There is no better exercise in literary creativity than writing poetry, because it forces one to come to grips with the meaning of words and the importance and mechanics of punctuation.
As a right-brain dominant person, I find writing poetry difficult because it is essentially a left-brain activity. While recent research suggests that this division of brain function may be overstated, it offers a tidy way of distinguishing global from linear ways of thinking.
Therefore, I still consider myself a right-brain-dominant person because I have a tendency to think globally rather than linearly. As a consequence, I favor visual over auditory modes of learning. This gives me an advantage in the visual arts but puts me at a disadvantage when writing poetry or prose. In order to overcome this “disability,” I have developed the following methodology:
First, I form a mental image of a particularly significant time and place or experience. This is instantaneous for a painter such as myself.
Second, I enhance the image by associating non-visual sensory information, including sounds, smells, emotions, etc.
Third, I mentally store the enhanced image, which remains a potential source of poetic inspiration.
Fourth, at an opportune time, I retrieve the enhanced image and break it down into its component parts. I then attempt to describe each part in terms of words. This is where the left-brain part kicks in.
Finally, I assemble the words in an effort to approximate the enhanced image. I say “approximate” because words are imperfect instruments. While the result need not conform to any particular metric, successful poems, even in blank verse, have a sense of coherence and rhythm that propels the reader forward to a compelling conclusion or, alternatively, back to the beginning of the poem, which closes the loop and creates an alpha-omega moment.
There lies the value of memorizing good poetry written by others, for it enables one to internalize the music of poetic language. As a high school student, I was required to memorize the entire prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English. At the time, I thought it a foolish exercise. Yet, in later life, I wrote a lengthy poem, which, unconsciously, I had set to Chaucer’s “music.” There lies the difference between information and knowledge.
One might think of the words in a poem as pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, with the poem being the picture on the cover on the puzzle box—the challenge being that there are many more pieces in the box than needed to replicate the picture. Therefore, the poet has to be highly selective in his or her choice of words.
In my case, the writing of poetry requires persistence and much trial and error. When words fail, I step away for the writing table in order to give my subconscious an opportunity to work on the problem free from the compositional prejudices of the moment. Anyone who has done a newspaper Jumble puzzle is familiar with the process.
As a painter, I know I must work the entire picture plane; that is to say, the entire two-dimensional space defined by the surface of the canvas. The poet, on the other hand, works linearly in time, much like a musician. Both the painter and the poet seek to achieve that sense of coherence and rhythm, which establishes the artists’ respective style and voice. In painting, the unifying rhythm is retraced by the eye of the viewer in a solitary act of discovery.
Similarly, in poetry, the rhythm is echoed in the mental ear of the listener. Less-talented painters often mimic the styles of their betters or retreat into mindless abstraction, which they erroneously believe will conceal their lack of skill. How many paintings have you seen which are simply decorative and have absolutely nothing to say? Hotel rooms across the nation are filled with poorly framed reproductions of them.
Similarly, less talented poets often mimic the voice of their betters or retreat into blank verse, which they too erroneously believe requires less compositional skill. The resulting poem inevitably lacks passion and authenticity and comes across as having been written as instructed. One can be taught how to see but not how to feel. Good poetry is felt by the poet who is tasked with translating his or her feelings into a sequence of words which resonates with the reader or listener. The challenge is to keep those feelings from becoming embarrassingly self-conscious and laden with overblown language which causes one to think: “You are telling me things about yourself you probably didn’t intend, and I don’t particularly want to hear.”
With all the gadgetry of our digital age soaking up our psychic energy, I sometimes wonder where the poetic spirit has gone. I suspect, much of it has disappeared into the lyrics of popular music and other forms of commercial entertainment. However, such applications lack the power and immediacy of a beautifully typeset poem printed on quality paper. But, then, I am an “analog retentive” from a past age. As a consequence, I share the sentiments expressed by the following insightful poem by David Whyte, which was clearly written before the development of high-definition television:
“This is not
the age of information.
This is not
the age of information.
Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.
This is the time
of loaves and fishes.
People are hungry,
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.”
Poetry is very much about finding that “one good word,” and there is no single recipe for that “bread for a thousand.” It is up to the poet to discover the magical leaven, which, like the starter yeast for a loaf of San Francisco sourdough, produces a bread that never goes stale and the taste of which never goes out of fashion.