A poem is a body of words, not a body of thoughts and feelings.
Before you keep reading, check in with your own perspective: Agree? Disagree? A useless distinction? A valuable aha? “Both,” you think? After all, who among us hasn’t had poetic language spill from our heart, impassioned by love or broken by loss; from our mind, enraged by injustice and atrocity?
Once that high-voltage utterance is on the page, packaged in our best words, faithful to what we wanted to say, is the poem done? Yikes, is it even a poem?
What we probably mean by “done” is, Is it good enough for public consumption, for publication? What we probably mean by “poem” is a body of words (yes!) distinct from a journal entry, distinct from poetic prose or prose with line breaks.
If we poets want to put the art in literary art, perhaps we can take our cues from the artists who otherwise don’t need a qualifier: visual artists, namely painters. Comparing poem-writing with painting illuminates the art and craft of poetry faster and clearer (for me) than any teacher or manual does.
Consider Pablo Picasso’s argument for not titling paintings: “As far as I am concerned, a painting speaks for itself. What is the use of giving explanations, when all is said and done? A painter has only one language.”
We easily agree with Picasso that a painting speaks for itself when its subject matter is realistic, recognizable, evoking a narrative via one framed scene; a character, via portrait; mood, via setting; beauty and being-ness, via still life. But what does a painting speak, what does it mean, when it is abstract, with no title to demystify it?
To understand what a painting speaks, we have to look: outside ourselves, at the painting’s form, and inside, at our body’s response to visual language—language that bypasses the brain, our trusty meaning-making machine. What a painting means, then, is how we sense, feel, experience its formal qualities—line, color, and composition (to simplify, but there’s also shape, light, contrast, texture, …).
Now consider this: “A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.” We easily agree with Mark Rothko when a painting is a color field, but how may we experience—through our sensing-feeling body and not our intellectualizing brain—a realist painting?
The same way: through form, before subject matter. Which requires that we look at every painting as paint—as a medium applied by the artist to choregraph form—line, color, composition—to achieve a desired effect.
Recall your own museum visits: Do you ultimately care more about a painting’s what—”Look, cakes!”—or its how? “Wow, look at the thick swirls of paint like icing, the pinks and yellows popping out from the browns, the repetition of round.” Do you savor—in your body, in your being—a painting’s subject matter or its form?
You may insist you’re savoring the subject matter—it’s cakes, after all!—but what makes you step right up to the horizontal strip of floor tape a foot from the painting and lean in, risking a public scolding from the security guard? Probably the paint on the canvas. Brushstroke by brushstroke.
Let’s make the analogy to poetry:
- A poem is not about an experience but is an experience.
- The reader senses, feels, experiences the poem as form first, before subject matter.
- The poet applies her medium, words, to choreograph form—line, composition, and color’s equivalent, sound—to achieve a desired effect.
- To understand what a poem says (means), the reader has to listen—outside himself, to the poem’s form, and inside, to his body’s response to sonic language—language that bypasses the brain, his trusty meaning-making machine.
If we do our poet job right, the reader will appreciate the poem’s what—“I totally identify with the speaker’s experience!” But does subject matter alone compel him to read the poem again and again?
Recall the poems you never tire of reading. How do they provide a pleasure different from that of straight prose? And is that pleasure intellectual or feeling-sensing? Is it the speaker’s story and revelation (the what) that gets in and below your skin, or is it the music (the how)—generated by the repetition of words, phrases, vowels, consonants, by syllable counts and stresses, by the brief silences between lines and stanzas?
The reader may not know that the poem’s form is what’s enacting, in his whole body, the subject matter (literal) and the content (connotative, symbolic, suggestive). But the poet must know that her deliberate, precise gestures create those effects—word by word, sound by sound, comma by comma, line-break by line-break. Not thought by thought. Not feeling by feeling.
Don’t get me wrong: Writing to creatively express, understand, heal, and transform ourselves is worthwhile, necessary. We write what we must write, however we write it.
But if want to move a reader, inspire a reader’s thoughts and feelings (and even actions), if we want to make our poems available for public consumption and savoring, we must be less allegiant to what we want to say and more committed to how we say.
That means working just like a visual artist does—learning about our medium (grammar, mechanics, usage, argh), experimenting with our medium, and studying our medium and artform by reading lots and lots of poems, not as a reader, a passive receiver of subject matter, but as a writer, a literary artist, word by word by word.
Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, by Roy Peter Clark
Synonym Finder, by J.I. Rodale
Chicago Manual of Style: 17th edition (2017)
Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Marj Hahne is a freelance editor and writing teacher, and a 2015 MFA graduate from the Rainier Writing Workshop, with a concentration in poetry. She has performed and taught at over 100 venues around the country, as well as been featured on public radio and television programs. Her poems have appeared in literary journals, anthologies, art exhibits, and dance performances.
YouTube channel: https://bit.ly/2LxHUG2