Wednesday, January 30, 2008


A former student was--and probably still is--an ardent fan of a contemporary poet to the point where he wrote poems infused with the same subject matter and even similar stylistic mannerisms of his role model. At first, the class, including myself, praised him for his desire to learn from a practitioner whose works have a so-called "signature style"; however, instead of searching out other practitioners as additional role models, the student poet was vocal in his decision: "He's the best poet I can find, so I'll stick with him as my main influence." But his peers' praise began to dwindle with each new poem. Most memorable, one of his fellow students said, "You've already written this poem--and so has X (the name of his main influence). Why not try something else? Or, better yet, why not read someone besides X?"

Influences can help and hurt us: They can enrich our poetry when we utilize the best of what they have to offer, but they can hurt us if we only have a few influences.

We all have influences that are both visible and hidden. I can remember the first poets whose works I intentionally imitated, for I yearned for such a connection. Consequently, because I knew little of prosody, I initially devoured poetry by poets known for their use of form and meter: Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Keats, Yeats, Owen, Edward Thomas, Dylan Thomas, and Auden (all English poets--and, yes, I know Yeats was Irish and Dylan Thomas was Welsh--though Auden did become an American citizen) were my guides. But I soon discovered others who added their own examples of "closed" or "received" forms on this side of the Atlantic: Frost, Wilbur, Millay, cummings, Lowell, Berryman, Schwartz, Roethke, and Bishop. But I then got to the point where "free" verse was a mystery to me, and so I sought out poets whose varied lines, turns, and measures were just as fascinating to me as Vaughan's decision to write a poetry that had more variations than his hero's verse, namely George Herbert. Hence, I drenched myself in the works of poets like Whitman (his "open" verse is far more interesting than his "closed" verse), Williams (though much of Williams' verse has formal patterns), Bly, James Wright, Warren, Dickey, Hall, Strand, Hugo, Walcott, and Kinnell (and, as the astute reader knows, most of these poets started out writing "formal" verse before they began writing what could be termed "hybrid" verse). Finally, I became enamored with poets via translations who wrote in languages other than English: Rilke, Paz, Borges, Neruda, Pavese, Lorca, and Transtromer.

But the post-war generation that includes Kumin, Ashbery, and Snyder is probably the most recent generation of poets that I consciously chose to influence my work in terms of craft: They are my diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. As for the poets of the Matthews, Hongo, and Dove generation, I greatly admire and value their works, but they still seem to be finding their way: their generation seems just a bit too close to my generation (I was born at the end of the Baby Boomer years; the Vietnam War was winding down when I became eligible for the draft in 1973 but wasn't inducted into military service). This isn't to say that the poems of the Levis, Komunyakaa, and Rios generation aren't precious gems--they are wonderful gems I treasure. Still, I simply want the various poets from the 17th century to the post-war era to be my main craft influences. (As for subject matter influences, that's entirely another topic.)

Why all of the personal history? I used my own experience in that workshop to illustrate to all of my students the need for numerous influences in young poets' works. As one of my mentors used to say, "Why settle for rhinestones when you can have diamonds, emeralds, and rubies?" Young poets should indeed take advantage of those who have created poems that will live for as long as humans value written and spoken words.

As for the poets in the present, we strive to find our diverse ways with the help of those who went before us and--as Ringo Starr and Joe Cocker once sang--"with a little help from our friends."

Friday, January 11, 2008

Adventures of the Letter "I" (Part II): Revision

Revision, for many poets, especially those just unfurling their wings, often involves editing, not true revision. For art's sake, for eternity's sake, poets at times should seriously consider the first twenty or even fifty drafts of any poem as not acceptable, especially if for them revision comes down to shifting a word or inserting or deleting an adjective.

The term revision literally means to "re-see" something, whether it's a poem, a puzzle, or a mathematical problem. If one investigates the writing habits of some exceptional poets, one will realize that many didn't stop working on their poems prematurely. For example, the late James Dickey noted during the years that produced his wonderful book Buckdancer's Choice that he wrote with the conviction that the first one hundred drafts of any poem wouldn't satisfy him. Sadly, after winning the National Book Award, Dickey floundered, for his poetry seemed to diminish in ambition (an all-too-common result when the spur for fame loses its sharpness). Only late in his life did he seem to regain some of his youthful fire and once more gave us some lovely poems.

But the Ronald McDonald-like belief in numbers alone won't necessarily have memorable results; in fact, a few drastic revisions can be fruitful. For instance, William Butler Yeats often wrote only four to six drafts of his poems, but they were remarkable revisions: Rarely did one draft even remotely resemble the successive drafts, for he wasn't committed to the notion that his initial tropes required survival.

Both Dickey and Yeats understood that, for the imagination to flourish in conjunction with what's called craft, one must put pressure on one's art--on one's self--and re-see where a poem steams at full power and where it merely idles with unlabored puffs.

Of course, young poets sometimes can't recognize such moments, which is where honest criticism from mentors and fellow bards in workshops or Starbucks can lessen such poetic myopia. Not surprisingly, the best reason for anyone to take a creative writing workshop is to expose him- or herself to the heated, at times painful comments offered by mentors and friends (and these should be friends in the truest sense and not enablers: The workshop should never adhere to the Zenith Chamber of Commerce's motto: "Don't knock! Boost!"). And such harsh criticism should always be concerned with what's on the page, not with authors' personalities or the latest "schools of poetry." Therefore, each workshop participant should be free to eavesdrop, a wonderful gift even if the recipient can't initially appreciate it as he or she winces or groans--and resists the urge to defend his or her work. Otherwise, rebuttal might draw those boosters that Sinclair Lewis satirized in Babbitt.

And, dear critic, please remember that merely suggesting that a word should be dropped or a line needs to be repositioned might not be what's needed: Does the poem need editing or revision? Far too often, the latter requires serious consideration.

To withdraw for a moment to the personal, I remember listening to a fairly well-known poet whose work I wasn't familiar with but quickly found to be somewhat disconcerting: His trains of thought in almost every poem he read literally shouted their destinations long before he came to the final, soot-black periods. I turned to my neighbor and quietly remarked, "Why do I get the feeling he doesn't revise his work?"

Afterwards, during the question-and-answer part of the evening, the poet said that he "never revised" his poems: He always went with his first drafts! No wonder I ached to be outside in the November winds; at least the cold air would have made me feel more alive than the expected ruminations that assaulted my eardrums for nearly an hour.

No one likes to be told that his or her poem is a failure. However, analogously, a tennis coach would be far too lenient--and misleading and possibly even harmful--if he or she suggests that a man or woman who just picked up a tennis racket last month--or last year--is ready for Wimbledon.