Musings on Poetics

As a result of certain events conspiring against me, I wrote a poem on Monday. I had a plot. I had a title. I was intended to write a short story, but when I sat down, a poem is what came out.

I'm still not sure how it happened, but I'm rather pleased with the result. I took multiple poetry workshops in college, but I've always considered myself first and foremost a writer of prose. Poetry has confounded me in the past. I've felt like someone entering a foreign land, a place where words fit together in ways I didn't understand. Three years ago, I was very good at drabbling words onto the page in interesting combinations--lines that rolled enticingly off the tongue, but at the end of the day failed to cohere into a meaningful whole.

Somewhere in the last three years (years when I was emphatically NOT writing poetry), that changed. You're going to laugh when you read this, but this week is the first time that I really felt like writing poetry and writing prose can be complementary activities. Not that I hadn't realized this before, in theory--rather, this week was the first time I really felt its effects. (Maybe this has something to do with graduate school. Or with three years of writing prose. Or three years of just hanging out.) On Monday I wrote my drabbly first draft, sat back, and really thought about the story I was trying to tell. Really thought about the form I wanted it to take. Poetry became not just WORDS! but rather, another avenue of storytelling that requires just as much thought as writing a short story or novel.

Similarly, writing poetry makes me more aware of word choice and phrasing in my prose. One of the things I like most about poetry are the constraints--in meter, in rhythm, in rhyme, in form. They force you to choose your words carefully, and re-choose them, and shuffle them, until they come together in precisely the right way. Almost-right is not right enough. From poetry I learned to concentrate on the internal rhythm of my sentences, to pay careful attention to the endings of things--paragraphs, chapters, novels.

Maybe the biggest reminder I took away from my impromptu poetry session is that poetry, as much as prose, is a process. One of my poetry professors in college used to said something along the lines of, "Poetry is never finished, only abandoned." One can tinker endlessly, adding a word here, dropping a word there, all in search of perfection. Maybe perfection is unachievable. But for someone who used to scribble a first draft and despair, it's heartening to be reminded that poetry is meant to be written and rewritten and refined and re-refined--slowly spiraling in from "well, what I mean to say" toward "This I say."