Introduction: Our Natural Right to Play
My question is “When did other people give up the idea of being a poet?” You know, when we are kids we make up things, we write, and for me the puzzle is not that some people are still writing, the real question is why did the other people stop?
Other artists have asked similar questions, and made similar assertions. “Every child is an artist,” said the dramatist and poet Percy Mackaye, “with imagination and the artistic instinct. Life stamps these out—and in only a few cases, those we call geniuses, do they rise, and become sculptors, artists, poets—great creators.”
What kind of artist were you when you were young? Did you paint, color with crayons, build things with blocks? What kind of creative acts did you enjoy? When did you write your first poem? What was it about? How did you come to poetry?
What both Stafford and Mackaye observe is the fact that we all naturally possess the ability to be expressive, to give free rein to our imaginations, to invent, to bring into the world something new. As Stafford notes, as children we naturally enjoy “making up things”; we delight in imagining, in creating, in playing with colors, shapes, with words—so why then do many of us stop playing, or stop being, as Mackaye says, “an artist”?
Answering this question is actually quite useful for us as practicing poets. If we can understand the barriers to writing poetry, then we can avoid writer’s block and stagnant periods by finding ways to avoid the barriers or bring them down. One of the obstacles to being creative, whether through painting or writing poetry, is our tendency to be critical and judgmental of ourselves and our art—especially while in the process of writing. If we are in the middle of writing a poem and begin to doubt ourselves or tell ourselves that what we are writing is silly or just not good, then we are standing in the way of our creative act of play and our growth as a writer. We are, in a sense, becoming our own obstacle. Think about what it means to play. The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides the following definition of “play”:
When we play we are spontaneous. When we play we do not aim to harm ourselves—physically or with harsh criticism that stops us from playing. And when we play, we pay attention to words and sounds.
Imagine children playing. See two girls in a pink bedroom sitting at a tea table surrounded by stuffed animals. One of them wears a tiara. The other has wrapped a scarf around her head pretending to be a unicorn. The princess sips her tea and speaks of how warm the sun is on her shoulders, how the warmth turns everything blue into diamonds. The unicorn responds, “This scarf isn’t working. I don’t look enough like a unicorn.”
In this example, the girl with the scarf has broken the spell of imagination necessary for play. It is no different than when we criticize our own writing while in a state of creating—of playing—only in this case we are saying, “This line/image/word isn’t working. This isn’t good enough to be a poem.” In order to write poetry, we must be willing to indulge the creative state, to forgive ourselves as we write, to enjoy and appreciate what we have in front of us—especially in the early stages of a drafting a poem.
In poetry, there is always the opportunity to revise. The great poet Walt Whitman revised his book Leaves of Grass throughout his entire life, even after it was published. A poem has its own life, and for some, a poem may never be finished. And this is okay. The creative process can be expressed in a literally endless variety of ways. For as many people as there are living on this planet, there are as many, if not more, ways of expressing creative impulses. It is my hope that in your journey through this course, this book will act as a guide to nurturing your own natural creativity.
In this book, I share with you what I have seen work for myself, for other poets, and for our students. The chapters will provide you with approaches to writing and reading poetry, suggestions for discussions and prompts for poems, explanations of key terms associated with poetry, some poetry history, and many poems to explore. To excel, you will need the following tools:
Something on Which to Write
Whether you write by hand in a notebook or type on a computer, you will need a space dedicated to writing. If you write on a computer, then I recommend purchasing a notebook for in-class exercises and note-taking, as many professors do not permit laptops or tablets in the classroom on a daily basis.
Something with Which to Write
Some poets prefer blue pens, some black. Some pencils. Whatever your choice, just be sure to bring it with you to every class.
You will need to purchase a folder or binder for this class in order to keep yourself organized, to collect handouts, and to store pages of poems printed out from this book to discuss in class.
Several of the writing exercises ask you to draw with crayons. So, if you don’t have any, consider purchasing a small set. Coloring is making a major comeback—for adults—as it has been shown to be a practice that fosters relaxation, focus, and creativity.
In her essay “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life,” from her collection of essays This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett lists forgiveness as being one of the essential skills necessary in order to write successfully:
Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.
Patchett’s advice is simple yet insightful. Even more, she is totally right that writers experience the feeling of failure almost “Every. Single. Time.” we write. One of my students recently asked me, “Once you have a master’s degree and extensive experience, does writing becomes easier?” Oh how I broke his heart I’m sure when I said, well, not really. Of course mechanics become easier. And you find ways to organize yourself and develop habits—some good, some bad—that can advance (or hinder) the process. And of course the more you read, the more aware you become of different ways to write. But there are some struggles that never go away. These struggles can be different for each person. For me, I shudder at the blank page, am overtaken by waves of anxiety. I feel physically uncomfortable, like my skin is crawling with ants, and it’s hard to focus and sit still at first. All I want to do is check my Facebook page. But if I commit myself to the mode of writing, lighten my inherent self-criticism, and permit myself to try to find “flow,” it becomes pleasurable.
Not only is forgiveness a necessary part of the writing process in the sense that we cannot translate exactly what we hope to from our minds to a page, but also in the sense that good writing deals with sensitive, hard-to-describe, difficult-to-face subjects, and I therefore find forgiving myself for past actions, thoughts, and desires—for feeling the way I actually do—necessary to write well. This doesn’t just happen in personal poems that expose our memories and feelings directly; it can occur in more indirect ways, too. Such as when you are freewriting and an image forms itself in the process that calls up a difficult memory. Or when you experience an insight into how you truly feel about a parent or sibling or friend. Or when you realize how you may have hurt someone in your past or neglected someone you love. We all mistakes. And mistakes make good subject matter for poems. So, start forgiving yourself and move onward.
The mindset of forgiveness that Patchett describes is similar to what William Stafford writes in his little essay “A Way of Writing” when he recommends that a writer must “be willing to fail” in order to be successful. As with Patchett’s essay, Stafford’s advice is all about giving yourself over to the writing process. One cannot expect a poem or any piece of writing to be perfect, or as Patchett says, to translate the “brilliant detail” one imagines and feels onto a page. As Stafford explains, you have to listen to what occurs to you in your mind and let the ideas “string out.” The process relies upon trust—you must trust that what you are doing will go somewhere. Here is an excerpt from Stafford’s essay (a link to which can be found in the resource section of this book):
One implication is the importance of just plain receptivity. When I write, I like to have an interval before me when I am not likely to be interrupted. For me, this means usually the early morning, before others are awake. I get pen and paper, take a glance out of the window (often it is dark out there), and wait. It is like fishing. But I do not wait very long, for there is always a nibble–and this is where receptivity comes in. To get started I will accept anything that occurs to me. Something always occurs, of course, to any of us. We can’t keep from thinking. Maybe I have to settle for an immediate impression: it’s cold, or hot, or dark, or bright, or in between! Or well, the possibilities are endless. If I put down something, that thing will help the next thing come, and I’m off. If I let the process go on, things will occur to me that were not at all in my mind when I started. These things, odd or trivial as they may be, are somehow connected. And if I let them string out, surprising things will happen. . . .
So, receptive, careless of failure, I spin out things on the page. And a wonderful freedom comes. If something occurs to me, it is all right to accept it. It has one justification: it occurs to me. No one else can guide me. I must follow my own weak, wandering, diffident impulses.
I am not sure if being “careless of failure,” as Stafford says, is a rule to apply to all aspects of life, but in creative acts such as writing, it is a necessity.
The poet Richard Hugo has said that he wrote his book The Triggering Town in order to help the writer “with that silly, absurd, maddening, futile, enormously rewarding activity: writing poems.” And so, as he did then, I do so now.
Why prescribe silliness? For possibility. For new ways of thinking and writing. For fun. If you’re worried that you may not have it in you, don’t. According to Hugo, the fact that you are even taking a course in poetry already means that this quality, this playfulness, is already inherent in you. After all, as Hugo so eloquently puts it in The Triggering Town, “You have to be silly to write poems at all.”