Monday, January 16, 2017

Poetry Can Open Space for the Imagination

[I've been asked to write an article on the value of poetry for a writer's group for National Poetry Month in April. Here are some of my thoughts.]


A friend sent me an article by the poet, Matthew Zapruder, "Poetry and Poets in a Time of Crisis." In it Zapruder points out that prose often has a utilitarian purpose, to explain, to describe, to elucidate, to persuade, and that successful prose stays the course to its conclusion, its purpose, never wandering off on some tangent.

But poetry, Zapruder says, has no such discipline. The poet starts to persuade you to take some course of action and is suddenly distracted by that field of wildflowers over there beyond that wooden fence. So we climb the fence and wander through the "bee-loud glade," and see the beauty of the lupine, mallow, fireweed, primrose. We smell their fragrance and feel the sun on our face and arms. We hear the meadowlark singing on that mullein stalk over there near the cottonwoods, hear the wind whispering through the dry wheatgrass, the cottonwood leaves clicking in the breeze, the bees buzzing from lupine to lupine. We follow the poet over that fence and imagine ourselves in that flower-filled meadow, almost tasting the honey the bees make.

Or we walk with the poet who is complaining about the busyness of her days, her lack of time today to write because of a stack of laundry waiting to be ironed, and she suddenly begins to tell us of the homeless couple she saw on a street in the city with their shopping cart heaped with belongings. They treat each other with such love and tenderness that in spite of the foul smell around them, the beauty and dignity of their souls shine from their eyes through the dirt on their hands and faces. And the love between them and their brown and white mongrel radiates in their faces and in its wagging tail as they share pieces of their meager lunch with it. The poet invites us open our imaginations to a world different from ours and lets us recognize the humanity we have in common with that couple. Perhaps we suddenly find ourselves more open to empathy and compassion. 

Poetry then can open space in our minds, our imaginations, our souls, in which we can see, smell, taste, feel, hear, life's beauty and joy as well as its pain and disappointments. It helps us experience life happening around us. We learn to experience that beauty and joy by just looking up from our smart phones and tablets long enough to see the smile on the baby coming toward us in the arms of a young mother whose face is filled with joy. Or we look away from the screen with wonder at the beauty of the poet's imagery or how this poem has made us see or feel something we've never seen or felt before.

Poetry helps us learn to imagine what others feel, their pain, their losses, the futility of their lives, but also, perhaps, imagine the beauty and dignity of their lives. Poetry helps us become more sensitive to the world around us and to others no matter their color, status, religion, country of origin. We can learn to feel empathy and treat others with love and compassion. The hatred, bigotry, and intolerance toward religion, race, and otherness that seemed to inform the latest national election perhaps needs poetry if we are to heal and close emotional gaps and to learn to value rather than denigrate others' otherness. Poetry can also help us see the beauty of and danger to the fragile web of nature of which we are a part and live in.

Monday, January 2, 2017

One Size Does Not Fit All

I read a friend's blog recently in which she verbally beat herself up because she didn't come close to the 50,000 word target in NaNoWriMo. Efforts like that are worthwhile in that they give writers some goal and companionship along the way on trying to reach the goal, but many of us would have trouble writing that many words in a month. For one thing, there is such a thing as life, and it often gets in the way of the best intentions of writers.

The different genres place limitations on how many words we might get down in a day. Poets may work on a page or two words for weeks. Those who write non-fiction or short stories have topics or story lines limit the scope of the work. Many have jobs and they either get up early or stay up late to write. Stay-at-home moms with little ones write at nap time and some moms fit in writing time between housekeeping chores while the kids are in school.

Then there is the problem with our individual writing processes. I often get an idea for a poem but can't get started on it because it is too fuzzy in my mind. I need to chew on it while I do dishes, fold laundry, walk the pup, drive to the store for groceries, or just sit and listen to music, thinking on it. I often write about it in my journal, trying to gather my thoughts. Or, if thoughts are not forthcoming, I free write for several sessions, trying to get things to jell.

Once I have some idea where I'm going, I write with pen and paper some pieces of the poem that have formed in my mind. I'll cross out and revise as I reread, move pieces around on the page with arrows, and at some point realize this would be easier if I entered what I have on the computer. And then when I revise and revise some more, I save the document in a folder called New.

A couple of days later I open the file again and work on it, adding, cutting, moving, completely rewriting, then save it to a folder called Working. I may wait a few days or weeks before I open that file again and revise several more times. Finally, when I think I'm done, I move it to a folder called Ready and find a place to send it out for consideration. There are the occasional poems that pop into my head almost finished, but perhaps only one a year out of two or three dozen I write during that time. My process for haiku is essentially the same, although shorter in time span.

My process contrasts markedly from the one that William Zinsser uses and writes about in On Writing Well. He says he can't move from the first sentence until he considers it finished, the same for that paragraph and each sentence and paragraph in the piece he's writing. Ann Lamott suggests in Bird by Bird that we write "shitty first drafts" just to get something down on paper that we can revise into a finished piece. All that reminds me of William Stafford's advice to his students at Lewis and Clark College to "lower your standards and keep writing."

So, a contest like NaNoWriMo doesn't work for everyone. My friend just doesn't fit into that model for writing,  nor do I, and she should not blame herself because she failed to make the word count. She said she did make progress on a novel she's been working on, so she should shout her joy at doing that. One size does not fit all when it comes to writing.