Monday, July 22, 2013

Why I Write Poetry

Why I Write Poetry
(reprinted from the NC Writers Network Newsletter, 2012)

My wife wants me to write a novel or a memoir or a children’s book or a book on parenting or hiking or gardening. I like all of these things, and I’ve written less than book-length pieces on each of them at one time or another, but there is nothing in me that makes me want to write a book of any of these sorts.

On the other hand, I have written 10 collections of poetry. The difference, from my wife’s perspective, between the books she wants me to write and the ones I write, is that novels and non-fiction stand a chance these days of actually making a bit of money, and poetry does not. A friend of mine, for example, recently received a $50,000 advance for his memoir. I have not made that much on all 10 of my books of poetry combined.

My wife, a beautiful, understanding and thankfully practical person, assumes that hard work is motivated by the reward one receives for doing it: increased home value for remodeling; fresh produce for gardening; the paycheck for the job. I myself am not such a Bohemian that I don’t enjoy getting paid, but writing, for me, is different. I have never seen it as a job or something I do for money. The practical question, then, is why do it at all.

There are, of course, numerous reasons for writing. Some write to effect change. Some to express themselves. Some to better understand things. Joan Didion claims, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means.” Francine du Plessix Gray says, “I write for revenge against reality.” All of these are excellent reasons for writing, and all of them play some role in my own interest in writing. All of them, however, can be the motivation behind almost any sort of writing. None of them answer the more specific question of why choose to write poetry.

Given the unlikelihood of writing poetry justifying the time it takes by any practical measurement, some might claim, and some have claimed, that writing poetry is mere self-indulgence. In practical terms, I can’t possibly deny that. There is certainly a self-indulgent element in writing poetry, just as there is in any unprofitable pastime. But I don’t drink (a lot), smoke, or do drugs. I don’t watch sports on television (much). I don’t play golf or tennis or video games or poker. I don’t race remote control cars or work on real ones under the oak tree in the backyard. I don’t go clubbing, belong to a country club, or hang out with friends in a bar. Most of us are self-indulgent in one way or another, and given that, writing poetry doesn’t seem such a bad choice to make.

In fact, it could be argued that writing poetry is self-indulgent in the same way that meditating or praying or yoga or working out might be. Writing poetry demands, after all, perception and reflection. It requires that the writer notice things, both internal and external, and think about them, relate them to other things and to one’s values and beliefs. Writing poetry, in short, improves the self, and a better self is a better father, husband, employee, citizen, person.

Still, one could say that all that is just as true of any sort of disciplined writing practice, so the question remains, why write poetry. In answer, I could repeat a litany of traditional claims for poetry’s exceptionality: it is more spiritual than other writing; more resonant; more immediate; more complex; more transformative; more cathartic, etc. All of these claims are somewhat true, but none of them are why I choose to write poetry.

Ultimately, the answer to that question is simple. The way I experience the world is more like poetry than it is like any other genre of writing. Poetry tends to focus on a moment, distill the experience of that moment into just the right words so that the reader can come close to experiencing the full gestalt of the event themselves, i.e. the emotional, cognitive, perceptual, visceral and allusive reality of the moment, such that the re-creation of the moment in the poem seems paradoxically both singular and universal as it resonates with the reader’s own thoughts, feelings, memories, knowledge and perceptions.

The bottom line is, I write poetry because that’s just the way things feel to me: intense, complex, and full of life and significance.

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