Saturday, January 17, 2015

Artistic Integrity

So I've been thinking lately about the nature of writing poetry and what it all means. There are a lot of different ways to approach writing poems, aside from the mechanical considerations. You can write straightforwardly about nature, for example. And a lot of poets take ordinary things and paint them in extraordinary language so we look at them differently. And so on.

And then there are those of us who write unaffected personal poetry - stuff that is very specific to us, who we are, and what we're going through. I really like that type of poetry.* But it's interesting to think about why those poems 'work'. I mean, if a poem is so specific to the author, why is it that it can draw others in so completely that they identify with it?

There's a Sara Groves song called Kindness of Strangers from her most recent album, The Collection. At one point, she says "Hearing myself in your story / Fills in the holes in between", which I think expresses the same idea. It's that thing when you're talking to another person and you empathize with them, or what they're saying rings true for something in your own life. So how does that happen?

I think there's a lot of commonality in the human experience. We all go through so many of the same emotions at different points in our lives, even if the situations prompting them are dissimilar. So when you write something specific to yourself, but write it very personally, those elements sort of rise to the top, giving the reader access to them. This in turn allows them to identify with the piece and see themselves in the poem. That's my theory, anyway.

Not all poetry does this - a lot of it is much more cerebral. It's accomplishing different things, so it takes different methods. Case in point:

I wrote a poem last summer about a childhood memory. I was at Glen East, and was in a poetry workshop. In my one-on-one session with the instructor, we talked about that poem. I got some really great advice from him, and I applied some of it to make the poem better. One thing I did not apply was the idea that the poem needed a visual to help ground it. He said I should add in a couple of details about the couch that I mentioned in the poem. Ignoring the fact that I completely disagreed with him on this point because at that time I couldn't have explained why, I protested that I didn't remember anything about the couch. He suggested I make something up, and reiterated a comment he'd made earlier in the workshop: it's okay to lie in your writing.

He's absolutely right, of course. It's perfectly fine to make things up in order to convey what you're trying to get across - it's creative writing, after all, and poetry at that. And if your method involves using conceits like visual cues to engage your readers, making things up may well be necessary.** So there's nothing wrong with what he said, and it would have been very good advice for another poet. But not for me - not the way I write.

Lots of poets are trying to coax a response from the reader. The entire poem may be crafted for the express purpose of invoking a feeling or eliciting a specific response. In order to do that, the poem might be highly constructed - the whole thing could be made-up, and that's fine, because whether or not the words are true isn't the point - the point is how it makes the reader react.

That's not what I'm doing when I write. I'm writing to convey my own experience and emotion, so how the reader responds is completely up to them. That's the difference right there: Someone trying to stimulate the reader's imagination can and should use whatever devices are at their disposal. But since that's not what I'm trying to do, some of those techniques are off-limits to me. One manufactured detail would make the entire poem a lie, and then what would be the point?

*Songs can do this too - lyrics are basically poems, and then you have that added dimension of the music.

**By the way, there's a difference between employing a metaphor and making stuff up. It's hard to explain; I haven't yet gotten to the point that I can articulate this in my head. Just trust me - there is a difference.

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