Ezra Pound had some interesting things to say about poetry. One I’d like to direct to everyone who writes it and to people who are mystified by it as well. He said, “Poetry should at least be as good as prose.” If it doesn’t make sense, who cares how artistic it is? This statement takes poetry, which is often pretentious or too precious, off of its pedestal, and down to the level of real people who have a real need of it in their lives, a need mistakenly filled by advertising.
In a long essay on politics Robert Frost said, “It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life–not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion. It has denouement. It has an outcome that though unforseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood–and indeed from the very mood. It is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last. It finds its own name as it goes and discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase at once wise and sad–the happy-sad blend of the drinking song. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.”
Frost goes on to describe taking things out of their original context and placing them in a new order with not even a ligature clinging to it of the old place where it originated. Then listen to what he says. “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.”
Often I’ll skim articles in writer’s magazines with formulas for first sentences. I think we have to assume your readers are more intelligent than that. Whenever I read a vital piece of writing, I feel the truth of what Frost said, that the outcome though unforseen is intrinsic in the first image of the original mood. I’m also reminded of an observation by Rod Jellema, a friend of mine who was the head of the Creative Writing Department at the University of Maryland. He said you can take the first draft of any poem and improve it 80% by lopping off the first and last stanzas. His reasoning was that with the first stanza we are struggling to get the creative juices flowing; by the end of the poem we are so enamored with what we are doing that we don’t want to stop–and we don’t. We hit the reader over the head with the point we have already satisfactorily made. Of course, in the case of this poem by William Stafford, if he took away the first and last stanzas he wouldn’t have been left with much. But, what do we agonize over most when writing a piece? The first sentence, the first paragraph, the first scene. Jump in, don’t worry about it; assume you’ll throw this part out when you revise, anyway.
Just as prose uses sequences of scenes, so modern poetry employs sequences of images–often with extreme alterations of perspective, time, and sequence. Here’s a little exercise you can do with a group friends or with your children. It’s called a foldover poem. One person writes an image on a piece of paper in two lines then folds the paper back so the next person can only read the last line. That suggests an image which the second person writes, in two lines below the ones he or she was given. The second person now folds the paper so only the last line is shown and passes it to a third party or back to the originator to continue on. At the end of the page, read it aloud. Then let each use some or all of the images for a second rewrite. It’s a great exercise because it follows the creative process. Here’s an example. The first person wrote:
She runs through the marble lobby
to grasp her mother’s arm
The paper was then folded so only the “to grasp her mother’s arm” part showed. The next person added this couplet:
The older woman holds her shoulders back
and keeps moving, head held high
A third, with a inclination to rhyme, adds:
No one likes a loser, she sighs
Why am I here, where can I hide?
She looks at a clock on the hotel wall
in shadows, cast by the last light of day
And so on. Not poetry perhaps but fun to do in a car on a trip. As is storyboarding with your children when they come up with their own ideas. And these games reinforce natural abilities we all have, but are in danger of losing if we don’t use them.
Images are pictures we experience through our senses, not intellectual labels or concepts. Here’s a tip to make visuals memorable based on the results of an experiment. Person A seated in a room is asked to glance around and then, without taking his eyes off his paper, list as many descriptive details as he can. Person B is asked to walk around the room once, then list descriptive details on her paper. The walking person averages 80% more than her sedentary partner. So to create a more vivid scene have your characters (and readers) move through the setting rather than observe it from a static position.
The following is a poem I wrote that grew out of a fold-over exercise. One image still leads to the other. Notice how I conclude by simply going back to the original setting.
Old Man In The Airport
The nurse gliding his wheel chair smells of laurel.
She bathed him early this morning, his eyes
are still clenched like knots in darkness.
As a boy he cleaned horse stalls before sunrise,
bent under the fence hauling two pails of feed.
The bay nudged the back of his neck. The dapple
chewed with a nod, like an old man. Now he too
longs to fling back and gallop into the morning.
The nurse smiles.