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Dispatches No. 12: Kary Wayson Writes to Beginning Poets

Posted Wed, 4/01/2015 - 2:55pm by  |  Category:

Dispatches Series GraphicA Blog for Beginning Poets (after Rilke)
by Kary Wayson

As a sort of surprised mentor to many beginning poetry writers, I find I repeatedly field a recurring set of questions and difficulties from the beginning poet, questions and difficulties I myself have dealt with in my own writing, and which I will (ever so briefly and, so, undefinitively) touch on here.

1. First-person writing

People seem to be afraid to use the “I” in their own work, for what I imagine to be a multitude of reasons, the most of which is what I myself have feared: the accusation of self-obsession. The thing is, choosing the second and/or third pronouns out of fear (or an attempt to obfuscate a personal narrative) results in a sort of mucky, useless confusion in the reader, as well as a measure of inauthenticity that fucks yo poem up, big time. To that fear I say: say “I”! Do it. We all want to know whowhatwhenhowwhere your I is (am!). As they say, speak for yourself. We’re either an “I” looking in or an “I” looking out, and that “I” definitely changes from moment to moment.

See: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Olena Kalytiak Davis’s “The Lyric “I” Drives to Pick up Her Children from School: A Poem in the Postconfessional Mode,” and pretty much every other poem.

2. “The Anxiety of Influence”

People are afraid to steal from or sound like others. Understood. It is a whole thing to be a reader who herself writes. And it is a whole thing to be trying to make poems. When I read (anything, but mostly poetry or fiction) I’m reading like a thief or a student or sometimes as a jealous critic, but I am most happy as a reading writer (writing reader) when I’m able to read as a collaborator. Did I really like something that someone just did with that line? I love it when I find another poet’s move irresistible – meaning whatever they did makes me want to do that too! My most energized urges as a poet grow not out of the desire to simply appropriate another writer’s moves, but to play ball with them. Something they did threw a ball at me and I really have no choice but to catch it and then what? THROW IT BACK.

See: Jonathan Lethem’s “Ecstasy of Influence.”

3. The Sentence

This is what I think: people should write poems in sentences and then break those sentences into lines. The poet David Beispiel writes,

A sequence of lines, a poem stretches both over the latitudes of a page with horizontal intensity and cruises down the page with vertical drive. I’ve come to imagine this shape—across and down, repeatedly—to be like the lyric spiral of the imagination. Meanwhile, imposed on this spiral are a poem’s sentences. The interplay between lines and sentences is what I call the grammar of a poem, and it frames a poem’s moments of experience and formulates its emotional rhythm. Yielding and cohering, it discloses what is isolated, subordinated, and coordinated among the images, tones, voice, melody, narrative, and so on.

I agree with whoever said that line breaks are the poet’s biggest tool. The line moves out while the sentence moves down: I do know that much is true. And/but then I contradict myself and say: you should do whatever you want – full sentences, sentence fragments (I mean, Emily Dickinson!) – but know that if you make the decision to abandon the rules of a full sentence, you lose the power of the downward momentum and you lose the tension between sentence and line.

See: me! At our next appointment, fragmentarily, Kary.

Email Kary at kary@hugohouse.org to book an appointment.