Concerning Craft: How is a Poem Born?

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Our latest comes from Mary Makofske, whose poem “Museum of Dusty Metaphors” appeared in LPR’s Summer 2015 issue. More recently she is the recipient of the 2017 Atlanta Review International Poetry Prize and the 2017 New Millennium Poetry Prize. Her poem “Doldrums Near the End of Empire” appears on the New Millennium site. Her latest book is World Enough, and Time (Kelsay, 2017).

Inspiration and perspiration

Inspiration is real—that bolt of lightning out of nowhere, the whole line, or whole stanza, or whole poem which appears like magic. But that gift is, for most of us, rare, and it’s more likely we will receive such gifts when we’ve had years of practice. Jane Hirchfield says of the “gift” poem: “A person cannot speak much of ‘craft’ under those circumstances, except to the degree that craft is pressed into the psyche over a lifetime of reading and writing poems.”

No one who hasn’t studied and practiced for years is going to sit down at a piano and compose a symphony. We can’t expect poets to become expert without experience, either. Yes, there are the rare geniuses, but for most of us, some perspiration is required.

Inspiration for me has come not only from my own experience and observation, but though the poems of writers I admire. My poetry pantheon has challenged me to take on subjects and styles I feared. I read poems in two ways. One is analytical—reading a poem carefully and examining how it works. Is it a formal poem, such as a sonnet or sestina? If it is free verse, how is it structured? How does it use metaphor? Does it contain an “I” speaker? Does it address someone? How does it handle time? Where does the poem go? Where does it begin, how does it progress, how does it end?

But just as important is my gut reaction to a poem. What do I intuit about a poem? How does it make me feel? Does it have a driving rhythm that carries me along? Does it surprise me, make me realize something I didn’t know? Does it have intriguing sounds? I am particularly sensitive to the sound of poems. As Frost said, “Subject matter is important, but sound is the gold in the ore.” As I am writing my own poems, I say the lines aloud, listening for their music.

It has also been useful to read the early drafts of poems by master writers. For example, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” began in rambling prose that has none of the clarity, polish, and compressed emotion (much less the form) of the finished poem. If Bishop needed to pursue that amazing poem through so many pages of trial and error, I can allow myself to bumble around in search of a poem that finally becomes the best I can make it.

As for the work of finishing a piece, it can be tempting to try to “get away with” a poem, relying on its strengths to carry its weaknesses. “Good enough,” my mother used to say about various projects. “It will never be noticed on a galloping horse.” But poems are not galloping past—they invite readers to slow down, savor, read again, and we don’t want readers to stumble over the rough places. Rather than glide over those less than finished sections, we can zero in on them. As James Dickey asked, “Have I done everything the poem requires of me?”

Lest this sound too much like unpleasant work, recall how invigorating it is to substitute a word or line that suddenly clicks into place. By showing we can go further than we thought, revision provides a boost in confidence and creativity. As William Matthews noted, “Revision isn’t just cleaning up after the party—it is the party.”

Courting the poem and the value of prompts

The poem need not be written at the desk or computer. I have a friend who sometimes writes poems on napkins in a diner. Practicing attentiveness anywhere can invite poems. Overheard conversations, lines from advertising, newspapers and magazines, biography and science books, the people and places around us are poems in the making. Billy Collins is famous for finding inspiration by looking out his window.

Some find it helpful to let the genesis of a poem roil around in the mind, and to practice lines aloud before writing them down. Poems may need a long gestation, and trying to form them before they are ready is frustrating and ultimately futile. Once a prospective poem has made its appearance, a slow courtship may be in order. According to Virgil Suarez, “Poems. . .approach slowly from the horizon of the mind. They take their time, but I can always see the headlights of one coming early on.”

I used to consider writing prompts a form of cheating, goosing the imagination to churn out a less than inspired poem, but since I’ve been in several poetry groups that like prompts, I’ve seen how useful they can be. After grousing for a day or two, convinced I had nothing to say on the topic, something would pop into my head, an idea I probably never would have focused on. Exercises for the mind, like exercises for the body, strengthen muscles we do not even know we have.  One of the most successful prompts I gave my students was to write a poem composed only of random words culled from an article about science. The poems that resulted were surprising and delightful, as the students had been jiggled out of their usual habits of expression.

Reading, practicing, keeping our eyes open for poetic opportunities, and pushing ourselves to make the best poems we are able to at the present moment are the only ways I know to improve this craft. A little playfulness doesn’t hurt, either.

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