Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Some Thoughts About The Well Made Poem

1. Recently, I experienced the strange sensation of having to 'press return to factory setting' on a couple of poems.

2. They were poems that were going in a certain direction towards being 'well-made' in the sense of being perfectly engineering little machines of ideas and emotions.

3. But they felt wrong. In trying to create a poem worked I was trying to squeeze the poem into a shape that 'looked good'. In doing that, I was actually falsifying whatever it was that I was trying to say with the poem.

4. I was trying to be 'clever.' Or maybe to merely appear clever. I find myself prey to the same appetites other poets I like to criticise have: the idea that you have to appear to be 'clever' in your poems, to fill it with 'wit' and the kind of musical lines that get you admired.

5. But the poem didn't fit. I was, for instance, trying to write in regularish stanzas. Not strictly iambic but heading in that direction. I seemed to be going back to the time before I started cutting and pasting.

6. Writing can become habitual, which is why you have to constantly 'make it new'. When it feels like I've done it before, or very nearly, I get twitchy.

7. So I had these poems that weren't working. They were well-made in a sense. They may have been clever.

8. With the first one, I took the first two lines which I thought were good, and wrote about them and a lot of other stuff came out, whilst free writing around them. I started with the phrase "So I had these two good lines..."

9. With the second, I again rewrote if from scratch.

10. In both cases, I did it at night before I went to bed. My mind was loose. I wasn't trying to be clever.

11. They both work better now. They're freer, looser, baggier even. They don't look like little boxes one on top of one another.

12. So what do I conclude? That I can't do the well-made poem? That the well-made poem is, in the end, a back alley?


Peter Daniels said...

...that you're completely in thrall to the magic of things not being well made, and can't stand having a decent talent for doing something properly, because Ezra and co tell you it's all got to be broken up and unfinished, and only cissies get it all nice and perfect. You could just get over all that and enjoy it for once. You could even do the well made poem and the carefully pulled to bits poem and have both.

Steven Waling said...

Well, that's one way of thinking of it, Peter. Though I'm not sure it's Ezra's fault, so much as Frank O'Hara's. Though I suppose Ezra's at the back of it...

...though before him it was those darned Impressionists who never seemed to properly polish up a painting so it looked nice in the Louvre, and before that it was Blake, even going back so far as Skelton.

Problem is, I just don't like the well-made poem much. Not the ones I used to try to write at least. It feels stuffy. It feels like wearing hand-me-downs. I can see it works for other people, but it don't work for me. It feels false.

Peter Daniels said...

It doesn't have to be the well-madeness that feels wrong, it could be all kinds of things about it (subject, imagery, tone, vocbulary...), but it's especially the hand-me-downness. I think a deliberately not-well-made poem is likely to feel more your own in the way that all our messes feel more like ourselves than perfect neatness (unless we're completely anal-retentive control freaks). If it isn't your poem in the first place, the more well-made it is the more it will feel like someone else's. I'm doing an exercise at the moment finishing off a first draft of someone else's poem - someone I hardly know. My first response was to edit it into the perfect version of what was in front of me, at which point it seemed utterly dead and not a poem I'd want to write at all. I've now started messing it up, and wherever it goes it'll be more satisfying than that version was, because it's now my poem. But it might turn out well made, or it might turn out like the Cantos put through a shredder, I don't know.