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ddykstal
ddykstal

Just about to dip into Ursula K. LeGuin’s So Far So Good. I’m wondering if writing poetry is a craft you can learn or if it is a talent you nurture mostly on your own. Enlighten me, you poets out there. 📚

rnv
rnv

@ddykstal I definitely see it as a craft that one can learn.

Of course, some people may have more talent than others, but I firmly believe it’s a learnable, teachable craft.

But then, I tend to think that everything is a craft, and “talent” simply refers partly to the ease with which we take to a craft and partly to our fluency in it. (Fluency, in turn, can increase through “nurturing on your own” aka practice.)

Think of cooking, driving a car, playing a musical instrument, or handcoding html: we can take classes or teach ourselves, but either way, we’ll get (at least a little) better the more we do it (except maybe driving a car — but that’s a rant for another day…)

cc/ @richnewman @schuth @mwillett @smokey

mwillett
mwillett

@rnv amen to that: if I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t spend so much time in classrooms. Moreover, it’s something you can see. You can watch poems from the same pen (even one’s own) get better with attention.

smokey
smokey

@rnv @ddykstal For what it’s worth from someone who is neither professional nor published and who prepends “pretend” to poet, I would say that one of the most important things when setting out to develop one’s poetic chops is to have something to say or express, and then the willingness to work at it.

I think back to most of the poetry I wrote in high school and before, and it was largely garbage because I didn’t have anything motivating me beyond “finish the assignment”. Once I went to Egypt and came back, I had an immense collection of things to say, feeling to express, and experiences to draw upon, and I had a willingness to write (and write and write) and learn and revise. (There was also a decade or so from mid-2000s to mid-2010s when I struggled to write anything, which I attribute in large part to having nothing to say most of the time, and then, when I did have something to say, to having fallen out of practice from not having written.) I’ve never had a formal class in poetry, let alone writing, but I do think back to things we discussed in high school English classes when studying various poetry as literature, and when I remember to apply some of them, I can always tell I’ve made an improvement.

@richnewman posted recently about (among other things) all of the writing he did in his early days of becoming a poet, which is probably a useful read in this context.

I’m not sure if any of this meandering makes sense, but I definitely agree that it’s something you can learn vs. something you’re born with or the like.

// @ mwillett @schuth

richnewman
richnewman

@ddykstal There was a time when the ability to write a competent sonnet was part of what an educated gentleman was supposed to be able to do. The only way to be able to do that, of course, was to learn the craft of sonnet-writing. (There were, of course, also women who could write competent and better-than-competent sonnets, but it was not considered a "necessary component" of their education.)

So, yes, there is a craft that you can learn--what some people would refer to as versification (and I would include the writing of competent free verse and prose poetry in that as well). This, for me at least, is a question separate and apart from the question of why you might choose to write poetry and for whom. Or, to put that another way, from the question of what you have (or think you have to say), whether it is best said in a poem, and to whom you think it is worth saying. There is a difference, for example, between the person who writes poetry primarily for themselves and/or for a small group and the person who has the audacity--because it is, at bottom, an audacious thing--to presume that their work is worth the time, effort, and money other people would have to expend publishing, promoting, and reading it. And that difference has nothing whatsoever to do with the lasting literary value of the work produced by those two kinds of poets. The former might write "poetry for the ages," while the the latter's work might have no lasting value at all. (And none of that takes into consideration the viscissitudes of the market and the machinery by which literary reputations are made, unmade, and, for whatever reason, not made.)

I just finished listening to the latest episide of Commonplace, a worthwhile literary podcast, and the host, Rachel Zucker, was talking about how, when she was getting her MFA, she was told in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that she ought to be trying to write "timeless poetry," when what she wanted was to write "timely poetry," poetry that would be of real use to people right now. I received the same message, though I don't have an MFA, and one of the underlying assumptions is that people who succeed in writing "timeless poetry" were the ones with real, true, native talent and artistic sensibility, whilel the ones who wrote timely (which is also called occasional) poetry tended to be mere versifiers, people who may have mastered craft, but who had no innate vision or talent. For what it's worth, I think it's a bullshit distinction.

cc/ @schuth @mwillett @smokey @rnvo

rnv
rnv

@richnewman Yes, exactly this.

The drive to write can be due to the need to express oneself, but I’ve found that over-reliance on “expression” as a motivator plays into the mystical idea that poets are supposed to be “inspired,” which all too often leads to stasis and frustration.

If you wait to be inspired, you’ll be waiting a long time. And when you finally are inspired, you’ll have had no practice, and the product will fall far short of the ideal in your head. No one thinks they can simply be inspired to write a song and, never having played before, just pick up a guitar and boom: a song. So why would writing be any different? Well, I believe it’s because we think we’re practicing all the time, by virtue of using language to, well, talk.

That is, many of us think that writing is the same as talking — and, even more so, that writing is the same as communicating. But poetry isn’t exclusively about communication or expression. (Of course, neither is speech, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

A poem is an event made out of sounds —sounds which just happen to be human language. A writer makes words do things beyond their usual scope, and this takes practice. It also takes a lot of research — that is, reading — to see what other writers have managed to do with words.

If you learn to work the raw materials, you’ll be better prepared for when you are inspired. And you may eventually discover that the joy of working the raw materials is enough.

cc/ @ddykstal @schuth @mwillett @smokey

richnewman
richnewman

@rnv This:

No one thinks they can simply be inspired to write a song and, never having played before, just pick up a guitar and boom: a song. So why would writing be any different? Well, I believe it’s because we think we’re practicing all the time, by virtue of using language to, well, talk.

Reminds me very much of something the Australian poet A. D. Hope said at the beginning of an essay called "The Three Faces of Love," of which I unfortunately cannot find a copy online, or I would quote it for you. Basically, he suggests that what you say above is one reason why, in his time at least, no one gave much thought at all to the education of poets: since we are, all of us, experts (in that we speak it fluently) in our native language, there is no obvious reason why any of us shouldn't think we are therefore already “qualified" to be a poet. (That's my paraphrase and might be a little inaccurate, but I think it gets at the gist.)

Of course, now, with the proliferation of MFA programs, at least in the US, his claim no longer holds. There are an awful lot of people thinking an awful lot about how to educate poets (much less other kinds of writers), and this professionalization of what it means to be a poet has had all kinds of consequences, but that is for another conversation.

cc/ @ddykstal @schuth @mwillett @smokey

schuth
schuth

@rnv

If you learn to work the raw materials, you’ll be better prepared for when you are inspired. And you may eventually discover that the joy of working the raw materials is enough.

This is put so well, Robert.

One thing I will add (and I'm cribbing this from Richard Hugo), is that poetry is twice-individualized. The writer sees or experiences something that prompts them to write; the writer's own relationship with their language modulates that experience. Poetry's music begins to emerge in that modulation & is tuned by attention to the formal (or non-formal) & stylistic conventions the writer employs or breaks, the silences they open, the deliberate omissions they make. Those things can definitely be learned. Seeing & understanding the significance of what is seen (or how it connects with that which is Significant) is highly personal, and knowing when & how to get out of one's own head takes time & practice.

// @ddykstal @mwillett @smokey @richnewman

smokey
smokey

@schuth @rnv @mwillett @richnewman I’m very happy not being the smartest person in this room :-) Such a great discussion going on here. // @ddykstal

richnewman
richnewman

@schuth @schuth Are you cribbing from The Triggering Town? That was a really important book to me when I was younger and I've been thinking lately that it would be good to get a copy and read again.

// @ddykstal @mwillett @smokey @rnv

In reply to
richnewman
richnewman

@rnv Another thought about this:

If you learn to work the raw materials, you’ll be better prepared for when you are inspired. And you may eventually discover that the joy of working the raw materials is enough.

The "Lines Left on The Cutting Room Floor" that I've been posting here are all from a series of very traditional sonnets I forced myself to write. I ended up with around 120 of them. When I went back to work on them to see if there was anything there other than practice, only one of them survived as a sonnet, but I would not trade the sheer pleasure I felt in writing them all for anything.

cc/ @ddykstal @schuth @mwillett @smokey

schuth
schuth

@richnewman Yes, indeed, The Triggering Town! I occasionally suggest it to young poets-in-formation who submission work to us & could benefit, as I wish I’d read it earlier myself. (When relevant, I also mention Hugo was a vet.) It’s been a few years since I last read it, so revisiting it myself would be a good idea.

rnv
rnv

@smokey

Such a great discussion going on here

Agreed! And thanks @ddykstal for getting it started — I hope we answered your question to your satisfaction!

// @schuth @mwillett @richnewman

ddykstal
ddykstal

@rnv I'm not sure. I'm a poetry novice. I think what is being proposed here is that it is like any learned skill. Coding, for instance, requires a firm grasp of some basic logic, basic set theory, some linguistics perhaps, some training in so-called "best practices", in addition to a sense of how to tackle problems. It's that sense of how to approach problems that is hard to teach. Poetry seems to me similar: good basic skills, but a flair for description, rhythm, and a personal style developed over time.

I'm wondering how many great poets received any formal training that was specific to poetry. I'm not even sure what that would be.