One of the finest experiences of my writing life was taking a workshop with Jack Gilbert. If you aren't familiar with his poetry, I recommend his most recent book, Refusing Heaven. But I also adore The Great Fires.
It was a three day workshop, just eight poets and Jack. Here are some of the highlights of what he said, taken from my notebook:
Enter poetry like a lover.
Poetry occurs between one word and the next. The energy comes from what words you put by each other. They have overtones and create an energy field, things chiming as you go.
The first line is very important, establishes the ambience. How it will be received.
Poetry is a living object.
The body doesn't understand language. So image it, see it, concrete detail, felt knowledge. Hopkins is not telling you about God, he is dancing you into an experience with God. Poetry makes the truth experience in us. Concreteness makes a poem work.
Tell me something about love that matters.
To capture the particularity of a feeling is exciting.
Get stark, primal energy into the poem.
Giving shape to suffering is healing.
In revising your poem, make it twice as long; you have to get into territory you don't know .
Read great poets and forget about ideas and get a language transfusion. Steal the engine, not the hubcaps. Notice the strategies of poems.
Something needs to happen in the language besides the decoration.
Don't let the idea lead you through the poem by the hand. Keep the mystery.
Good poetry is truly caused by something.
Making the invisible seen. Poets are "bees of the invisible." (Rilke)
See six things everyday. Everybody has opinions, but can you see?
The woman wanted to write about her baby. Look at the baby's fingernails.
Be available to seeing, not just willing to see. You don't look at sugar; you wait to see sugar.
We see habitually by our own refraction. Knife in the water. You don't see the knife; you see the refraction.
Real surrealism has to have truth in it.
Does the poem keep its energy all the way through? What are moments in the poem that really need to be there and those that don't?
Get away from writing cleverly and write from a deeper place.
Poetry isn't sane. Prose is. Poetry uses another part of the brain.
Sparkle and intensity of the language, fresh images.
Change up the sentence structure. Opens a window in your mind.
Unearned feeling or image falls into sentimentality. Write on the edge of sentiment without tipping over.
Take the normal and introduce something strange. But if everything is crazy, nothing is crazy.
The fear of sentiment is the greatest cowardice of the 20th century, it is impoverishing us and our poetry.
One of the functions of poetry is to teach people feeling ,to reawaken feeling.
Your poem should reflect the entire history of the traditions that came before you and comes out your way and not his way.
It's the poet's responsibility to convince the reader of the authentic feeling, the earned experience.
There are some things you can't accomplish unless you are willing to fail in places. Midnight Cowboy takes such risks, it is amazing, even though parts of that movie fail. I want to take that risk of going that far.
Pop artists ride what's fashionable, they are uncomfortable with naked feeling, they have moderated the wildness in the heart.
When you revise, respect the poem, and the energy that initiated it.
You feel the dance instead of following the steps.
Draw a picture of the poem to see what's going on and listen to the poem. Drawing is a way of listening to what's happening in the poem and to work on its form.
Over-reach what's successful. Go beyond the successful poem, find the larger poem inside it.
Break your lines within syntactical units:
a few small nips (instead of):
a few small
Why the run over of line breaks? More effective if you leave it in syntactical units:
The roses you gave me kept me awake all night
with the sound of the petals falling.
If I had known the size of this longing
I would have watched you every hour
like looking into an empty mirror.
"Go too far to find out how too far is." (Cocteau)
Enter a dark room in your poems and yet see very clearly.
What works for the reader :that's what a workshop is about.
A title is an occasion to get something more into the poem. Another take. Resonate more meanings, imply meanings that are in the poem but not spelled out.
Picasso bought a huge canvas, he was going to paint a masterpiece, deliberately.
Don't write the poem. Let it come from the hammering of our humanity.
Poetry works by insight, intuition, feeling, dream, revelation, works obliquely, works to say something that can't be said any other way by communicating truth or ideas affectively. Affects you.
Does the poem have energy, tension the way it is?
The key to poetry is compression; compression creates energy.
The details have to be made interesting to the reader who wasn't there, have to be detonated by the reader who wasn't there.
Keep the long poem alive through rhythm, pulse, movement.
If you write about a parent, a father, the shadow figure, keeper of his love, gone, mystery, you have to trigger similar kinds of feeling others have had about their parent. Universality.
Having one's feelings so available to oneself and to be able to put them into a poem is a blessing.
Have a big ending by having a small ending.
Subjects for the serious poet: love, death, loneliness.
My heart goes out to reality, not symbols.
Poem by Jack Gilbert from Refusing Heaven:
A Brief for the Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that's what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
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