Shades of Sadness
At least half, if not more, of all of the poems ever written could probably be considered "sad." Elegiacism, melancholy, ennui, mourning, loss, nostalgia, unrequited love, blocked ambitions, political disillusionment, dishonor, and death are some of the subjects commonly associated with sadness in poetry, but the list is comet-tail long.
Some poets, like Plath, or Poe, or Baudelaire are so well known for grappling with sadness that they are most often conceptualized wearing black, looking crestfallen, and writing by candlelight in a cobwebby room.
The question is: is the pallor that punctuates poetry as obvious and complete as it seems, or is there room for new shades of sadness?
The fragility and melancholic music of Tennyson's "Tears Idle Tears" may be the correct match for our autumnal empire, but our phone-locked minds no longer respond to such delicacies.
The brooding, unrelenting mourning of "The Raven" may have been our cultural heart beat all along, but most of us are inured to such Gothic brooding and would feel quite cozy under Pallas's raven-topped bust.
We may be living in the "the worst of times" or "the best of times" but it seems to me that our age invites new colors of sadness and mourning.
We've all colored with the black crayon so much it's just a stub now.
Maybe it's time to find new colors of sadness by mixing new pigments.
And I'll start talking about how I think we can do that in the next post!
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Characters can make or break a poem. Just like a novelist or short story writer, the poet needs characters. The poet need not have character personally, as is often the case, but the poem itself demands living personages.
And just as in prose, it's often the minor characters that do all the heavy lifting. You can't have Hamlet without Ophelia. You can't even have Hamlet without Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And most importantly, you need Horatio. He is the frame for the whole play, right down to Hamlet's demise.
For those of you who don't know your Shakespeare -- you can't have Frodo without Sam.
That said, what are some good ways to use minor characters in your poems?
Poe has a great one in "The Raven" and it's not even the bird. It's Lenore. She's as mysterious Mona Lisa's smile.
Plath has an entire cast of wonderful minor characters in "Lady Lazarus" -- ranging from adoring fans to probing psychiatrists. Robert Pinksy's poem, "The Questions," is full of mini-portraits and they give the poem life and blood and fever.
In fact, so many poets, from Sappho to Bukowski, rely on the presence of passing faces and personalities to give their poems depth and life, that portraiture and the principles of dramatic stage-movement should be learned by every aspiring poet.
They key is to let people move through your poems, as organically as possible. Try not to fixate on your subjective response to them, but capture their essence as it relates to the poem in question. Don't give us too much information, but paint colorful personalities and bodies with a few well-placed brushstrokes.
Here's something you can do just for fun that will really show you what I mean. Write a poem with no people in it. Focus on the setting. Now write a poem with he same setting, but add at least two people.
If your second poem is shorter than the first, there's a slight chance you may be staying in too much. It's perfectly fine to write a poem without people in it, but doing so makes a statement in itself and doing so a lot will make your poems seem abstract whether you want them to or not.
Using Big Famous people in your poems is like using big shiny words. If you drop a Big Name, there should be a good reason. Drop it and move on -- or just go ahead and write the poem about the famous person.
Last little hint: the more you use people in your poems, the more dimension you give yourself as an observer. This will make your vertical pronouns pop!
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Graphic depictions of violence snake through virtually every form of American entertainment and art, from classic cartoon violence of The Simpsons, to movie violence of Tarantino, and graphic depictions of violence in horror by Ellis, Caine and other writers. Even highly acclaimed episodic shows such as The Sopranos and Game of Thrones thrive on routine depictions of beatings, murders, and rape.
By contrast, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single graphic depiction of violence in any celebrated American poem. Even Poe at his darkest, or Bukowski on his most misanthropic whiskey binge, never touch upon the kind of larger-than-life depictions of violence that otherwise groove the pulse of our cultural machine from stealth bombers to genuine life serial killers.
As far as I can see, this widely accepted artistic aesthetic is missing from American poetry.
Don't get me wrong -- there's a lot of it being written and even posted or published in zines, but it's almost all angsty teenager stuff even if isn't being written by literal teenagers (which is mostly is.)
Tupac gets talked about as a violent poet. I agree. Some of his words deal directly with violent subjects and issues, but still no projectile vomiting or slow-motion beheadings. You won't find a crash-test dummy segment like Tarantino painstakingly assembles in Death Proof. And you certainly won't find Bones and All.
Playing spoiler here: I personally think this is a good thing. I'm all for drawing a discernable line between spectacle and art.
On the other hand, intentionally or not, our society is doing everything to erase that line. We celebrate the spectacle of human torture and suffering in film, but unlike the Romans who remained aware of the online between spectacle and art, we embrace violence as art.
But not, seemingly, in poetry.
How do you feel about this?
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Next time you're getting ready to write a poem, think about who's actually writing it.
It doesn't have to be you.
Any number of famous poets, from Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath, (and virtually everyone in between) experiment with poetic personas, masks, disguises, and characters. Shakespeare is the most obvious example, given that most of his work is overtly written for the stage.
But If we learn anything from Shakespeare, it's that everything (and everywhere) is a stage. And that holds true for a poem.
Imagine if Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Robert Frost, or Emily Dickinson didn't use poetic disguises.
Or consider your favorite rapper or hip-hop artist. For the most part, the art they create reflects a persona, or a variety of personas, and this is a good thing.
In his youth, James Dickey was a middling poet, average running back, and all around unremarkable guy at Clemson University. That is until one of his writing professors told him it was OK to lie when writing poetry. In Dickey's words this realization caused "the dam to break," after which, book after book of daring original poetry (and prose) poured out of him.
In fact , Dickey's use of personas was so successful that he fooled critics as wise has Robert Bly into mistaking poems such as "Slave Quarters" or "The Firebombing" as works of authentic imperialism.
What I'm saying is: when you write a poem, choose to be anyone, including yourself, but not limited to yourself.
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Better Not Bitter
One of the best things about being a poet is that every poem gives you a chance to get things right. If you don't like what you did in the last poem, or the last 20 poems, this poem is your chance to get everything in place. Whatever mistakes you may have made in the past are only pointers to use to get better.
There's just basically something inherently hopeful in writing a poem. Even if the poem itself is a poem of grim and unrelenting doom. The very fact that you're writing a poem means you still believe in a few basic things such as human communication, artistic expression, and the capacity of language to conform to your emotions and thoughts.
So when you face a blank screen or blank piece of paper or simply sitting alone with your creative thoughts, consider every moment and Act of Hope.
Every poem you write ( up to a point) helps you write the next poem better.
But what happens when that's no longer the case? Is it possible to reach your Peak as a poet? If you do, will you know?
Can anybody tell you?
You probably will reach a peak as a poet, but you probably won't know when it happens, and neither will anyone else. If you happen to write a very popular poem, or a very popular book of poems you may still write better poems even if they don't gain as much instant popularity.
So I guess I'm trying to tell you to look at every poem you write (or try to write) with the belief that you're still getting better.
Don't let doubt or fear stop you; don't let the past or social media stop you. the worst thing you can do as a poet is to stop growing. As long as you're writing your growing so just keep writing!
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Flying Death Poem
I want you to consider two things right now: plane crashes and poetry.
Some of us might think it would be a grand gesture to write one last poem on a plunging plane -- moments before death.
Some of us might think it would be cool if we could write a poem that predicted the future.
Lee Campbell may have come close to do doing both.
On February 25th,1989, United Airlines flight 811 experienced and emergency when a cargo door blew open, ripping a hole in its fuselage that sucked nine passengers out into the sky above the Pacific ocean. A four minute fall to the sea waited for all of them, including the twenty-four-year-old Campbell.
Of course it goes without saying that Campbell and the others all plunged to their deaths. Many questions surrounded the disaster; Campbell's family remained persistent in trying to find answers.
One eerily interesting thing that Campbell's parents found after their son's death was the following poem that he'd written not long before the disaster:
`Was That Me?''
Waves hypnotizing me with green, beckoning fingers
A dream of space flight weightlessness
Air rushes past to fill a vacuum,
Progressive holes which must be filled
That's all there is to the poem, unfortunately. However this little poem says a lot, does it not? What I'd like you to do is simply imagine that the poem was written by someone who didn't die in a plane crash.
Is it still an interesting poem ?
What do you make of the title ?
I have my own thoughts as always, but for now, I'll simply say that this little fragment-poem can teach us all a lot -- it's up to us to extract all we can from it and from Campbell's unfortunate death.
You might say that any poem can teach us a lot -- and that's true, but I still think this one's special. I hope you do too. Please leave a comment or send me an email or a message to let me know how you feel about it.
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Read Lee's full story by clicking on the plane crash picture above.
This Is Not a Pipe or Poem
I have a question for you today: how important do you feel personal identity is to a poem?
If you suddenly found out, for example, that a great poem like Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" was secretly written, not by Frost, but by a ten year old girl who immigrated illegally to the United States, would it matter?
A casual brush with any contemporary literary journal -- print or online -- will show you quite quickly that identity is the driving force behind most of the poetry currently being published and ostensibly read among the academic crowds.
Similarly, if you check Spillwords, Facebook, or virtually any other content-platform where poets drop poems, you'll see a heavy preponderance of identity poetry. Race. Sexual orientation. Political affiliation. Religious affiliation. These are predominant themes in contemporary American poetry, with a very strong emphasis on gender and race.
Most submissions guidelines nowadays stipulate that they are specifically seeking poems that focus on identity and diversity.
For all intents and purposes, the current cultural trend is most definitely geared toward celebration of identity and even more focused on a culturally-driven form of Confessionalism. In other words, rather than anthems, most culturally identified poets are, in general, writing deeply personal poems.
To be clear, I think these are all really good things. I celebrate them right along with everyone else. But I think it does bring up a fascinating point for discussion, which is: how crucial is personal identity to poetry, actually.
Right now, in painting, artists like Jacqueline Humphries, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman, and Charline Von He are working to dissolve notions of painterly identity -- a conscious aesthetic built around the notion that by intentionally obscuring brushstroke identity, modern painters have, in effect, developed a form of expression that is new and difficult to fully categorize. In fact, the elimination of identity categories may be the only unifying factor in their works.
Which is better for art? For poetry?
I, of course, have many thoughts and they will be forthcoming in a proper essay on the painters mentioned above so stay tuned...
Love to hear them!
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My Seven Secrets of Poetry pdf dropped today and, like anyone who finishes up a project, I thought of something I should have added to it!
Well, on second thought, I guess I'm rather glad that I left it out! It's an important, if often bitter, aspect of art and poetry. Yes, I'm talking about envy. Jealousy. And competition.
And the reason I'm glad that I left this topic out of the Seven Secrets of Poetry pdf is because, even though it's a super important topic, it's not something that you can easily deal with or edit away, even figuratively speaking. There's no secret for beating it on either side.
Most of us will face some form of envy or jealousy on a regular basis throughout our careers as poets. The envy can be a feeling we have for others or it can be a feeling others have for us. In either case, there some general points to keep in mind, that seem to hold true regardless of particulars:
If people envy you, make them feel like kings and queens in your presence and truly be an inspiration.
But, you know, watch your back.
When you envy others, try to use it as a light to your own potential. Fight to be the best poet you can be.
Yes, poets seems to trigger a lot of envy, among themselves and among non-poets. it's a truly strange phenomenon. If you have any thoughts about it, drop me a line...
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August 22nd, 2022
Coming September 1st!!!!!!
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In many ways, poetry is about sharing your secrets. Most poets know this, but few are willing to let the fuse burn to its logical explosion: full personal disclosure.
You don't have to use vertical pronouns to set the dynamite; you just have to dare to out that part of you that means most to you because it's secret. It's not the "I" that does it, it's the "you."
Poe claimed to have had an epiphany about what would make the world's greatest book: a book called My Heart Laid Bare . But it would only be the greatest book ever written provided that the title was absolutely true.
Would you do this? Could you if you so desired?
It's not as easy as you may think. Most of us treasure our secrets. We treasure them more than we want to create great art, win fans, or express our inner-life. We'll give up "safe" secrets, but most of us would never think of parting with our most valuable private emotions and thoughts.
But as long as you don't put everything on the table, you're not fully realizing your potential as a poet. So, if you want to make progress, but have been stymied about just what direction to take next, try following Poe's advice, and remember, if it doesn't make you tremble, blush, or cry, it's probably not the deep enough.
My forthcoming PDF Seven Secrets of Poetry is coming out on August 1st!!! You can get a free copy of this excellent guide simply by using one of my Poetry Services. Repeat customers get a free copy of the PDF, plus deep discounts on services.
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