A couple months ago I was struck with an urge to read, write, and enjoy poetry. It was a convergence, I'm sure, of a variety of outside influences. I'd heard, for example, that writing poetry could infuse a person with almost magical writing power. Likewise, that reading it could open one's third eye and allow the seeing of truths, telepathic conversations with John Keats, psychokinesis, telekineses, force lightning, and mindsex.
So I said, "why not" and set about writing one poem every day (along with a small illustration to accompany it. As of today, I'm at number 45). I figured I would eventually understand poetry through this deliberate practice.
Unfortunately, while I did enjoy doing it as a form of regular recreational writing, it quickly became apparent that I wasn't going to get anywhere until I had a bit more guidance.
A quick Amazon search turned up a bunch of titles. The Poetry Home Repair Manual Hilarious! And it's written by a real United States Poet Laureate Exactly what I was looking for.
I've been reading this a few pages at a time for the last month. I would just pick it up whenever I have a minute or two to kill and read a couple pages. Or a single example poem. The book worked really well in these little spurts and the long absorption rate allowed me to really digest each point before moving on to the next.
As a rank beginner (not only of writing poems - but also of reading them), I learned a very large amount from this book. I would have learned a lot from any poetry book, but I'm really glad I started with this one.
I found Kooser's style of guidance to be completely unintimidating. At the same time, he does not mince words. For a jovial looking Midwesterner with a sweater and coffee mug and a grin in his dust jacket photo, he is surprisingly candid with his opinions about what makes a good poem and also where serious academic types can stick it!
I bet being a poet laureate is like being Batman. When someone from the intellectual elite takes issue with your opinion and asks, "and who, exactly, are you" you can reply, "I was the Poet Laureate Consultant to the Goddamn Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006. Ha ha!" and then throw a sleeping gas capsule into the group and write limericks on their unconscious foreheads.
I think the most important thing that I personally took from the very many pieces of advice in this short book was the idea that a poem should make sense to its reader.
You can be certain that after I'd absorbed that idea, I looked in horror upon my nascent creations. Oh dear, I was aping the very same opaque, confusing word-puzzle style I hated to read! What was I thinking I was hinting at things as obliquely as possibly, using unusual words for their own sake, and generally crafting confusing, snobby pieces of crap.
In my defense, I thought that's what poetry was. Just crack open this month's Atlantic or this week's New Yorker. The contemporary poetry I most often encounter in the wild is just absolutely...impenetrable. If you're like me and didn't major in English Literature, you're probably in the same boat. And you might be wondering if you're missing out on something.
Well, that's when I realized that the poems I did like - some even to the point of memorizing them weren't the sort of things they publish in The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Certainly not! The ones I tend to like are the clear and concise kinds of things I learned as a child. Or song lyrics. You know, they sound fun; they even, gasp, rhyme!
There are some examples of good, clear poems in this book. I can honestly say I liked some of them. Really, truly, liked.
I also gained some other really important guidance. In no particular order, a poem: should be able to speak for itself and be enjoyed without you having to explain to the reader; may use emotion, but it is wise to avoid gushing; can paint a much more believable picture in the mind's eye if it contains a few unexpected specific details; should fit its form - line breaks shouldn't feel arbitrary, rhymes shouldn't feel forced; should use a simile or metaphor carefully - and not one when the other would be better.
For me, the most easily applied and immediately effective advice in the book was: including unexpected detail. He gives great examples of expected detail and contrasts these with poems that use unexpected detail. I can't remember his examples, but imagine a description of a bakery that went, "it smelled of warm, inviting bread," versus one that went, "the freshly-baked bread sat under a heat lamp shaped like an enormous human foot." The difference is amazing: the poems with unexpected detail feel so much more real than those with bland and typical expected descriptions in them. It's truly a difference of night and day.
This is one of those books that will likely reward re-readings at a later date. I'm certain I'll get as much new advice out of it after a year of reading and writing poetry as I did after only a couple weeks.
Tags: poetry, poets laureate, metaphors, similes, ham cubes, mindsex