Recently, I headed up a workshop about troublesome poems. It was called Vital Signs: First Aid for Poems. In gathering useful thoughts for the class, I wondered if all the categories of troublesome poems, all the queries/flaws/doubts could break down to:
The poem that is there but in disguise--uncover:
- And here I do not necessarily mean to uncomplicate the poem because layers and braiding and teeter-tottering between different materials can be effective. One does not always speak directly in a poem.
- Is there a lot of language clutter in the poem? Could the poem benefit from lopping off the beginning or the end which is where we tend to get explain-y? Could the poem be improved by deducting 10 percent of the words/20 percent of the words?
- Have you read the poem out loud? Have you put your finger down on the place where it “sounds funny” which can be a rhythm problem or maybe a grammatical problem or a problem of clarity or the discovery that what you wrote does not really mean what you want to say?
- What about using line breaks or white space to put more room in the poem, pauses where meaning can accrue?
Discovering/calling forth is harder. (No reference to a muse intended or welcome here.)
- First, I would say get rid of the idea that the poem can mean anything, that the images and language are just serviceable placeholders that the reader hangs his own experience on. If that was so, why bother? Therefore:
- Readdress the images you use. If there are no images, this is worrisome. Be more specific which is the same as being in control of your poem. Create the landscape of the poem, so that the kitchen chair is the kitchen chair you remember, not the placeholder for the reader’s experience.
- Make language choices that are unexpected, that keep the reader awake while reading. This has to do with their sound and their aptness and their specificity all at once.
- Is the poem you’ve written from the wrong perspective? Or from a too usual perspective? Does it needs a new focus? Sometimes I recommend writing what I call companion poems--poems with a different speaker or addressed to the acorn under the speaker’s foot or in the voice of a series of waves on a winter day. How can I approach in a different way--sideways/upside-down/more thoroughly? Which is to say tell it slant.
- Sometimes maybe you’re boring yourself? By which I mean you are writing in the way you have always written and maybe you want/need something else.