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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Avoiding BES & Other Related Maladies

I was thinking today, while sitting in traffic and smearing wasabi onto take-out sushi rolls with my index finger, about the fact that all the checking under the hood and spraying with perfume in the world won't make a bad poem fly.

Maybe this is very obvious (if it seems obvious to you, go ahead and stop reading), but a big step in my life as a poet was when I realized that certain subjects are boring, and the most boring one is, I'm afraid, the one that's all about you. I don't mean this in a you-can't-write-about-your-own-life way. What I'm saying is if you're writing about your friends, family, the places you like to hang out, your girlfriend, etc., just do your best to take those details and make art out of them (see below).

Close behind the confessional tales lacking linguistic pizazz are the cliche-ridden diatribes (aka the poem with an agenda, an axe to grind). I am wary of these poems that know where they're headed before the first word gets scribbled onto the page because, as Robert Frost once said, "no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader."

Okay, so how do you make art out of personal experience? Instead of focusing on words as solely conveyers of meaning, pay attention to their music, the ways you can make them alliterate. The way you can substitute metaphors for ho-hum (straightforward) descriptions. The wonders of assonance, internal rhyme, and slant rhyme. The fascinating story of how words evolve (make it a habit to look up the etymologies of key words in your poems).

And then there's the whole business of structure! Making cool patterns (series of wing-like lines), or even plain old couplets, or inventing a pattern you've never seen before (4-line stanzas with increasingly shorter lengths).

And then there's the thesaurus, decent newspapers like The New York Times, NPR, and, probably most important of all, reading the best poetry you can get your hands on (all eras, all schools, all the time).

And because no one bursts out of their father's head fully formed with a full set of armor (except, okay, Athena), plan on spending, at the very least, a few weeks on a poem, giving yourself the chance to try out different verbs, syntactical structures, stanza patterns, titles, metrical possibilities, line lengths, etc., making sure you've chosen "the best words in the best order" (Stephen Dobyns), instead of increasing the odds of BES (Bruised Ego Syndrome) when the poem comes back to you in a crumpled SASE (or, in these days, in the form of a very curt email message beginning "Dear Poet").


Sandy Longhorn said...

Martha, thanks so much for this. I often struggle trying to explain to my beginning creative writing students how important it is to "make art," as you say, out of the real details of their lives. This helps!

Jeannine said...

A Christian evangelist back in Ohio used to say: "It's a sin to bore kids with the Gospel."
I would say, equally, "It is a sin to bore people with poetry."
Thanks for these tips, Martha!

Rethabile said...

If before you start a poem you know what it'll be about, it's going to be average.
~Derek Walcott (loose quote)

Martha Silano said...

You're welcome, gals!