Some Thoughts on Writing Poetry

Photo of Northern Michigan Woods in springtime, taken by
Dan Shumway

As I wrote in my last blog, during most of the month of April (National Poetry Month, as declared by the Academy of American Poets in 1996) I took part in a local poetry workshop. Somewhat dubious as to the outcome of my immersion in the discipline after a twenty-some year sabbatical, I had hoped only for a kind of jumpstart to my creativity, a willingness to engage in writing in a purely creative mode after many years of prosaic endeavors–by which I mean writing in prose. My writing in this blog is largely critical, relying on some degree of brain power to make connections and arguments; to a certain degree, this is the kind of writing I feel most comfortable engaging in, which is, I suppose, why I keep doing it.

But lately I’ve felt the call to be more expressive, more creative in my writing. And I suppose I should admit that that call also beckons me to be more personal as well. Yet I was stymied. After a score of years in which I wrote largely essays (of the critical or academic flavor) or comments on student papers, or–when I felt daring–novels, I found that I was very much out of practice at the task of writing poems.

Because, whatever else people say about poetry, writing it is a task. It takes some discipline as well as creativity. We can’t all be John Milton, who said that the lines of Paradise Lost came to him in the night during his dreams, fully formed and ready to be set down. I have always understood and accepted the discipline of poetry–that part of the craft made sense to me. But over the past few years, the inspiration for poetry seems to have fled from me.

And yet that’s not quite true, either. I realize now that the inspiration was there all the time. Yet I set these poetic ideas aside in order to concentrate on the prose. The reason, I told myself, went something like this: I don’t fully understand what makes a poem work, so I’d better not delve into the art until I had a better grasp of how it works. And once I began to think that way, it wasn’t long before I lost every bit of confidence I ever had in my ability to write a poem.

But I’ve had a change of heart and a change of perspective.

Something drove me to sign up for that course, and once in it, I became the pesky student who asked too many questions. But my fellow students didn’t seem to mind; in fact, they welcomed my sometimes obnoxious comments. More than that, they showed me that that virtually no one really knows what makes a good poem work. So there went one problem out the window–I was down one excuse for not writing the poems that I felt strangely called upon to write.

This morning, five days after the workshop has ended, I realized that there was always another reason I had felt incapable of writing poetry again. It’s a little complicated, and somewhat personal, so I hope the few readers I have will allow this indulgence; I think it’s important to articulate my thought process so I’ll remember it in the future, and this blog is as good a place as any to set down my analysis.

When one retires and looks back on one’s work, it’s easy to see it for what it is: pretty much unremarkable. The few things I’ve written that have been published are largely forgotten (probably deservedly so); those that are unpublished are floating around somewhere, unloved and unread. That seemed to me to be a kind of cosmic rejection of my literary endeavors, and consequently I felt I didn’t have any right to try my hand at poetry again, since it would be a waste of time.

Now, to be fair and honest, I’ve not really tried all that hard to get published. In these pages, you’ll find several posts in which I declaim that publishing is possibly the enemy of a writer. (I still believe that can be the case.) Yet while saying that publication should not be the goal of a writer, I think a part of me still believed it should be, and that the test of a decent writer was whether or not she’d been published.

I know I will be wrestling with this question for the foreseeable future, but that’s not the point here. This silly argument had the effect of feeling that I somehow didn’t have the right to write poetry, since I didn’t intend to work to get it published. It’s a ridiculous argument, made more so by the fact that my life as a professor was spent convincing people that they had both the right and the duty to raise their voices, whether as public speakers or writers. In my dissertation, which was on the representation of female insanity in Victorian novels, I argued that insane women (in life and in art) were all too often shut away and shut up because what they said was too uncomfortable to hear.

The irony is glaring. Silly me: I had become my own warden, censor, caretaker–whatever you want to call it. I shut myself up here on my farm and declined to raise my voice. Rather than Bertha Mason Rochester, whose words were incoherent to Jane Eyre but nonetheless shouted aloud, I became Bartleby the Scrivener, Melville’s antihero who responded to all prompts by saying, “I would prefer not to.” I refused to allow myself the pleasure of wrestling with words purely because I was worried about them not being accepted or understood, despite the fact that I knew–or should have known–better.

This is a powerful realization. And I owe it to the people in my workshop, who as I said above, put up with my questions, my doubts, my outbursts, and, more than that, who encouraged me to find my voice again. I am incredibly grateful to them for their help and their support. (I also had a good friend who did me the favor of reading long emails filled with endless questions and doubts and who was also incredibly helpful and supportive. Thank you, John.)

I’m not sure how many more poems I’ll be able to write. But I have a list of poetic subjects to contemplate, and the most important thing is that I’ve given myself the freedom to write about them. Perhaps “freedom” is the wrong word to use in this case; I like to think that I have the responsibility to write these poems, if I choose to accept that responsibility.

And on this sunny morning in May, I really think I will.

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s