The Art of Finding
I believe that poetry at its best is found rather than written. Traditionally, and for many people even today, poems have been admired chiefly for their craftsmanship and musicality, the handsomeness of language and the abundance of similes, along with the patterning and rhymes. I respect and enjoy all that, but I would not have worked so hard and so long at my poetry if it were primarily the production of well-made objects, just as I would not have sacrificed so much for love if love were mostly about pleasure. What matters to me even more than the shapeliness and the dance of language is what the poem discovers deeper down than gracefulness and pleasures in figures of speech. I respond most to what is found out about the heart and spirit, what we can hear through the language. Best of all, of course, is when the language and other means of poetry combine with the meaning to make us experience what we understand. We are most likely to find this union by starting with the insides of the poem rather than with its surface, with the content rather than with the packaging. Too often in workshops and classrooms there is a concentration on the poem's garments instead of its life's blood.
My early life was changed drastically by the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but not primarily because of the poems' gorgeous words and rhythms. Rather it was because poems like "Pied Beauty" and "The Windhover" gave me a special way of knowing the earth and experiencing God. In the same way, Lorca was important to me when I was very young because of the mystery within the singing. There is a luminosity in those poems of Lorca and Hopkins, and for me ever since when I see such luminosity beginning in a poem, it is a sign that something significant has been found.
It may be that the major art in poetry is the art of finding this shining—this luminosity. It is the difference between a publishable poem and one that matters. Certainly one can make good poems without feeling much or discovering anything new. You can produce fine poems without believing anything, but it corrodes the spirit and eventually rots the seed-corn of the heart. Writing becomes manufacturing instead of giving birth.
I do not have a road map or a neat system to give you to help you find the luminosity in your poems—your art, but I would like to share how it has been for me. At the start, let us agree that the poet must master the elements of his craft: the rhythm, the strategies, the importance of compression, when to use rhyme and when not to use it—all of that. But at the same time, we have to acknowledge that the craft must not become the content of the poem. It must not become an end in itself. The craft must serve primarily to deliver what the poet is trying to say to the reader, and to deliver the feelings or discoveries to him with as little loss as possible. Ezra Pound defined craft as "the means for delivering the content of the poem and to deliver it alive." However, there is always a danger in making the craft the thing to be delivered. The poet must have craft, but he/she must also locate the substance, the art within the poem, which is at the center of the best poetry, and is upon what the craft works. Akira Kurasawa, the great Japanese filmmaker, said that the script was the crucial thing in making a movie. "If you have a good script and a mediocre director," he said, "you can still end up with a pretty good movie. But if you have a bad script it is hard for a director with even the finest craft to get a good result."
There are two elements in "finding" a poem: discovering the subject matter and locating the concrete details and images out of which the poems are built. In this instance, I do not mean the subject matter to be the ideas or subjects for poems. Instead, I am referring to finding the resonant sources deep inside you that empower those subjects and ideas when they are put in poems. For example, I am made of the landscape in northern California where I grew up, made of my father's uninhabited mountain where my twin sister and I spent most of our time as small children with the live oak trees, the stillness, the tall grass, the dry smell of the hot summer air where the red-tailed hawks turned slowly up high, where the two of us alone at ten did the spring roundup of my father's twenty-six winter-shaggy horses. Down below there were salmon in the stream that ran by our house, the life of that stream and the sound of it as we lay in our bunks at night, our goat and the deer standing silently outside in the mist so many mornings when we awoke. The elements of that bright world are in my poetry now when I write about love or Nicaragua or the old gods in the rocky earth of Greece, just as the Greek islands where I lived for almost five years resonate in the poems I write now about the shelter for abused women in Manhattan or how a marriage failed in New England—but not directly. They are present as essences. They operate invisibly as energy, equivalents, touchstones, amulets, buried seed, repositories, and catalysts. They function at the generating level of the poems to impregnate and pollinate the present—provoking, instigating, germinating, irradiating—in the way the lake high up in the Sierra mountains waters the roses in far away San Francisco.
Your resonant sources will be different from mine and will differ from those around you. They may be your long family life, your political rage, your love and sexuality, your fears and secrets, your ethnic identity—anything. The point is not what they are but that they are yours. Whatever these sources are, you must hunt out them out and feed your poems with them, not necessarily as topics, subjects or themes, but as the vital force that fuels your poems.
Once you discover this source, you must find the images and concrete details to make your poems visible and effective. These images and details fuel the poem from the outside and also are what help distinguish poetry from prose. It is the way we give a body to the ideas and feelings of the poem, whether the concrete images are literal or only seemingly concrete, as with metaphors and similes. Part of the art of "finding" a poem is choosing those concrete details that have a special energy and vibrancy. The best poets seem to have a gift for finding such details—a genius for choosing the two or three particulars that create a whole landscape, which manifest a city street with its early morning rain, or simply construct a room. These poets can make us see a person better with two details than prose can do with pages of description.
I am astonished in my teaching to find how many poets are nearly blind to the physical world. They have ideas, memories, and feelings, but when they write their poems they often see them as similes. To break this habit, I have my students keep a journal in which they must write, very briefly, six things they have seen each day—not beautiful or remarkable things, just things. This seemingly simple task usually is hard for them. At the beginning, they typically "see" things in one of three ways: artistically, deliberately, or not at all. Those who see artistically instantly decorate their descriptions, turning them into something poetic: the winter trees immediately become "old men with snow on their shoulders," or the lake looks like a "giant eye." The ones who see deliberately go on and on describing a brass lamp by the bed with painful exactness. And the ones who see only what is forced on their attention: the grandmother in a bikini riding on a skateboard, or a bloody car wreck. But with practice, they begin to see carelessly and learn a kind of active passivity until after a month nearly all of them have learned to be available to seeing—and the physical world pours in. Their journals fill up with lovely things like, "the mirror with nothing reflected in it." This way of seeing is important, even vital to the poet, since it is crucial that a poet see when she or he is not looking—just as she must write when she is not writing. To write just because the poet wants to write is natural, but to learn to see is a blessing. The art of finding in poetry is the art of marrying the sacred to the world, the invisible to the human.