I started out as a fiction writer – I liked a good story, loved to read, wanted to convey a human condition. Then, I took one great poetry class and quickly realized my future lay in the lyrical, eruptive, concise and compact world of poetics.
The poet Lorine Niedecker called her tiny log cabin on Blackhawk Island, Wisconsin her ‘condensery’: there she wrote small, condensed poems that captured images, sounds, small moments of thought in a way that thrilled me and my love of the moment, the segment, the small but powerful space.
A good introductory poetry course will show you a few important things about writing poetry: it should show you that memory, image, conversation and nature (among many other things) are your tools, that the briefest encounter, the most intimate words of a mother, lover, friend, can be a poem. It can also show you how, taken out of the physical conformity of the long, left margin-ruled paragraph structure, words can find a new power- the power of space, rhythm and music.
Jorie Graham once said (paraphrasing here) that the white space around a poem is not paper, but silence. This is one of the most electrifying things I learned as a developing poet. The space that we leave after a word can create a lift, a lead weight, a soft whisper. Silence says so much and space in a poem can speak volumes.
Beginning to write poetry is about beginning to think about moments, stories, memories as their complete selves and then finding the right way to make those things lean, to amp up the right words to convey the tension, ambiguity and softness. It’s a task a bit like painting a horse on a grain of rice….all the right things in the right place but the space is smaller and so the subject, all the more significant in its purest form, becomes the whole thing, the little nugget of art- the whole picture.
If you’re interested in writing poetry a place to start is finding the poems you love, or finding new poems that speak to you (make your choices contemporary- what’s happening in poetry now is most crucial) and dig in. Think about what the poet is saying and how they say it: what is the story, who is the speaker, is the movement in the poem linear or non-linear. Then, look at the lines: how do they begin and end?
Read the poem aloud and ask yourself what sounds repeat? What happens when you read: do you speed up or slow down?- it’s the line that is doing this. Everything in that poem is a choice made by the poet- ask yourself why they made those choices.
I read a lot of poetry and I write it. As all writers do, I try to find time to write around a busy life to get my thoughts on paper, then work on the craft of writing to make my writing poetry. I submit my poems to good literary magazines and hope that I can share my work with others (I most recently published poems in Iota magazine).
Want to start writing poetry? Carry a pen and paper with you wherever you go and jot down what you see, hear and feel. Write first- just GO, then, after you’ve written, go back and start the work: type out what you wrote and print it out. Read it and revise with choice in mind; make choices that do the most for the words you’ve already written and don’t be afraid to change those words for the sake of the poem.
Finding a way to express yourself is fulfilling; crafting your expression into art that could, hopefully, move and inspire another person is a delight possibly beyond words.
(c) Maggie Smith Hurt