A fear of boredom (what’s the medical term for that?) compels me to try something different every day here: lists; imaginary poems, novels, and essays; little book reviews. We’ll see. I’m currently teaching a poetry seminar in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and maybe that alone will be enough to blog about. For example, I gave a lecture on the tension between voice and craft a day ago. (Let me know if this bores you.) (I love parentheses.) Ever since an epic discussion-disguised-as-debate I had with my friend Renegade, I’ve been thinking about it. He believes there are specific principles to what constitutes a great poem (or work of art). I disagree. “There are many forms of great, many ways to be great,” I told him. “Claiming there’s a set of predetermined principles—that’s too conservative for my tastes,” I said. (Note: you should never call someone named Renegade “conservative.” Nor should you imply another poet is not thinking like an artist. He’s kind of stopped speaking to me because of it.)

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast (like blogs they are a form of tedium, that can occasionally be enriching) on Science and the City where V.S. Ramachandran gave a lecture on “Synesthesia and the Universal Principles of Art.” He claimed in the more speculative part of his talk that principles like: peakshifting, grouping and isolation determine how we judge and respond to art. (You’ll have to check it out to get the details: http://www.nyas.org/snc/podcasts.asp.) All very compelling, but for me Renegade and this dude are talking about art from the outside; from the perspective of the gazer/audience; not the artist. Even if it’s misguided the artist needs a healthy sense of individuality to sustain his or her imagination. The “principles of art” might help guide the imagination, but they should not determine it. Shouldn’t we say as much about Craft, the most used word (other than the word “poem”) in poetry workshops everywhere? Craft is a guide not a formula. The elements of craft are how we know we’re reading a poem and not a short story or newspaper piece. Even in prose poems examining the elements of craft (tone especially, but also imagery, metaphor, structure if not form) tell us whether we’re looking at a poem or a prose paragraph. Discussing Craft allows us to break poems into parts: the frequencies of diction and meter, the concrete blocks of imagery, the equations of metaphor. Craft gets at the science and engineering of poetry. It makes poems machines. And though I’m about to tell you poems are not mere machines, I fully acknowledge the value of talking about them this way. Craft gives us a common language, common tools. It also gives the teacher a way to measure and evaluate poems. Evaluation is easier when one sees poems as machines.

But if a poem is a machine, it’s an animal too. Depending on your stance: an animal with a machine skeleton (say like Steve Austin, the bionic man) or a machine shell with an animal heart (say like Robocop). I’ll say here, that I think the poem is mostly an animal. We work to tame it, to train it, but ultimately it has a mind of its own. It’s a child we’re raising, a child we birthed and are responsible for, but a child we do not “own.” And if it’s alive (language is alive, right?), we can’t just saw off a leg without ramifications. In fact, if it’s an animal, we accept it even if one leg is shorter than the other. (One of Jesse Owens’ legs was shorter than the other, and look how far and fast it got him.) If the poem is an animal, we are not after perfection (the thing we are after if we view it as a machine), we are after what a parent is after. We are helping the poem discover its dream. Every poem has a dream. Hell, every word has a dream that, as far as I can tell, might best be described as a wish to be useful, indispensable, maybe unique. Renegade wasn’t hearing this. Once he and I argued late into the night (argued until I lost my voice) about whether or not Billie Holiday was a great singer. He said in what I remember now as the voice of Mr. Spock that she might have been a great stylist, but that her singing was never technically correct. Her poor technique had, in fact, ruined her voice, he said. I don’t think Billie Holiday was after “craft” or technique. Maybe this is too romantic, but I think she was after something beyond “craft.” And I’m suggesting that there is something beyond Craft where poetry is concerned too. Has to be. Otherwise a mastery of craft would mean a mastery of the poem. We’d expect a mature poet with control over “the principles of craft” to never write poorly. With the exception of Stanley Kunitz, most poets seem to get worse as they “mature,” not better . . .

In the lecture I brought in poems by poets who demonstrated a “mastery” of craft in their first books, but inevitably moved beyond craft to something else. Amiri Baraka is an easy example. The poems in 1961’s Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note show that he obviously knows (or knew) “the rules.” The first five lines of the title poem:

Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelops me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad-edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for the bus . . .

But five years later with “Black Art” he announced that he was after something else. The first lines of the title poem:

Poems are bullshit unless they are
teeth or trees or lemons piled
on a step. Or black ladies dying
of men leaving nickel hearts
beating them down. Fuck poems

Which is better depends on your tastes, I suppose. I tried to tell Renegade I was less interested in good/great vs. bad than in the relationship between craft and voice; tangible and intangible. One of the reasons we don’t talk much about voice is its slippery, atmospheric quality. It’s a close cousin to Tone, which is maybe the most difficult of the craft elements to teach. Tone and Voice are matters of sensibility. You can’t teach sensibility can you? Maybe sensibility can only be shaped/filtered through craft: sometimes enlarged by it, sometimes obscured. (I love the word “maybe” only slightly more than I love the word “perhaps.”) Tell me how you’d define Voice in poetry? Tell me in a way that would make it useful to students. Tell me in a way that would convince Renegade. Maybe we don’t even have a good definition of craft yet. I’d vote for adding “culture” as an element, for example. Where would you discuss the influences of race, class and gender on theme and language if not in a discussion of craft? Including culture as an element helps me argue for the poems Baraka has been writing since Black Art as poems, not polemics with line breaks. His infamous poem “Somebody Blew Up America” makes use of all kinds of figures of speech—especially irony (“Who the richest / Who say you ugly and they the good lookingest.”) even if ultimately those elements are funneled toward a particular (polemical) intention. Intention is, perhaps closer to function than craft because it involves a poem’s purpose; it involves how the writer intends the poem to “function” for readers. (Perhaps craft should/does help one discover function and intention.) “Somebody Blew Up America” is a bad poem, for me because it lacks consistency of craft/design, not because it lacks craft. It possesses a clear Voice (Baraka Persona), but the articulation (construction) of Voice is not necessarily independent of craft. It’s a matter of which comes first, maybe.

At what point does craft (the principles of poetry) give way to voice (the sensibilities of imagination)? And visa versa: when does/should the imagination (Voice) give way to the principles (craft) that guide a reader through the poem? (Say, maybe its called “craft” because it’s what transport the language . . .) I’m thinking of folk like Wallace Stevens, Frank O’Hara, and Lucille Clifton. Aren’t their best poems the ones that “match the rhythms of their strides”—to adapt a Wally Stevens line? Shouldn’t we be wary of any “principles” that flatten or normalize those rhythms? Shrug. I could go on, but what would I have to talk about tomorrow. I’m gonna call Renegade soon. Sooner or later . . .

Originally Published: June 5th, 2006

Born in Columbia, South Carolina, poet Terrance Hayes earned a BA at Coker College and an MFA at the University of Pittsburgh. In his poems, in which he occasionally invents formal constraints, Hayes considers themes of popular culture, race, music, and masculinity. “Hayes’s fourth book puts invincibly restless wordplay at...