Where a Poem Can Come From

     An earlier posting addressed the question of how to know when a poem is finished. How about where a poem can come from?

     Beginning poets often go in one or both of two directions: (1) purely autobiographical poems and/or (2) poems that versify well-known myths, historical events, or literary plots. “What i Did Last Summer” or “How Hard I Cried When He/She Left Me” on the one hand or “Odysseus and the Sirens” or “Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg” on the other. Good poems can be written about one’s life or about history or myth but the key is how, in Ezra Pound’s words, to “make it new” while at the same time remembering, as Pound also said, that poetry is “news that stays news.” It is the universal incarnated in symbol and metaphor and story in the particular and the local in the language — often heightened and tightened — of one’s own time.

     Few people other than family members and close friends are likely to care that much about the details of a poet’s personal life as such. These personal events, thoughts, and feelings must be presented to the reader in such a way as to have an application wide enough and deep enough to include many if not all other human beings and, ideally, the universal or perennial experiences of humankind — what T.S. Eliot called “the permanent things.” The first-person “I” of a poem should, in my view, be more than merely the “I” of a personal letter or an email. Moreover, many fine poems can be written in the second or third person. Most readers read with an implicit “what’s in it for me?” or “why should I care?” and “what does this have to do with me and with life as I know it?” in mind. Readers should be able both to find themselves and to lose themselves in a poem. 

     As to historical or mythic subjects, these, I believe, are best retold in the idiom of the contemporary world and with some relation, explicit or implicit, to life as it is today and as it always has been — something beyond the time and place of the historical or mythic event. Excessive and/or obscure allusions (even if annotated by the poet) aren’t as fascinating, stunning, or attractive these days as they seemed in the time of Eliot’s The Waste Land or Ezra Pound’s The Cantos. If a poet writes that way, he or she had better write extraordinarily well to expect a reader to look up multiple arcane references.

     Some poems begin as a rhythm, a word, a phrase, a rhyme, a sound, a line. Sometimes what I call a “false poem” has to be written, then discarded, in order to get to the “true poem” that may lie hidden beneath it. Sometimes a poem takes off in an unplanned direction as if it had a life of its own apart from the poet (which every good poem ultimately must and does). Once a line came into my head that became the final line of a poem which, except for that line, I had not known was “there” waiting to be written. Some poems come in a flash of inspiration — but fewer than many think. The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas said that the hardest working poetic craftsman has the most moments of inspiration, and that is very true. If one just waits for poetic lightning to strike before ever beginning a poem. he or she may wait forever. The Muse doesn’t like laziness in her poets and loves to be courted. Sometimes poems can be planned and researched like a scholarly paper but must not smell of dust when finished; also, a poet can set as a goal the writing of a particular kind of poem. This week (or month), a sonnet; next week (or month), a villanelle. The form will find the subject in those cases.

     These reflections on Where a Poem Can Come From are hardly complete. Persistence in reading great poems, in writing one’s own verse regularly (like regular exercise), and in the keen observation of nature and human life — as well as patience and humility as one slowly matures as a poet — these taken together seem to me to be our best guide posts.


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