by Joan Dobbie
Copyright 1995

I believe that the power of your poetry is directly related to the intensity of your experience of life, and is equal to the intensity of your experience of life, so that if you want to be a poet you need to be brave enough to be vulnerable. Whether it is sorrow, ecstasy, memory, fascination, fear, wonder, whatever, poetry has to have some psychological, or emotional, or spiritual power behind it. Even your shame, even your fear of exposure, may, if you harness it, become the source of your poetic power. To write poetry you need to access that place inside you where your dreams live, and the vividness of your poetry is equal to the vividness of your dreams.

Of course there are times in all our lives when we're simply not dreaming, or not able to access our dreams, times of "block." The thing to do, I think, is to accept even those times as the truth of the moment. A woman can't keep bearing babies one after the other without taking time out to be pregnant.

A poem needs to be real in order to live. Poems, I believe, are the direct result of a crack in the sheath between our realm and the astral realms. A poem is made out of words, grammar, lines and sounds, that is its body. But it has to be more than a body in order to live. A contrived image, a forced metaphor, will fall flat. Like sex, which just doesn't work unless your heart is in it, poetry that comes from a false or forced place is not poetry. It is doggerel. Doggerel is the body without the spirit of poetry. A poem that needs work though is one, I think, in which the body doesn't yet match the spirit, but the spirit is there. That's where revision comes in.

Although you can't always write poems on purpose, you can I think, create an environment that invites poetry, that calls in the muse. One way is to read and listen to good poetry. If it's real it will sink itself into you and teach you from the inside out how it works. And at the same time you need to allow yourself the full depths of your feelings and the immediate truth of your vision. If today the snow looks pink to you, don't doubt your eyes, but assume that you're seeing snow pink for a reason, and write about that pink snow. If you want to be a poet you have to have that kind of faith.

Sometimes it takes friction to kindle the fire of poetry. That friction might come unasked for, even unwanted. The moment of great loss, when you feel sick in your heart, that might be the moment that your best poem comes to you. On the other hand, the inspirational spark could come purposefully. A good writing exercise could be the door into a poem. some poets listen to music, look at paintings, run their hands over the contours of a sculpture. Some hang out in crowds among people, and listen to conversations, some take long lonely walks and listen to silence. A movie might spark a poem, a book, a newspaper article, another poem. Some poets travel in search of inspiration, some use alcohol, caffeine, or other drugs to open themselves up, some meditate. The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, in his LETTERS TO A YOUNG POET, says if you can't find poetry here in your present-day life, travel back into your childhood when things had to be new. There is enough depth and pain and wonder in each of our childhoods to fill volumes of poetry ...

To get back to the body of poetry: What language is, is a structuring of thought in such a way that it can be communicated. Most linguists nowadays believe that language is an arbitrary structuring, that a word doesn't necessarily have any absolute connection to its meaning. But whether arbitrary or absolute, language does make a pathway between our conscious and unconscious selves. Every word contains certain aspects of experience and the words in fact can change or create an experience. If you are an Eskimo, for example, and you have in your language 8 or 9 different words for that many different textures of snow, then you're more apt to experience the intricacies of snow than if you're a white European/American with only one word, even if you've grown up in the North and are vaguely aware of the distinctions between the light fluffy stuff made out of crisp tiny separate crystals that happens at 20 below and the thick mushy stuff that comes down heavy at 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Sometimes our language doesn't have words for a thing we're trying to express and then its our job as poets to struggle for words, even create them. I have heard it said that the poet's work is to keep language alive.

Of course language is not just words, but also the grammar that orders those words to make meaning. And a poem is not just words and grammar, but it also is usually written in lines, so that those lines make meaning in a different way than the words and grammar alone would. The line, some linguists will say, is something added to language in the writing of poetry. The importance of the poetic line is one of the basic differences between poetry and prose. Thus:

I fell
in love
with loneliness

has a different affect from: I fell in love with

and both are different from:

I fell in love with loneliness.

Another way poetry is different from prose is this: Prose usually tries to get its meaning across in such a way that you don't particularly notice the words on the page. When you are reading a novel, unless you're a printer, you probably won't be consciously aware of the style of print you are reading, or where the lines break, or how long they are. It's as if you hardly see the words themselves but somehow absorb the meaning through them. The language tries to be "transparent." But poetry admits to being a physical object. How the poem looks on the page is important. I've heard poetry defined as writing that has "a shape on the page." It is partly because of this objectness of poetry that every word needs to be the right word, every line matters.

On another level, poetry works not only as marks on a page but as sounds in the air, making meaning through voice, tone and rhythm like music. That's where such things as rhyme and alliteration come into play. In poetry even the feel of the sound in your mouth as you read it aloud is part of its being. Consider the difference between walking and dancing. Usually you're walking in order to get from one place to another and you hardly notice what you're doing with your feet. When you dance, however, the movements are what's important. Now imagine a dance that is going somewhere, somewhere new and exciting.

And assuming now that poetry is a kind of directed dance of language, then you can see how specific poetic forms are structured dances, like waltzes or fox-trots, while others are free form like what you might see the crowd doing at a Grateful Dead concert. If you're shy about dancing, learning a specific form might be a good way to get over that shyness. And each form has a beauty, a specialness of its own, as well as the power of ritual and the history of a tradition. Even if you don't know much about form though, if you dare to let yourself go, and you don't give a damn who's watching, then you can still dance -- if you have good ear for the rhythms. And as a matter of fact a lot of the tighter forms of both dance and poetry are kind of out of style right now, considered old fashioned.

And so, I believe, our humanity is the source of our poetry and our language is the tool we use to make it material. I do not believe, as many modern linguists do, that poetry is no more than the language out of which it is made. I believe that our language is the path through which we can access the place of our poetry, but that poetry itself is a live thing, a thing we can touch when we break through the barriers of time, space and individuality. I believe you can save someone's life with a poem they've never seen, contact someone in a far distant place, touch someone you knew long ago, or never met. You can meet with and commune with your own child self, experience the future, speak with your father, even after he's died. I believe if you're absolutely true to yourself in your writing, the path of poetry can be the path into that place where you're no longer alone, because everyone else, in their truest place, is there too.

And once you find the place of your poetry, wherever you find it, you need to respect it. You can choose to share or not share your poetry, but you have to be very careful to unravel it from your ego. As if the poem were your child and you were its parent you want to help it be as good as it can be, as true to itself, and then if it reaches a point of maturity, if it wants to go out into the world on its own, send it to the publisher, or the printer, or your friend, not as a piece of your ego, waiting to be judged, but as an offering.

Joan Dobbie


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