I recently bought Jack Gilbert’s new book, “The Dance Most of All,” and on first glance it seems to be more of the same. He’s one of my favorite poets and I’m certainly looking forward to reading his new poetry (it’s all so comfortable), yet I can’t help feeling as though he discovered one way to do something and hasn’t varied since then. His poems all look the same: like a herd of horses, they’re different colors and even breeds and beautiful, but still, all HORSES. I’ve noticed that other poets tend to do this, never changing that one style that works, that brings them recognition and awards. It’s a trap.
Both beginners and old-hands fall into this trap, in which there are two sides. On one side you write only for yourself, on the other you write only for other people. The best work of any poet straddles the sharp line in-between: where you understand how much information a reader needs to relate to your poem and you also understand that you must push the boundary of sameness and move into artistry. Most of the stuff I’ve read in journals now, respectable journals and respectable poets, is so random that comprehension is also random. These poems do not even pretend to speak to a reader. Most of the other stuff I read is all too conscious of the reader and fails to provide that spark of difference that moves the poem from ordinary into innovative. Boring, boring, boring, both sides.
I don’t want that. I don’t want to write the same kind of poem over and over for the rest of my life. I don’t want to write only for myself and I don’t want to write what is fashionable right now.
I was struck by it because of my experience this NaPoWriMo. It’s my, what? fifth time doing it, and while the first four times were energizing and surprising, this one was far less so.
Part of it was the general climate of the PFFA forum dedicated to NaPo this year, which was a little more frantic than I’m used to, a little more hyped-up, and thus a little more off-putting for this half-poet who’s struggling to finish the damn book of poems that she’s been planning and writing for eight doggone years (in my defence, my grandmother, the subject of the book, lived for 90 years and I’m trying to write her life in poems, and 90 years are a long time — but then, so are eight). The spin-off of that climate was a mid-level sense of unease among a number of participants (I was one of them), which could be a good thing if channelled right, or a bad thing if mishandled.
But part of it was me. I found that the exercise of writing a poem a day, producing 30 poems in April, which I failed at in the first two years (the first one producing only, I think, seven, and the second writing into May to finish the 30) and succeeded at in the next two, writing 32 in 2007 and 30 last year), no longer the glorious experience it was in the past. The reason? My poems are starting to sound the same. Not to look the same necessarily, but to throw up the same tropes, the same turns, the same gimmicks, the same tricks, the same themes.
And so, after 27, I stopped. The reason was not merely that I was tired; it was that I was tired of producing the same things. These are what come out when I get into that zone, that place where the words come easily, where the rhymes fall, the rhythms dance themselves into being. The challenge of writing a poem a day around the edges of marking and teaching and thinking (which is what returning to academia does for one, unlike the anaesthesia of bureaucracy, where brains idle all day long) found me taking refuge in the same ideas that I’ve used for the last three years — the same linking of concepts, the same pairs of ideas, the same rhyme-chimes, both in meaning and in sound.
Time to stop, I thought. Time to stop.
And so my connection with Christine’s post on static. It’s exactly what I’m trying to avoid. I suspect that I’m moving towards a period of silence in my poetry, a time when I need to refocus and learn some more stuff so that my subconscious won’t keep pulling up the same old same old easy links and chains. Don’t know where I’m going with this, but it’s definitely time for a change.