Auld Lang Syne

Friday, July 1, 2011

Leaping and Tweaking

I love to take leaps. If this body were in better shape I might take them physically. OK, so I'm not THAT athletic, never have been. A good reason to be a sports FAN, not a participant. LOL

What I mean by leaps is leaping in poetry. I used to think (high school era) that poems needed wrapping up at the end. They needed to land on their own two feet. I tucked the edges in like hospital corners and felt satisfied. Not so much anymore. I am quite sure I will never end at an end or tuck in the edges again, not on purpose anyway. I enjoy leaving the reader a little mystery, a trail of breadcrumbs to follow off into the forest, a question or head scratch. Why indeed should the reader get left out of the process, the denouement? I recommend a couple books that helped me to stop putting a nail in every poem:  Robert Bly's Leaping Poetry and Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town. Bly's book was out of print for a while and I had to track down a used copy. It is now back and available (with a new cover...I admit that I like the old yellow one better as it is easy to find in my PILE of books, my SHELVES of books). What Bly is saying in his book (briefly) is that we poets take mental leaps all the time and then proceed to tie our poems up with bows as if we were wrapping for Christmas and that this is not really a gift to our readers. He suggests that those head leaps are exactly what make poetry so wonderful, so appealing to the inner reader. I'd have to agree.

It is not that we ought to be vague in our poetry, not at all. That kind of thinking led to a generation of people who avoided poetry as "too hard" to understand. No, we want our readers to "get" our poems, to feel there is a connection between the poems and their lives, a shared human experience. But we do want readers to have some ideas added or enhanced by nuances in our writing. We don't want to deny them the opportunity to grow as readers, to have the "aha moment" we had while writing.

For me, when writing along on a new poem, there comes a moment when I get an idea for a line or a stanza that seems to jet in from some other part of my brain. Maybe it is a word or phrase, or maybe it is something that my brain has dug up from another time or another experience. I am often shocked by this. I wonder "where did THAT come from and what am I to do now that it is here?" Am I being distracted? Should I jot it down to explore later?  I often do that. But as I continue to work on the poem at hand, the idea might keep poking in. It is at this time I must pay attention. I do not believe much in coincidence. So I need to explore and include, to give the intruder its due. What's the worst that could happen? I could end up jettisoning the thing and going back to my original plan for the poem. No harm in checking out the possibilities. So I leap. Mostly I am happier once I have done this. Mostly the poem benefits from my leap. Mostly I sit back at the end and smile a satisfied smile. If I read the thing aloud and get the prickle on the back of my neck, I know the leap might just have worked. If I don't get the prickle, maybe I need to go back and tweak other parts of the poem to make sure the leap was not just a wild move to veer off in another direction. Bad. Whiplash for readers is BAD.  It is a matter of letting go and being free enough to take and make connections. The great thing about writing, unlike doing a watercolor painting (something I used to do) is that there is revision. You can take a leap and connect seemingly disparate elements, and then undo, redo, move, tweak until you get it the way you want it to read. Or the way the poem wants itself to read.

Hugo makes a good point (several) in his book about leaping. He says in essence that the thing you think you're writing may not be the thing you are writing. In other words (my bad analogy here) the poem is the bullet, not the trigger. When I read Hugo's little gem of a book, I felt immediate relief. For a long time, I had the notion that when I was writing "about" something, it was not really "about" that at all, or at least it was obliquely about something deeper, more interesting than the thing that made me want to write. If I was writing about a summer camp haircut, was I REALLY just painting a Rockwell-type scene? Or was there something else lurking below the surface of the images I was using? COULD there be something else. What ripples from the stone thrown into the pond did I want to follow? With leaping or oblique writing, there is no limit to which ripple one might choose to follow.

This reminds me to stop a moment and digress a bit to talk about first stanza boo-boos. I know for a fact that many poets write first stanzas as a way to get INto the poem they really want to write. They may be doing it totally unconsciously. I see these ploddy beginnings all the time in submitted work, in the work of my poet friends, in my own poems. Sometimes one or more of the first stanzas are the poet(s) wandering around inside his/her/their head(s) figuring out what is up with a topic and what there is to think about that. But do we need to haul our readers INSIDE our heads and make them help us figure it out? I don't think so. As a reader, I do NOT want the writer to tell me what to think or consider. I want the writer to put it on the page and let me decide. Call it stubborn independence if you will. I just want to do it myself. LOL

We writers all have to start somewhere and start we do. But I ask: are we married to the first bits or can we see them as the triggers, and go ahead and chop them off or remarkably alter them later when we get to revision? Yes. We can and should look hard at a first stanza (or line) and see if the poem needs that "set-up." Oftentimes, a first stanza presents an opportunity to take a leap, to move rapidly beyond the impetus for the poem to the actual poem itself. One of these first may indeed be the trigger, not the bullet. One way to determine the need for a first stanza or line  is to change it around to end the poem. See something strange happen here. You could suddenly discover the new ending is reductive and lands the poem with a big dull thud. If this is the case, toss it out entirely and see what you have with the next stanza as the first. Hmmmm. Interesting.

I've decided not to quote from Bly or Hugo here (I had planned to, but changed my mind) because I want you to read these wonderfully helpful tiny texts on your own (adverb, two adjectives...yikes!). But I will say that I am not to be without either of them. I need to be reminded to be willing to shake up my writing every day by taking leaps and looking at my triggers. I do NOT want to end up writing the same poem over and over. I want to become a new poet as often as possible. Don't you?


  1. Hi Carol, I've "run into you" over at Dawn Potter's blog -- and wanted to come to yours to say CONGRATULATIONS for being a finalist for a Maine Literary Award (I'm a writer in Maine, too, so I get their mailings)! So....CONGRATULATIONS!! :-) Julia

  2. Thanks for "running into" me and then coming here to say hello. I am happy to be on the list of finalists with Dawn... a great person and poet. Hope you will follow my blog as well as Dawn's.

    What do you write? I'm interested in getting to know other Maine writers more! Please share!!!

  3. Oh I see you ARE now following me, Julia... welcome to my blog!!!

    & >)