Reading About Writing Poetry

Does one need to be an architect to enjoy the Sydney Opera House?  No, but if you want to be the designer of a building of the significance of the Opera House, you’d better understand how one should be built, even if it is just to be familiar with the terms like “structural steel,” or “angles,” or “suspension,” “right angle,” and various stress calculations. 

Does every person writing poetry need to understand what has been called “The Rules For the Dance“?  No, but there is much to understand about the “Why” and “Wherefore” to help a writer clearly communicate why something might or might not work other than “It flows good.”  I look at this knowledge as something which can be shared with others as why a line “clunks” as much as to how it will inform my own work.

I never hear musicians criticize each other for knowing how to notate music, or for practicing, or if they even just know how to play the damned instrument.  Why is it that if one writes about poetics, or scansion, or how sonic qualities are created, then the academic stance is criticized as irrelevant? For goodness sakes.  Poetry is a craft like any other craft.  What might initially be an unconscious act can be enhanced, sublimated even, through the conscious act of working through the craft. 
Lighten up, folks.  Ignorance is ignorance and it is not helping you improve your work.  I cannot agree that the study of the craft of poetry itself is irrelevant.  Do I believe that to write poetry well you have to attend an MFA program, or “study under” a specific school of thought?  No.  But to at least read others work and think about it, be curious as to why something works or doesn’t work enough for you; to deconstruct the work piece by piece, examine the pieces, and try to coherently express your thoughts about what would make the work stronger — that is one of the best ways to learn.  But to “coherently express,” one must have language and this language must be acquired because it is certainly not part of the common vernacular.  But really, if you’re not curious enough to read a lot of poetry – works other than your own – and read the works critically, can you say you really love poetry, or is it more you just love the sound of your own voice?
So what does it mean to read a work, “critically“? to engage in critical thinking?  Let’s start with some basic definitions of even just the word “critical.”
From  critical

characterized by or involving careful and exact analysis and evaluation.

 Scientific research requires critical thinking.
analytic, discriminating, evaluative, investigative
similar words:
discerning, exact, meticulous, painstaking, scrupulous, serious, systematic
To be able to express “exact analysis” or “evaluation,” you need the language as the first step.  One example of sloppy phrasing, and inexact verbiage is the common phrase, “good flow.”  Now can you give a specific, concrete definition of “good flow”?  I know I certainly can’t.  What does “Good flow” really tell a writer?  1)  that their rhythm is even?  2)  that the internal logic of the work proceeds as expected?  3)  that the sonic values are all soft, susurrating, sounds?  All of the above?  None of the above?  Same with the commentary “I like it.”  Why?  What part?  Was there anything in particular?
Reading about writing poetry gives you the language to be able to systematically deconstruct a work, so you can investigate the components of a poem and meticulously express what you find works, or doesn’t.  Learning about the construct of poetics is an analytical process.  There are skills to be acquired.  Some of the procedures to follow in critical thinking are to:
  • Recognize problems, to find workable means for meeting those problems
  • Understand the importance of prioritization and order of precedence in problem solving
  • Gather and marshal pertinent (relevant) information
  • Recognize unstated assumptions and values
  • Comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity, and discernment
  • Interpret data, to appraise evidence and evaluate arguments
  • Recognize the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions
To be accused of “being critical” should be a compliment, just as being a “card-carrying liberal” is a compliment.  Sloppy work is not inherently beautiful.  It actually shows a lack of love, respect, and attention to the work itself.  The writer, the writer’s feelings, are not even secondary to the work.  Feelings should be somewhere around fifth or sixth place.  It is the work which is important and for the work to become what it is meant to be means that it is the writer’s responsibility to bring as many tools to bear to carve the work from the flesh of the air.
Now I have to go update some hyperlinks to books about writing poetry, maybe I’ll add reviews in future blogs entries.