Someone recently asked for advice. I hesitate to give advice, but here's what works for me.
Letter to Younger Poets
Read until your eyes fall out. Read poetry not written by yourself. Read William Shakespeare, read Catullus, read Ntozake Shange, read Charles Bukowski, Emily Dickinson, Theodore Roethke, Mary Oliver, Countee Cullen, Longfellow, Leigh Hunt, Ginsberg, Naomi Shihab Nye. Zagajewski, Neruda, Baudelaire, Han Shan, Senghor. Read everybody in sight. If you're over 25 (heck, if you're over eighteen) and you don't own at least a hundred books of poetry, please do your best to remedy the situation!
I'd recommend reading both Ted Kooser's Poetry Home Repair Manual and Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled. A poet, even if he or she is not a formalist, is someone in love with language, and eager to learn how it "works." Kooser and Fry both have many helpful thoughts on "getting started." (Also helpful, in a lighter-hearted way, Kenneth Koch's Making Your Own Days.)
It won't hurt, occasionally, to imitate the fixed stars of the poetic universe. (I know, this is a blasphemous suggestion for anyone caught up in the cult of "originality." But knowing the voices of others does, paradoxically, help you find your own voice. It gives you flexibility, a set of new tools, new "tricks" if you will.) It helps the poet newly launched from shore to know what others have done in her or his chosen art, and to learn as much as can be learned from them. As Stephen Fry notes, what musician doesn't listen to music? Is there a guitarist of skill in the world who has never heard of Segovia, Clapton, Prince?
Let your own enthusiasm do the work for you. Find out for yourself about magazines and open readings! Be self-propulsive (but also unsentimentally clear-headed about the fact that magazines reject a thousand times oftener than they accept.) If you're in a big city with a university, it shouldn't be hard to find an open-mike night somewhere. If you have the internet, finding publications is fairly easy, and with the Submittable app, it's not hard to submit anymore. No more manila envelopes and SSAEs!
Be willing to be taught. Take a course, find a workshop. And find someone firm but charitable, someone who has the good of the poem in mind.
Love what you're doing, and don't expect money from it. (Ted Kooser says that the most successful poet rarely gets remuneration for a poem that would enable her or him to buy a bag of groceries. Not everyone is Maya Angelou, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins. Or Seamus Heaney! Most of us will not have our doors banged down by representatives of the Nobel committee or of the popular press!)
Be enthusiastic, eager, tireless in your writing, voracious in your reading. Be sure that poetry is something you want to do. Say what you have to say. If your voice is urgent, tenacious, articulate, and passionate enough, it will be heard!
But also (this is important!) be humble, be gracious, be kind, and be willing to fail miserably. All of us do fail; it's part and parcel of trying hard.
Is there anything I'm forgetting?
Oh yes. Your first draft is not sacrosanct. We poets do not wake up first thing in the morning speaking with the tongues of angels. Most of us need to work at making the words sound clear and fluent, seem compelling and inevitable. Work means revision. Work means a second draft, a third draft, a twenty-ninth draft. Work means looking at something you wrote ten or twenty years ago, and being willing to tweak, to tinker, to try and try again. There are so many pitfalls, and indeed pratfalls, in this difficult dance we attempt. We move, halting and encumbered, in the direction of grace. It is worth the serious striving.
Thanks for listening. Peace and light.
Essay by Thomas DeFreitas
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Written on 2019-02-25 at 07:14
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