Saturday, October 18, 2008

Quicker than a firehose

George Orwell told us, "Arnold Bennett was hardly exaggerating when he said that in the English-speaking countries the word “poetry” would disperse a crowd quicker than a fire-hose." It's ironic that when I was looking for a photo for this piece, I found this 1912 San Diego picture of police using a real fire hose to disperse potential poets -- or free-speakers, anyway.

I taught a course on poetry and its creation a few years ago. Going through my files [1] last week I ran across a single sheet of hints and quotes and advice which I had provided to my students on the first evening. Here it is, without all the formatting and fonts, for your consideration:
”Poetry is the elegant distillation of understanding into language.”

The purpose is communication.

The intended audience need not be large.

The dictionary and thesaurus are your friends.

Waiting for inspiration does not work – or not often. Write every day, it primes the pump.

Read read read

Read out loud, to hear the music of poetry. (This is especially useful with your own stuff.)

Good writing gets better the more you read it.

Experimentation can create new and significant stuff. Or not.

Some people say rhyme and structure are passé. They are wrong.

Writing without editing is not writing.

Recognize what is good in your stuff, but be ready to edit with a machete. However, wait at least a year before burning any piece.

People make poetry just as trees make leaves. There is always more.

Write passionately, edit ruthlessly.

Avoid clichés like the plague!
Poetry is not a frill -- witness the habit of dictators to kill or imprison poets.

You think they do it as a hobby -- either the poets or their persecutors? No, having tamed the press and the novelists and the theologians and the usual avenues by which people protest their oppression, sooner or later only poets, musicians and clowns and tellers of fairy tales remain as potent speakers -- and targets.

The mind that is accustomed to reading poetry is a mind that can get behind the scenes and see how the scenery of society is built, and what the canvas and paint are covering.


[1] Euphemism: "going through my files" = "feebly struggling to unearth my office, in the manner of a toddler excavating the Great Pyramid of Giza with a teaspoon".

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