Sing from the swamps, the recesses, pour your chant from the bushes.
Limitless out of the dusk, out of cedars and pines. –Walt Whitman
Looking through a folder of samples saved from creative writing classes over the years, I’m struck again by the narrowness of the range of the student poems, at least at the beginning of the course. And in my experience as a writing teacher, this work indeed seems a microcosm of work by any poetry beginner. Love (usually unrequited), not surprisingly, is the primary concern, followed by simple observations (usually aphoristic) on “Life,” an occasional sketch of a familiar landscape or a dying relative, and not much more. Irony and humor are largely missing, as is anything that might involve taking a political stand. If doggerel or other inept metrics or rhyming seem on the decline, cliché and sentimentality are not. And most beginners still can’t tell the difference between poems and song lyrics. Once, Rod McKuen (sometimes introduced as America’s most understood poet) was an influence to discourage. One small (but typical) example: “Dreams have taught me / to turn my back on nothing
/ that might be something.
/ Something being that other one /one always needs to compliment
/ the given hour.” Alas, today, a multitude have taken his place, still writing largely without imagery, nuance, or surprise, and sometimes without much sense either.
When I started teaching poetry writing, perhaps naively, I began the term by handing out a list of possible sources for poems—for example, family stories, memorable relatives, notable failures, rites of passage, meditations on mortality, reactions to stories in the media, the poem in some “non-poetic form such as the letter or postcard, reactions to art or photos or dreams, and, most important to me, the celebration of the fantastic as it is discovered in the mundane. Not surprisingly in retrospect, those lists were for the most part ignored. What I hadn’t realized was that both the students’ limitations and their timidity came mainly from their lack of reading. Most didn’t actually know what a poem is, at least not the kind being written contemporarily. The models that existed for them tended to range from the English Romantics and Poe on one hand, to a “wasteland” of incomprehensible private symbology on the other—what I’ve come to call the English Major Disease. Some students continued to hold firm beliefs that poems should be written in rhyme and meter about exclusively “lofty” subjects spawned by Wordsworthean “inspiration—generally leading to self-absorbed spontaneity with, of course, no attempts at revision. Perhaps more than any other period in the history of poetry in English, the early 19th century in England has tended to provide the model for young and old alike.
Too often poetry also gets defined by some sense of what is “poetic,” an idea that changes radically from age to age and which, especially in the last hundred years has undergone an ever-increasing expansion. In Alexander Pope’s day, for example, “acceptable” poetry was expected to be written in heroic couplets with a very limited vocabulary. A fish, for example, was a member of the “finny tribe” or “scaly herd.” As a result, writing teachers today find it necessary to concentrate on providing more and more diverse models to study from a writer’s perspective, especially those poems which defeat old stereotypes. If Keats wrote odes on “poetic” subjects such as Grecian urns and Shelly celebrated skylarks, what about Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda’s marvelous 20th century odes to such ordinary things as his socks, salt, dictionaries, and watermelon (“the green whale of summer”).
A more enduring state of affairs is the way some poems never seem to change, no matter what age they come from, especially love poems. If stale, cliché-ridden love poems can easily be found in any supermarket greeting card rack or book display, then what about the truly novel and memorable (and easily found) approaches to the subject, from Shakespeare’s “My Mistress’ Eyes” to John Frederick Nims’ “Love Poem,” which begins, “My clumsiest dear, whose hands shipwreck vases”? Likewise, instead of England’s verdant hills, what about fresher, more familiar landscapes, such as Robert Bly’s or Ted Kooser’s Midwest? Contemporary anthologies are full of such examples, to say nothing of most creative writing texts. And one of the most fruitful areas to explore is indeed the discovery of the astonishing wherever it might be found. Truly, the “poetic” is what poets continually reveal it to be.
The problem, of course, is getting would-be writers interested in reading poems that might—in subject, language, and approach—lead them in new (and eye-opening) directions. Some remain afraid of being “influenced,” some are lazy or self-satisfied, and some are simply products of an increasingly electronic age that seems to militate against such things as poetry, or any discipline that demands careful and extended study. As many have said, poetry depends far more craft than inspiration, and to put the kind of limits on the poem as some have done (in this age or others), serves only to diminish both. For example, Percy Shelly wrote that “Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds,” which must have seemed ridiculously limiting even in his time, though it’s certainly what some writers continue to believe. Compare Shelly’s pronouncement to a much wiser and more enlightening quote from contemporary writer Salman Rushdie: “A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going asleep.”
Poetry has a broad spectrum of styles, tones, and purposes. To deny this is to deny what poetry is and always has been. And what style, tone, and purpose add up to in a poem, along with language itself, is voice—what makes a poem distinct, and distinctly yours. As Joan Whitehead has noted, “We can only talk about ourselves in the language we have available. If that language is rich, it illuminates us. If it is narrow or restricted, it represses and conceals us.” That illumination is what you spend a lifetime of writing developing. It comes largely from reading, from studying good and varied poems with interesting and surprising voices. And that study should include books on craft, magazine articles, interviews, quotations—whatever might help to remind us that poetry has many possible voices and that being a poet means exploring and re-exploring several of them in the long process of finding one’s own.
Mark Vinz, a Lake Region Writers Network Board Member, recently retired after 40 years of teaching at Minnesota State University Moorhead where he also served as first coordinator of the university’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. He is the author of six chapbook collections of poems as well as several full-length collections, most recently, Long Distance. Mark is editor for Dacotah Territory Press, which has published a number of short collections by writers in the region, and the co-editor of several anthologies.