Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Repairing Poetry

I recently finished reading The Poetry Home Repair Manual, a short little book (paperback, about 160 pages) by Ted Kooser, the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004 through 2006. The book was published in 2005 and the biographical blurb also describes the author as a professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and – reminiscent of Wallace Stevens – a retired insurance executive. The subtitle of the book is Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, and while I don’t consider myself a “beginning poet” exactly, there are certainly things I can do better, and Kooser’s book offers a number of useful suggestions and observations. In fact, the opening sentence of the book is:

“Most of a poet’s education is self-education, and most of what you’ll learn you’ll teach yourself through reading and writing poems,”
but he goes on to note that “the craft of careful writing and meticulous revision can be taught,” and it is his pointers on some of these topics that I find valuable.

The first chapter addresses a few key preliminaries (things like, “You’ll never be able to make a living writing poems,” on page 1, followed by “We teach ourselves to write the kinds of poems we like to read” – italics his – on page 9). These points are perhaps obvious enough on reflection, but they are also both important and all too easy to forget from time to time. More generally, Kooser’s philosophy of poetry is summarized in the following statement from the book’s introduction (on page xi):

“Poetry is communication and every word I’ve written here subscribes to that belief.”

He reinforces this point of view with his second chapter, entitled “Writing for Others,” where his focus is on making poems comprehensible, emphasizing that if readers can’t understand anything in your poems, they are unlikely to read them. In fact, this view is somewhat controversial, and Kooser hints as much, also noting in the book’s introduction that:

“If you’ve gotten the impression from teachers or from reading contemporary poetry that poets don’t need to write with a sense of somebody out there who might read what they’ve written, this book is not for you.”

He expands on this point on page 2, arguing that “some poets go out of their way to make their poems difficult if not downright discouraging.” It is certainly true in many of the creative arts – and perhaps nowhere more so than in some types of modern music – that certain schools of thought place a very high value on abstraction. When I was much younger, I was greatly intrigued by the theory behind Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve tone technique of musical composition, particularly in some of it’s combinations with mathematical notions like group theory. Ultimately, though, however much I wanted to like the results, I never heard a piece of music built on these intellectually exciting ideas that actually sounded good to me. To some extent, this is a matter of taste, but even Schoenberg recognized that the more abstract the work, the more difficult the communication of ideas – in his case, musical ideas, but the same holds true for poetry where the term “communication” can be much more literal. In his book, Style and Idea, Schoenberg expresses the view that “to lay claim to one’s interest, a thing must be worth saying, and it must not yet have been said.” He immediately goes on to say that:

“Here is the greatest difficulty for any listener, even if he is musically educated: the way I construct my melodies, themes, and whole movements offers the present-day perceptive faculty a challenge that cannot yet be met at a first hearing.”

This comment is the first thing Schoenberg says at the beginning of a section headed “Repetition,” where he argues, next, that repetition helps greatly in understanding music, and finally, that he himself went to considerable lengths to avoid ever repeating anything. Analogous observations may be made about poetry: classical, formal poetry (e.g., Shakespeare’s sonnets) exhibited considerable repetition, of various types: end-rhymes (the repetition of final consonants and their preceding vowel sounds at the ends of lines), meter (e.g., iambic pentameter, where each line consists of five repeated iambic feet), and in some cases repeated lines (e.g., in forms like the villanelle or the pantoum). As the practice of poetry has moved away from these forms, some of it has followed Schoenberg’s aesthetic direction, greatly reducing repetition and emphasizing abstraction.

Billy Collins was U.S. Poet Laureate before Ted Kooser, and he edited the anthology Poetry 180 during his tenure.  In the introduction to this book, Collins discusses an article he read in a high school student newspaper where the young editor offered the following assessment of modern poetry:

“Whenever I read a modern poem, it’s like my brother has his foot on the back of my neck in the swimming pool.”

At least partially in response to this critique, Collins assembled an anthology of what he describes as “short, clear, contemporary poems which any listener could basically ‘get’ on first hearing.” The first poem in the collection is his own, entitled “Introduction to Poetry,” and the second is “Selecting a Reader,” a very funny thirteen-line poem by Ted Kooser.

The third chapter of Kooser’s book is “First Impressions,” where he suggests that “the titles and first lines of your poem represent the hand you extend in friendship toward your reader.” Building on this view, he urges particular care in selecting these elements, noting that:

“Opening lines set up expectations and possibilities. For example, if a poem begins with three lines of strict iambic pentameter, a reader will be disconcerted if that forceful rhythm is abandoned in the fourth line. If you rhyme the first stanza of a poem, the reader will wonder why you didn’t rhyme the second and the third.”

Subsequent chapters offer detailed advice on other aspects of writing poems, including examples that illustrate how the placement of accented syllables in a line can influence its pace, practical advice on rhyme, a brief discussion of the key differences between prose poems and more traditional lined verse, and a chapter on the differences in impact of metaphors and similes. Probably my favorite chapters are “Working with Detail” (Chapter 9) and “Controlling Effects through Careful Choices” (Chapter 10). In the chapter on detail, Kooser emphasizes “the value of unexpected, unpredictable detail,” noting that these are the details that lend the greatest realism to a description, precisely because they are unexpected. In Chapter 10, Kooser emphasizes the distinct roles and utilities of different parts of speech, noting for example, that carefully selected, specific and unexpected adjectives can be extremely effective in clarifying and enhancing nouns, while the use of adverbs can usually be avoided through careful verb choices. This chapter also emphasizes the impact of word placement – beginning, middle, or end of the line – repeating several simple examples with different placements of the same words to illustrate the sometimes considerable impact placement can have on tone, pacing, and comprehensibility.

All in all, I liked Ted Kooser’s little book quite a lot, and I plan to re-read it from time to time. That said, his book isn’t for everyone, as Kooser himself notes. His poetry tends to be narrative and concrete, and this style doesn’t appeal to everybody. If your taste runs more to the highly abstract – language poetry, for example – you might find something like the University of California's excellent four-volume series Poems for the Millennium more to your liking. Even so, Kooser’s book contains a number of useful, practical nuggets of advice, suggestions that are particularly valuable for the beginning poet, but also worthy of consideration by “more seasoned” poets encumbered by larger piles of rejection letters.