Article: POETRY FOR BETTER OR WORSE by Anita Sullivan


I told them my favorite story:
One day.

They liked it except for the
surprise ending.
–James Richardson, from The Encyclopedia of the Stones: A Pastoral 

Question: Do you need to know something about poetry in order to write a good poem?
Answer: No.

Why not?

Because during the course of a lifetime, almost every human is statistically certain to speak or write a poem by accident (“You’re a poet and don’t know it. . . .”) Although “Poet” is a profession, and writing poems is a highly refined skill, it’s also one of those activities that people do for recreation, self-expression, therapy, personal growth, because at this level writing poems is fairly easy.  Like cooking, singing, making love, being a parent, downloading apps to your smart phone, it falls into the “Anybody Can Do It” category. Not only Anybody can write a poem, but Anybody can write a good poem.

Yes, but most of us don’t want to wait around for statistics to kick in. And for sure writing a good poem on purpose is different from writing one by accident. You do need to know something.

The question can be refined a bit into: “How do you develop the instinct that lets you know good poetry when you see it?” Same question whether you’re reading or writing poetry. Why not the best?

According to NY Times poetry critic David Orr, it takes about 1000 hours to educate yourself enough to trust your poetic instincts, and he’s only talking about Modern Poetry.

Also, we’re really not talking simple “good” vs. “bad,” but everything on the scale between. There’s almost no complex human activity that doesn’t involve “better” or “worse” versions: even walking, talking, eating –- all the things that every healthy person learns to do in childhood –- can be done clumsily or badly, and those very same activities can be carefully practiced, and refined to some level of expertise –- if not into downright art. Yet we must practice most of our basic skills at the “Anybody Can” level while choosing to refine others.

One reason, aside from sheer dumb statistics, that a non-poet might accidentally deliver a poem into the world at any moment, is that human speech evolved into a natural bodily function, and became one we totally rely on for getting through life. Speaking (not just making noise) is rhythmically regulated by two of our most important life-sustaining actions: breathing and heartbeat. In fact, if we blocked out the rhythmic aspects of speech, we would be unable to understand each other. In addition to simply pronouncing words, we must deliver them with variations in accent, volume, duration, pitch, and proportion (that is, a certain balance between silence and sound).

Poetry is a contrived way of speaking that selects a large but finite number of regular, rhythmic  speech patterns  and uses them over and over in infinite combinations –-  That’s how “it all” began. . .

Much of our speech – probably the majority of it – is arrhythmic. But a high number of the  patterned rhythms in everyday language, we cherish for a variety of reasons, mainly aesthetic and emotional. These patterns we have come, over time, to use so often that they almost don’t need words to fill them up. The calls of parents to their small children, for example: “You come here this minute!” or “Wait for Daddy!” or “What a good helper you are!”

We know these rhythms in our muscles and bones; we’re all potential poets. In these rhythms we pray, console, grieve, exult, exhort, argue, and praise. The rhythms that later become poems are very ancient, though they change over time. Poetry, like all arts, depends on humans who have not forgotten the ancient desire to thrive, not just to survive.

So, how did we get from being natural-born poets to thinking of poetry as a very obsolete, difficult, specialized and irrelevant use of language that only a small group of nerdy types even bother with?

Some Answers: we stopped walking, we stopped reading, we invented doors and locks, we stopped recognizing each other by name on the streets, we stopped eating together, singing together, dancing together, we stopped remembering stories, we stopped

listening. . . .

So yes, a revised answer to the very first Question above: you do need to know something in order to write a good poem, and it’s not just a surprise ending!

–- Anita Sullivan, January 2014
Poetry for Better or Worse by Anita Sullivan
Anita is one of our guest writers at The Poetry Loft.
To find out more about Anita, please visit her profile page

2 comments on Article: POETRY FOR BETTER OR WORSE by Anita Sullivan

  1. Anita, that was terrific. I hadn't realized until now how deeply the rhythm of the words resonates, and that many of the things that we are now surrounded by are dissonant in ways that we don't recognize. Fascinating.

  2. Yes, I too find this terrific, thanks for sending it out. Reminds too of the perhaps not so familiar old adage, you don't write "good" poems if you don't also write "bad" poems. But this shows us how inherently natural poetry is to our very quotidian lives. Thanks!

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