The next essay in the stack is actually the introduction of the book Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell. I remember we were assigned this book in a high-school poetry class and the teacher went off on a weird tangent about writing detective screenplays (I think she was having a breakdown) and we never ended up reading it. Then the book was again assigned in a poetry class I took in college and we never read it then either. So I've had this book twice and never read even so much as the introduction of it. And every time I read the title I want to start singing "No Night So Long" with Dionne Warwick, although the lyric is "living on the wind" not "sleeping on the wing." That doesn't seem to matter in the situation.
The material in the intro is pretty basic for advanced poets, but it's probably useful for teachers running poetry intro classes. And then again, sometimes coming back to basic is a good opportunity for a beginner’s mind reset.
And oddly these precepts kind of track to life in general, too. The intro is divided into three sections as follows. My peanut-gallery comments in parenthesis.
- Don’t read poems like a newspaper article but like listening to a friend telling you a story, like the way you overhear a conversation among strangers, or like the way you listen to music, “that part of your intelligence that includes your feelings, imagination and experience."
- Think about what words excite you?
- Don’t get freaked out by:
- a word or words you don’t know,
- a person or place you are not familiar with,
- a sentence that is long and hard to follow,
- a sentence that is incomplete,
- words ordered in an unusual way.
- Read the poem slowly (I actually read a poem first fast and then slow the subsequent times).
- Use what you do understand to help you with what you don’t understand (This is also helpful when reading stupidly-academic essays).
- A poem may not have “a point” in a conventional sense. (Or, I would add, that point might seem smaller than you think is worthy of a poem).
- Not all meanings are hidden. (Some are though.) You might be disappointed trying to find the “deep meaning” when one isn’t really there.
- Keep focusing on how a poem is affecting you. (In this case it really might help to "make it all about you.")
- Don’t worry about technique at first (unless that comes naturally to you). Sometimes the form and style can be distracting on the first read.
- Read a few poems by the same poet to get a sense of their style and voice.
- How to frame the adventure: “Think of the rather pleasant process of figuring out a part of town you’ve never been in or an interesting person you’ve just met.” Reading poetry is “something like traveling—seeing new places, hearing things talked about in new ways, getting ideas of other possibilities.”
I thought this was good, too: “Poets are not big, dark, heavy personages dwelling in clouds of mystery, but people like yourself who are doing what they like to do and do well. Writing poetry isn’t any more mysterious than what a dancer or a singer or a painter does.”
- It’s like talking about sports in that “you admire different qualities, you watch for and are excited about different things, you even use different terms when you look at soccer and when you look at baseball. And, of course, you only find out how to talk about all that by watching the games.”
(This reminds me of learning to watch NFL football and how my comments have changed over the years from confused questioning and mocking of the gravitas of the TV announcers to actually seeing the plays as they happen and being able to express admiration for some feat of skill. You don’t have to be an expert in a week or a month. In fact, the malfeasance of innocence and ignorance isn’t such a bad thing at first. It can help you see outside the matrix and often advanced users cannot do this.)
- You can express your own sense of things….your way of seeing or your own particular experience.
- Concentrate on the poem (and what it might be trying to do not what you think it should do).
- You may need to pay less attention to detail in a long rambling poem than is required for a 13-line poem.
- Don’t worry about finding the one true thing of a poem. A poem could have many complimentary or competing truths. (In fact, a lot of poems can be reduced to “it’s complicated.”)
- This is a good reading tip too: notice how you are feeling when reading a poem. Sometimes other life events can influence your interpretations. Were you preoccupied with some other thoughts?
- Preface comments with “I think” and “It seems to me” (although that should go without saying, it bears repeating when debates start up).
- Don’t try to say everything at one go. Sprinkle thoughts throughout the conversation, (which is what a workshop poetry discussion is, a casual conversation not a presentation of genius in front of a thesis board).
- Don’t be afraid to be critical, “there’s nothing sacred about it.” (This is debatable. Some people take this shit very seriously).
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions instead of asserting answers all the time.
- If you do assert a theory however, “to be convincing, you need to refer to a particular part of the poem—to words and lines.”
- If you're not sure what to say, talk about the kids of words in the poem, the title, the beginning and ending.
- See every conversation as practice.
This was good too: “Sometimes because they find poetry difficult and complicated, people make the mistake of talking or writing about it in an abstract, general, overcomplicated way. They think that being abstract and general is more serious and is the way to talk about difficult and important things—that being simple means you’re 'shallow' or uncomplicated or unintelligent. In fact, abstraction is often a way of being evasive…”
Writing Your Own Poems
- Don’t write about “things you think you ought to care about.” (Write about what you do care about.)
- Don’t worry about trying to “transform” what you care about into something abstractly meaningful, (or Poetic with a capital P as Tom Lux used to say, which is another way of saying, write small).
- Plan it all out in advance or don’t, let the poem take you somewhere it wants to go. Sometimes beautiful accidents happen this way and you are taken to a much more meaningful place, along with your reader. (Another way is to plan and then be willing to abandon the plan if some other magic starts to happen.)
- Remember that nothing is set in stone. (You have the rest of your life to change and revise it all.)
- Put the poem down for a few weeks after finishing it, even months and then look at it again with a fresh head.
- Read a lot of poetry. (Like Billy Collins says in his delightful Masterclass, this is the only way to find your unique voice….by encountering other unique voices over and over again.)
- Try stream of consciousness writing. Let go of sense. (But then shape the result into some sense; the world is packed-full with nonsense poems so push farther. Make the poem sweat a little.)
- Try rule-based and formal projects. Try your hand at translations.
- Find friends who you can share poems you write with. Give each other encouragement and feedback.