Advice to a Poet by Maurice Harmon
I can't answer all your questions. Learning to be a poet takes time, years.
First of all there's the matter of submissions. When you finish a poem do you send it off promptly to an editor? You shouldn't. Allow your excitement to subside. Give yourself time to become detached.
Do you proofread carefully? For typos? For consistency in punctuation? Do you expect or half-expect someone else to catch and correct errors? You shouldn't. This is sloppy. It suggests lack of discipline. It is unprofessional.
I mention punctuation because poets are supposed to be concerned with small matters - line length, rhythm, spacing, precise usage, and punctuation. The first doubt raised in an editor's mind may come from signs of inconsistency in punctuation. Typos quickly add to that doubt.
Do you think of the reader? A bit doddery, you feel? Needs to be told everything more than once. Not so. Don't feed him pap - repetitive clauses, repeated words, helpful adjectives and adverbs, a rhythm so slack it would put a monkey to sleep. Forget Dopey at your shoulder. Stop helping lame dogs over stiles. Be rigorous: select, cut, reduce, don't be bland. Test for excess. In the process you may find a poem inside the poem you are trying to write. Usually it is better. In the process, too, your imagination may become more fully engaged. Your poetic intelligence will certainly be more alert.
Trust the reader. Give him the chance to use his mind, to discover meaning, to use his imagination, to be alert to language and to rhythm, to see implications, to make connections, to hear the music. Otherwise reading poetry is no fun, there's no challenge, no stimulation.
The worst fault is looseness of language, hackneyed speech, the old phrase, the available image, the readymade clause. I'm not talking just about clichés. I'm talking about a lazy attitude that puts up with the familiar expression, the easy phrase, the available word. Fatal. All forms of laziness are fatal in poetry.
Laziness affects how we write. Sometimes one has the feeling, reading a poem in a periodical, that the author has an idea of how the poem should look, that lines must be broken up as though nothing else is required. Or that a mood must be suggested and left at that. These are forms of posturing, of adopting attitudes, of fitting into some notion of what a poem is.
Poems must have something to say. Arranging lines on a page to give the appearance of poetry is not enough. Robert Frost made a remark that is worth keeping in mind. Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, he said, a poem should ride on its own melting. What is laid down at the beginning should continue and evolve to the end. All the elements should flow in one direction. This is good advice, a corrective to keep us in check. You can test your poem against it, not only for flabbiness in language, not only for awkward rhythm, not only for collapsed line endings, but for overall effectiveness. Is everything working? Do things earn their place? Is each element contributing?
Knowing where to start and when to end is important. Have you moved into the subject too slowly? Did you begin too far back? Very often you find you can discard a number of opening lines, as you realise where the poem really begins, at what point the ice begins to ease downward. There is a point at which the poem begins to be itself, to discover its direction, that inner vein of feeling, rhythm or thought that gives it its individual character.
Sometimes you can remove endings which are unnecessary, which make the point already made, or implicit in the poem. There is a natural tendency to want to summarise, to round off, even to sound off, with an eye-catching line, with a striking rhyme. Dopey at your shoulder may find that helpful, but your alert reader will not. Frank O'Connor used to say that the hardest thing for a young writer to learn is that even fine writing must be sacrificed, if it doesn't fit.
A poem has to hold our attention. It has to do something with language that is attractive. How often do you read a poem without the slightest twinge of interest? We are inclined to think that the fault lies in us, that we are not bright enough, or not sensitive enough to understand or to appreciate. In truth, it is more often the case that the poem is simply not interesting. Another bland statement. Another fanciful mood. It leaves us indifferent.
There are poems that repeat or imitate what has been said or done by hundreds of other poems. At any time hundreds of poets write the same kind of poem, in the same kind of rhythm, in the same kind of language and it is easy for the young poet to fall into the pattern, to imitate what others are doing. Student poets reflect current fashion. At one time everyone wrote in the manner of the early T. S. Eliot, then everyone wrote like Dylan Thomas, or W.H. Auden. One learns from current writing.
But you must break away. You must, and will, find your own way of saying. You will discover your particular subject. Don't strike attitudes. Don't pretend. Don't posture. To do so is to falsify. Poetry is above all a way of telling the truth. Mary Lavin used to say that the truth of the imagination is an absolute truth.
A poem should hold your interest from the first line; it should evolve down the page, still holding your interest, controlled all the way, every line, every image, every nuance, every allusion, having a function, everything contributing. There is much to learn and it cannot all be learned at once. We learn by doing. We are makers, craftsmen, we learn our trade and it takes time. The reward comes in the doing, in the occasional successes, in the gradual feeling that we know what we are doing, not in appearances in periodicals.
Along the way a poem may surprise; it may move into magic, to that region of beauty, or mystery, that lies beyond the actual, above the merely documentary where so many poems have heavy feet. By writing in a disciplined way, learning your trade, you may move to this other level. In early Irish literature humans sometimes passed through the invisible veil that lay between this world and the Otherworld, to the land of the ever young. Poetry aspires to this. When you discover this power in yourself, you will have arrived as a poet.
Be your own best critic. While you can show poems to friends, it is really up to you, to your judgment, your sense of what is right. And that only comes in time, over time. Read poetry. Think about it. See what other poets are doing. Why are some poems better than others? Think about their choice of words, the use of language, the music. I could suggest poets to read - I like Mary Oliver and Charles Wright - but this is a personal matter. It is better if you discover those with something to say to you. I mean not only what they say but how they say.
There are questions to keep in mind, to keep us on our toes, to prevent our falling into lazy ways. What does poetry do? Does it add to our understanding? Increase our insight? Illuminate? Does it make a difference? Certain poems are indispensable as we measure what has been achieved. Think about them. It would be a great achievement to write even one indispensable poem.