display | more...
Just because you write in verse doesn't make you a poet.

A lot of people attack poetry based on things they read on E2, Livejournal, and Slate. I say that a lot of what you read in places like that isn't really poetry.

Imagine you have never played an instrument in your life. Suddenly, you get a Sax. You think to yourself "Hey! I've got a sax here, now I'm a musician." Yet, you are so green you don't even know how to put a reed on the instrument. So you watch other saxophonists and figure out that if you put the reed on after wetting it first in your mouth, then blow into the mouthpiece and press some keys, sounds will come out of the bell. Pretty damn neat for someone who's never played. However, I ask you this question...

Does this make that person a saxophonist?

Does it even make this person a musician? I would say no. This person has the potential, like we all do, to learn how to play with training. But with very few exceptions, no one can pick up an instrument and just play it. Not even something rudimentary like Three Blind Mice. Most likely what you will get a bunch of squeaking and a lot of displeased listeners.

Now most of what a lot of people have seen on places like E2 is the poetic equivalent of that unfortunate saxophonist. They have discovered a term "Free verse". They have also discovered that they can hold a pen in their hands and write words. But writing words in free verse is no more poetry than the untrained squeaking of that green saxophonist.

People condemn modern poetry and say that most of it sucks because of what they read from people who are not really poets. They feel that good poets are in the minority and largely in the past. To an untrained and uneducated (in poetry) reader these squeaking and painful collection of words might appear to be poetry. However, I would say they are not. This is why many readers think that the 18th century had better poems, but what they don't realize is that they are reading the cream of the crop and that most of the poetry of that era was just as bad as the stuff we see on E2. If I were to ask one of these people to explain to me what a masculine ending was, what a spondee was, what an anapest is, they wouldn't be able to tell me. That is because they are untrained. Just like the new saxophonist wouldn't be able to circular breathe and then play in the altissimo register.

So what does make someone a poet and not a poser?

There are several things that come into this. These rules are identical in all art. After a while you discover that there is very little difference between all art, regardless of whether it is visual, written, performed, or played.

The first is training. There is no way to get around this. You need to be trained in your art. This can be self training, but you need to know the rules of what you are doing. You should be able to follow those rules by heart if needs be. You need to understand why they are there and what they do to enhance the art. Later you can break those rules if you understand them well but it takes a lot of skill and talent to break them. You need to understand a rule and have a reason before you break it.

Second, is a big one. Talent. There needs to be something in you that manifests in this form of art. 50% of all can be taught. The other 50% cannot. Talent is a big part of that. Either you bond with the art or you don't. Either you can see, or you can't. It's not fair, but what is?

Third is the biggest one out there. Tension. All art is formed on tension. All of it. If you take a picture you are trying to create tension between the objects in frame. If you are writing a play, you are looking to create tension between characters. If you are writing a song, you use syncopation to create tension in the music. This is no different for poetry. Every poem should have an innate tension that grabs the reader and holds her until you are finished. If you have done your job correctly you can affect your audience's pulse, emotions, body temperature, etc. This tension is incredibly powerful. It marks the difference between someone telling you that it was "very nice" and someone throwing you down a fucking you because you made them lose control.

Fourth, you need to read what other talented writers are writing. You need to live in your art. 90% of your training is going to come from imitation. Most posers read only their own stuff or they only read what their friends are writing. The end result is a flood of crap that makes my skin crawl.

Fifth, you need to have something to say. In written and visual art this is usually easy. In instrumental pieces, if they are performed well, you do not need lyrics to know what the song is about. In poetry this becomes complicated. Poetry is much more like an orchestra than it is a book. You should never say what you are feeling. Ever. If you say "I am utterly alone" you have already failed. Your goal is to make the reader feel what you are feeling, not to tell the reader what you are feeling. To do this you use the same weapons that a musician uses. You play with tone to create a mood. You play with word choices to evoke emotions without outright saying them. You work with the pace of the piece and the rhythm of a poem to try to bring the reader's body reactions to the same level that yours are. For instance, in a poem about fury you would write using a lot of masculine endings, a lot of spondees, and probably move in an iambic rhythm. The result is that you have a machine gun feel with double accents to emphasize your hatred.

Sixth, never stray into the Cliche, Heavy-handed, or sentimental. That way leads to pain.

So basically, just because you are writing in free verse it doesn't make you a poet. You need to know what you are doing.