Courting The Genie

Are you confused about something you have written? Don't know what to call it? Do this: Label it at poem, then read it in public three times. That makes it a poem. Let no one tell you otherwise!

Don't worry that it is short on meaning, lacks syntax, seems like utter nonsense; that it contains nothing resembling rhyme, alliteration, or assonance; that it is a symbol for death and a methaphor for sterility; that it is as unmetrical as falling down a flight of stairs or getting trapped in a freight elevator. It doesn't matter, because it is no worse than any other poem written today. If it expresses your outrage over, well, anything; your political opinion over, well, something; or your state of mind, no matter how imbalanced, it does not matter. It is a poem and no one can say otherwise. It is "protected speech" as defined by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and you have the right to call it whatever you want.

Moreover, "Everyone is a poet," as some cash-strapped, poetry-workshop leaders have asserted in recent times, and their "everyone" includes you and your cash.

But how, you might ask, did it get so easy to be a poet? Did the word "poet" once mean something?

First, you might note, there is almost no money involved in poetry. Unlike doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, programmers, morticians and other professionals, poets are almost never paid; or if they are, they are paid too little to support a drug habit or alcohol addiction, which is possibly a good thing, as so many "poets" are inclined in those directions.

But the bad thing is perhaps this: There are no standards whatsoever in the "practice" of poetry. No one can fire you, no one can put you on notice, no one can exert the least effect upon you for writing a truly terrible poem. Of course no one has to listen to it either. If taking a walk or going to the toilet is more entertaining, that is what listeners will do.

But let us hold it right here. Does the above description seem like a satisfactory state of affairs? Should not the state of the arts regarding poetry be cause for alarm? Should not poets be ashamed? What happened to raising the "red flag" when something was amiss?

Aside from the lack of economic motivation; the lack of competition, other than in the howling of outrage or the expression of political discontent; and the lack of known or enforceable standards—all of which may be a good thing—let's examine the root causes of this malady.

Musicians And Other Artists

Musicians and other artists, such as visual ones, almost always receive or acquire training before beginning to practice their art in a serious manner. Consider the greatest musicians: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven had extensive training. All grew up in musical families; Bach's musical family was extensive, with his father and all of his uncles being professional musicians. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven knew harmony, melodic construction, notation, and instrumentation before taking up the practice of composition. Ditto Picasso, Renoir, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Van Gogh ... None was without apprenticeship or training.

Contrast this to the background of many "poets" who take up poetry only after a mental breakdown or failure at everything else in their lives.

While poetry often does involve mental collapse and failure as a starting point, the best poetry moves beyond this. The best in fact is the ultimate art form, the highest form of human expression; yet poetry is frequently misused as therapy or personal expression in the form of diary writing. This is fine if the writer does not suddenly decide that he or she is a poet. As therapy or personal expression, poetry bears little resemblance to the great poetry of the past that elevates personal expression to something universal. It is not just about "me"; it is about all of us. And it does not ignore form as though it is something inconsequential in a society of casual actors for whom significance is a non-value. It is not jazz one day, hip-hop the next, a week later rap, then pop-something the following month, the driving force being immature youth desperately seeking attention.

It does not drop all structural elements of the past without attempting a meaningful or useful replacement. It does not reduce poetry to street or shop talk and leave it stranded there mumbling nonsense. It respects the inner meaning of the line and traces it in the veins leading to the heart and brain. And it does not regard free verse with an occasional rhyme or catchy refrain as poetry. It demands more in the creation of the meaning and sound of the line, not less. And it is not running for political office.

But the question arises: What elevates the words of a poem to another level of meaning, associated word-sounds, and structure that makes it worth, first, reading, then, rereading, as the best poems are? Or is "Autumn Leaves" just as great a lyrical poem as "Ode to the West Wind"?

No one thing, obviously. Poetry is more complicated than that. Poetry is like life itself; like love, hate, like, dislike, coming of age, cultivation of wisdom, sensitivity, growing old, dying ... It is not something of fixed boundaries that can be stated with exactness. Poetry has no formula. It is a marriage of words to other words that must have give and take. And a good poem has offspring; it leads to other poems. Poetry is a complex interaction of words involving mood, meaning, sound, and resonance wrapped in a mysterious other ingredient called inspiration.

Having said that mouthful, it is natural to wonder what facilitates poetic creativity. Are there tricks to finding words and their relationships that can help in the creation of a poem? Does poetry need a marriage counselor, a mediator? And what about raw inspiration, without which a poems is nothing? How does one work with precision and still be surprised by the unexpected, the inspiration, the little blue flame that appears out of nowhere? And when it does appear, how does one stay out of its way? Is there a gracious way to invite inspiration to the festival of words?

One can only make suggestions when it comes to craft and inspiration, and if one had to pick between the two, inspiration would always be the best choice. Craft can only serve the latter. But there doesn't have to be a battle between the two. Craft can serve creativity and inspiration. Call it "Courting The Genie," the title of this essay, or "Encouraging Creativity," as it is called below.

Encouraging Creativity

If one doesn't want to count the number of strong beats in a line, as one commonly does in an English sonnet, or count the number of syllables in a line, as one commonly does in the French Alexandrian line, and one doesn't want to set up a rhyme scheme and a formal pattern—and why should one, as it has been done so many times before?—one could encourage creativity and inspiration in new ways that have not been tried before and that stand at least a chance of bearing new fruit. And if one wants to reintroduce music and resonance into a poem, but with fresh, new sounds, one could try some of the techniques used by composers in the 20th and 21st centuries, keeping in mind that musical techniques are far more advanced than those used in poetry. (Caveat of caveats: Avoid the mechanical and repetive techniques of minimalism, which are antithetical to creativity and will chase inspiration right out the door.) And before writing a poem, one might even ask oneself some basic questions: What is this poem about? What inspires it? Clarity of purpose never harmed a work of art; moreover, one can deviate from preconceived patterns or structures the moment inspiration sweeps the poet off his or her feet.

One could even be so methodical, without being a dullard, as to ask: How do I want this poem to sound? What words or types of words do I want to hear? Are there keywords or ideas that spring to mind? And if they do, why not jot them down in advance and see what associated ideas or sounds come to mind? What do these ideas and sounds inspire? And what about moods, feelings, emotions? Where does the poem reside in the heart? Does it reside in the heart? Or is it a brain piece? If it is just a brain piece, perhaps you had better reconsider it. What is the tempo? Long lines or short ones? The poet-creator could jot this down in the form of a matrix on a blank page before writing a single line of the actual poem. He or she could even formalize the matrix, if it seemed of use, in a matrix structure of sounds and meanings. Then, if other ideas or sounds suggested themselves in the actual writing, he or she could abandon the matrix temporarily—the "structure," that is—or come back to it when inspiration waned. No reason to be a slave to structure when it bears no fruit. In the world of music, the late composer Pierre Boulez stated that he did the same with preconceived musical structures. The nice thing about structure is this, however: A structure may actually inspire something that inspiration alone might not! Structure, like the structure of the universe, can be a valuable friend at times, preventing a creative collapse that might occur in a vacuum. Keeping channels open, one could operate in a structured space until that space bore no fruit and, seemingly out of nowhere, other ideas and new word-sounds suggest a better way, a new romance of words.

See Dumb Days and Resonance Resonating for two poems developed using matrices of keywords. Note that the keywords are in bold face.

Read It Out Loud

Suppose you have followed at least some of these suggestions and you think your poem has something to say and its words sing or at least hum; that is, it is impactful not just as a statement of an idea but as an important message with words whose sounds support it like an orchestra supports a singer on a stage. Then treat it like a newly designed space craft; take it out and test fly it. But not yet in public. Go to the park and recite it to a tree, or go into your bedroom with your dog and recite it to him or her. Be like an actor making a case for the role you are playing. And if you don't like the sound of your own voice, find a voice teacher. Hear how it sounds or doesn't sound. Feel its meaning, hear its message, or make changes if it doesn't come across the way you intended it. How high is it flying, or is it "accessible" to the audience you care about? Ask yourself: What would Shakespeare think of your words? What would Mozart think of their sound? If you see one or both frowning, edit your poem till the frown changes to a pleasing smile. When you are breathing the air of a new planet, then read it in public. You have just written a poem.

See Poetic Canons by Louis Martin
By Louis Martin