many of us are we, pray tell? See for instance this Timothy Steele poem. 3rd person singular is evasive: although there was a period where I exclusively wrote clever poems featuring what I called a 3rd-person “characterette”, I was also studiously avoiding some personal issues at the time. 3rd person plural, well, they can have it. I have yet to write in the 4th person. If and when I do, I’ll share the results immediately: I’m sure they will be spectacular beyond belief.

11. If you’ve heard an expression or phrase once, beware. If twice, it’s probably a cliché. What you do with that cliché will show the kind of poet you are.

12. Most revision is deletion. The most likely candidates for striking out, even though they may "appear" necessary: those lines at the end of a draft that purport to sum things up, or return to beginnings. Sometimes those summary statements begin a poem. Robert Bly calls them false heads and false tails.

The editor at Salt has an amusing list of fifty do's and don'ts for submission. Here's one of my favourites:

Poems on the wonderful nature of God’s creation aren’t.

So: what are yours?


marybid said...

Wow--what a list! It's a treatise! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts.

Brian Campbell said...

I guess that's what makes you penultimatina, and me ultimatina. ;)

Thanks for stimulating this discussion.

Pris said...

I enjoyed reading these, too. I have the same feeling about 'sum up' endings. First of all, if the poem has done its job, no summing up is necessary, and secondly, it leaves no room for the poem to breathe, so to speak , and let the reader in.

About abstractions. I think if I read another poem that tells and doesn't show I'll have to virtually shred it. Clear, fresh imagery is so important.

It seems I can't stop. Deletion. That's my main honing technique (besides finding a better word for the rough I jotted down first). I think I've done this, then read the same poem a year later and take out more.

Thanks for posting this.

Brian Campbell said...

Re Abstractions: I was just reading from Coleridge's Biographia Literaria the other day, and he suddenly sounds so modern when he asserts that poets from a couple of generations previous -- that is, Pope and his followers -- despite their obvious technical merits, seem to him "[in] matter and diction characterized not so much by poetic thoughts, as by thoughts *translated* into the language of poetry." Right on, Sammy!