Friday, December 16, 2011

Seeking Out Poetry

Poetry should be fun!

Poetry is amazing. As kids we love it openly, proven by the fact that many of the poets names we remember are the ones who wrote or are writing children's verse. Lewis Carroll, T.S. Eliot, Dr. Seuss, Jack Prelutsky, Shel Silverstein...  Most of us have even tried writing a little, at least in Junior High or High School. Sadly, as we grow up, many of us stop writing it and stop reading it. We just move on as if from a summer fling. 

But reading and writing poetry shouldn't be just an adolescent phase. We loved poetry as kids because poetry can be really great, playful and fun (Where the Sidewalk Ends) or full of adventure and even gore (The Iliad and the Odyssey). Everyone who loves to read should read poetry, not because it's good for you, but simply because it's enjoyable. Or it should be. 

That's where things get tricky. There's a lot of poetry out there. All the classics are easy to find or access, but what about joining in on the conversation that's happening today? Discovering contemporary poets means actively searching out poems. The good news is that there is a lot being published both in print and on the Internet (both written and performed), the bad news is that there is a lot being published. So, finding good, nurishing poetry means wading through a fair amount of mediocre verse, which raises a sticky little problem that, I think, discourages most people. You have to make an assessment about what you're reading.

Most readers feel pretty comfortable critically assessing a newspaper article, TV show or a novel but too many people have this idea that poems exist in some rarefied atmosphere of mysterious literary achievement. There is a lot you can learn about poetic forms, meter, rhyme and all the rest, but the fact is a poem should touch you emotionally without any advanced training. You don't have to know a thing about imbic pentameter to enjoy a sonnet by Shakespeare. Seek out poems, read them, come back to the ones you like and leave the others behind.

Writers should read poetry for all the reasons stated above and, I submit, we writers should be writing poetry too. Poets strive to express a new and surprising way of looking at things by manipulating language, metaphor and imagery in novel ways to create meaning that is transformative. It's the same thing that a great short story or novel should accomplish: something that is more than the sum of its parts. If a novel is a pint of beer, and a short story a shot of whiskey, then a poem should hit you like a speedball.
"That is what poetry really is. It is the height and quintessence of emotion, of every sort of emotion. But it is always somebody feeling something at white heat, and it is as vital as the description of a battle would be, told by a soldier who had been in it."
~Amy Lowell
If you're a writer, I challenge you to make a special effort to connect with poetry both by reading it and by writing it again. We are hesitant to return to writing poetry - maybe because many of us wrote some perfectly gawdawful stuff back in the day. Because poetry deals in deeply felt emotions and because as teenagers we are grappling with so many new, intense emotions that looking back can be a little harrowing. Consider it an exercise in love and acceptance. If you look back, love your 13-year-old self.

In the spirit of early New Year's resolutions I will be writing one poem a week next year. This is what I think I can manage while keeping up my short story goals (more on that in a later post). Join me wont you? Write a poem or two this year, you don't have to show it to a soul.

To get started check out The Poetry Foundation's excellent site. They also have a great app.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Uses of Failure

I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work. 
-Thomas Edison
We've all heard it before: failure is the path to success! Or something like it, and it's supposed to make you feel, what? Better? Does it? And what does that really mean?

Part of the problem is that the word failure covers a lot of ground. Today, it even passes for entertainment. Laugh at people's failures, post them on your Facebook page, share them with your friends... One thing the Fail Blog makes clear is that there are a million ways to fail,
and a myriad of ways to succeed.

To put it in the language of art, you fail in pursuit of a perfection that you will never attain. Oh noble failure. Honestly, this does not do it for me as a writer.

I think it's better to use failure the way an inventor or a scientist does. When an experiment fails you examine your results and adjust your methods and run it again. Keep what works and throw out what doesn't. Learn, grow, innovate, refine. Rinse & repeat.

The arrows on these signs should be pointing in the SAME direction.
Part of what inspired this post is Neal Stephenson's excellent essay Innovation Starvation, which is a big picture look at what I would call a collective failure of nerve. 
Innovation can’t happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable. Possible outcomes that the modern mind identifies as serious risks might not have been taken seriously—supposing they were noticed at all—by people habituated to the Depression, the World Wars, and the Cold War, in times when seat belts, antibiotics, and many vaccines did not exist.
Creating, honestly creating, involves both mastering craft and breaking new ground. The world you inhabit while you are creating should feel just as dangerous and unstable as the world that gave birth to the space race and all the fabulous innovation that it brought to our world. You just have to keep trying, failing, trying to get better, to keep putting yourself out there. In the words of Samuel Beckett -
"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."