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Mystery & Birds: 5 Ways to Practice Poetry

By Ada Limón

Joshua Marie Wilkinson is putting together a group of micro-essay for teaching poetry to beginning writers. Though I’m not really a teacher, he asked me nonetheless. And since I have so many dear dear friends beginning their semesters this week, this goes out to them. Thanks JMW for inviting me to participate.
Mystery & Birds: 5 Ways to Practice Poetry
Because I work outside of the academic field, I don’t get the
opportunity to teach very often, but when I do, I’m surprised by how
many people read poems as if they can have only one meaning. In my own
experience, I find it nearly impossible to hear the beauty and
meditative joy of a poem’s lines, or the sensual sounds of a syllable,
when I’m reading solely for narrative sense. So, I’ve come to think
that one of the first things to learn about poetry is to simply relax
in its mystery. We need to learn that a poem can have many meanings
and that it can be enjoyed without a complete understanding of the
poet’s intent. On a good day a poem might bring you great joy, on a
tough day, the same poem might reveal great agony, but the poem hasn’t
changed—it’s what you have brought to the poem that has changed. The
more you read a poem, the more time you spend with it, read it out
loud to yourself or to others, the more it will open to you—start to
wink and flirt and let you in. A poem is a complex living thing, its
multiple edges and many colors are what makes this singular art form
so difficult to define. There is an ancient Chinese Proverb that says,
“A bird sings not because he has an answer, but because he has a
song.” That is how I have come to think about poetry—that a poem isn’t
a problem to solve, but rather it’s a singular animal call that
contains multiple layers of both mystery and joy.
It’s that unique animal call that we have to carve out time for if we
really want to do the work that poetry requires. Though I admit I
struggle everyday to find the right balance between my writing
practice and the daily pressures of living, there are a few things
that help me remain true to the work of poetry. Although these may not
work for every writer, the following five points are what have kept me
writing poetry with greater ease and discipline on a daily basis.


1) Write everyday. It’s easier than it sounds. Make time everyday to
write SOMETHING. Even if it’s one line scribbled into a napkin on the
subway or the bus, or a whole precious early hour in the morning. This
practice lets the mind know that everyday we must be observant, that we
are paying attention, always.
2) Learn poems you love. Read whatever poems you can get your hands
on. Not just the classics, but those poets who are writing today. Pick
up journals, magazines, and anthologies; search for the poems that
break you open. Read those poems over and over again until you have
them memorized in your mouth. Don’t worry about mimicking them, just
accept them as your teachers and hold them close. Become an expert on
the poems you adore.
3) Cultivate silence. Silence is essential in order to hear your own
voice. Especially nowadays when we often have the television on, the
radio on, or music playing all day long, it is essential to find some
silence to listen to your own voice. Your own voice is the only thing
your poetry needs.
4) Embrace revision. Revision might be the hardest thing that writers
have to do, aside from battling our own internal demons, because it
means admitting that we are wrong. Sometimes we are so wrong that we
need to start all over again, and it’s embarrassing. Sometimes we only
need to change a comma, but listen, every poem needs revision and
every poet needs to learn humility.
5) Practice gratitude. Cherish those friends and colleagues who care
enough to read and comment on your work. If you truly pursue writing,
you will come to realize how enormously important these people are to
your writing life and therefore to your making of a “real” life. Make
sure you read their work with the same care and closeness they offer
you. And buy them coffee and cakes when they return a manuscript with
pencil marks on every page. It is a true act of kindness that should
be greeted with great gratitude. And be thankful that you want to
write at all, what a powerful art to devote a life to, how lucky we
are to love such a wild untamable thing.

Comments (5)

  • On January 13, 2009 at 4:04 pm Don Share wrote:

    When a young fresh fellow, I found Kenneth Koch’s instructional poem, “The Art of Poetry,” to be very moving. Still do. You can hear him give some advice to young writers by clicking here. And how ’bout this, obliquely:
    A Momentary Longing To Hear Sad Advice from One Long Dead
    by Kenneth Koch
    Who was my teacher at Harvard. Did not wear overcoat
    Saying to me as we walked across the Yard
    Cold brittle autumn is you should be wearing overcoat. I said
    You are not wearing overcoat. He said,
    You should do as I say not do as I do.
    Just how American it was and how late Forties it was
    Delmore, but not I, was probably aware. He quoted Finnegans Wake to me
    In his New York apartment sitting on chair
    Table directly in front of him. There did he write? I am wondering.
    Look at this photograph said of his mother and father.
    Coney Island. Do they look happy? He couldn’t figure it out.
    Believed Pogo to be at the limits of our culture.
    Pogo. Walt Kelly must have read Joyce Delmore said.
    Why don’t you ask him?
    Why don’t you ask Walt Kelly if he read Finnegans Wake or not.
    Your parents don’t look happy but it is just a photograph.
    Maybe they felt awkward posing for photographs.
    Maybe it is just a bad photograph. Delmore is not listening
    I want to hear him tell me something sad but however true.
    Delmore in his tomb is sitting. People say yes everyone is dying
    But here read this happy book on the subject. Not Delmore. Not that rueful man.
    -
    We should not neglect Basil Bunting’s Advice to Young Poets (another wag will surely supply Ezra Pound’s), namely:
    I SUGGEST
    1. Compose aloud; poetry is a sound.
    2. Vary rhythm enough to stir the emotion you want but not so as to lose impetus.
    3. Use spoken words and syntax.
    4. Fear adjective; they bleed nouns. Hate the passive.
    5. Jettison ornament gaily but keep shape
    Put your poem away till you forget it, then:
    6. Cut out every word you dare.
    7. Do it again a week later, and again.
    Never explain – your reader is as smart as you.

  • On January 13, 2009 at 6:24 pm Paul wrote:

    That is all wonderful advice, especially practicing gratitude, beautiful. The most important skill for any writer as you have hinted, is listening, then your work can extend beyond your own voice.

  • On January 13, 2009 at 7:05 pm Jason Crane wrote:

    Very kindly written and very useful. Thank you.

  • On August 16, 2009 at 7:09 pm chez danisse wrote:

    This is a wonderful post! You are so right about silence. Thank you.

  • On August 16, 2009 at 10:17 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    As a relatively new poet, I too need such advice, and find this whole article and discussion very moving.

    Perhaps because I was a bit older than most of your beginners, at my beginning I was actually too liberal with number 6, and ended up with poems without flab, yes, but also without frisson. Also without what I really meant to say, or at least about what I knew and would have liked to say had I found the path, bridge, gate, door, opening in the hedge or conduit under the road that led to it.

    I’m still a beginner but now I’ve added another dare to Basil Bunting’s do-list:

    6a. A week, month, year after every word you cut add any other word you dare.

    Christopher


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, January 13th, 2009 by Ada Limón.