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The famous American poet, E. E. Cummings, in his "A Poet's Advice to Students," explains that the most difficult task of the poet is to be one's own self, expressing one's own feelings, using words that belong to "nobody, but yourself." And, since poetry's meaning is founded upon a metaphor that creates a tension between the literal and the figurative, the poet must find that metaphor that expresses authentically and originally his/her feelings. According to Cummings, the poet must be willing and eager "to feel, and work, and fight."
Feeling outside personal experience, feeling about abstract ideas is challenging, for it is difficult to capture the metaphor of abstract feeling. It is, indeed, a testimony to the greatness of the contemporary poet Wallace Stevens who composed as he walked from the commuter station to his insurance office.
Honestly, the writing process, in general, is difficult for me. It doesn't matter if it's a poem, an essay, a letter, etc. Most of my poems begin with an idea or image, just as an essay begins with a not completely formed thesis. However, because the poetry I write is almost always personal-that is, based on memory, I tend to grow attached to certain words or phrases that actually hinder the work as a whole, and it is difficult to let go. I like the difficulty though. If it's too easy, then I know I have not finished. When I introduce poetry to my students, I usually begin with this quote from Wm Zissner: "Writing is easy. Writing well is difficult."
My favorite - and most difficult - two classes in college were my two creative writing poetry classes. All my life I thought poetry was just emotional, arbitrary, and cute. I was (well, still am) really good at rhyming couplets - not exactly what my professor was looking for.
The things I learned about poetry as a result of these two semesters I think showed me that writing poetry is much more difficult than everyone thinks it is.
It is difficult to:
- be original and not sound contrived
- capture a subject based on images - which is largely what poetry does
- keep your voice in it - make it personal - without being "cutesy"
If you want to become a good poet you must READ A LOT OF POETRY. It is true that in the end, the criticism of art does not matter if you love what you've created. But if you wish to be respected or published in the world of poetry, you cannot do so without developing a very wide foundation of what others have done and are doing.
I've written poetry for almost a quarter century, and still really enjoy it as one of the few almost pure ways of expressing myself. Poetry distills away all that is unimportant or superficial and leaves you with plain reality. That being said, I can never find enough time during the teaching year to write.
I need space, and quiet. I need to be rested, so that I have creative energy. I need to be healthy. Most of my best stuff is about experiences, so I need to get out of my house or my classroom. Eight months of the year this just isn't really possible.
Long hours at school and every spare minute taken up with life leaves me with summer breaks and vacations, which is more than most people get. Because of all of this, I find I do my best writing in August, after vacations, after I have caught up on sleep, and once the creative juices are flowing. I don't know how regular 9 to 5 workers write poetry.
As a professor one of the most challenging issues I have faced with helping students attempt poetry is the engagement factor. Poetry is supposed to be a blueprint of the soul and psyche. It is very hard to ask people to just produce any work of this kind at will. Particularly, it is even harder to expect people to choose to use figurative language, elements of style, symmetry and asymmetry, or any other literary element "just because". Therefore, asking ANY human being to produce any form of poetry is the equivalent as to ask them to produce a wedding speech, an engagement speech, or even a new year's speech- in the cold. That is not fair for the person, and will produce ill effects on the work expected.
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