Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Art of the Poem

Cable car in San Francisco (photo by David Yu)

You can kill a good poem by reading it. Some of you know this, having sat through some pretty languid poetry readings. If you’re not careful, you can also kill a poem by trying to write it. Today I will talk a little bit about poetry and I will also tell you about my latest poetry project.

Poetry is not words on a page. If the words are good, they can evoke that sense of poetry, or they can guide one to that wellspring where poetry is even now churning and flowing. Sometimes I liken the art of poetry to the cable cars in San Francisco.

Making Connection

When I visited San Francisco, I rode on one of its famous cable cars. The cars themselves have no motor mechanism – no power of locomotion within themselves. There is a cable underneath the street that is constantly moving. The cable car operator uses a big hook on a long levered pole to connect to the cable. Once the cable is engaged, the car begins to move. Disengaging the cable allows the car to stop. Poetry is that subterranean cable that is always moving. If words can engage that cable, then we have a poem. 

We writers can make endeavors to write poetry. That process can sometimes be an on and off, fitful attempt to create an artful poem, but the poetry itself is always surging and moving below the surface.

Like Eating Peaches

Photo by George Hodan
The difference between written words and poetry is like the difference between a technical description of the best farming techniques in some agribusiness journal, and actually eating a peach with the juices running down your chin, your fingers, and your elbows. You have to lean over to limit the mess while you savor the sweetness. Even reading about peaches will not give you that sensation that you will never know until you taste the tart sweetness in your mouth while the juices drench your elbows.

Poetry is found in the cable car and in the peach. You have to tap into that subterranean movement in order to engage the poetic sensibility that is part of our collective unconscious. You have to feel the sweetness of the words as you lean over to lessen the mess, letting the juices drip down the sink or over the porch rail. Then you will be in the vicinity of poetry. Words can only point you in the general direction.

Writing with the Masters

Last year I launched an experiment which turned out to be a most rewarding experience. I called it The Masterworks Series: Poetic Reflections on twelve masterpiece works of art. It was a 12-week exercise in the writing of ekphrastic poetry – poetry written in response to visual art. Of that series, the one that I liked the best was "My Love Walked Through" in response to Matisse's "Still Life With Pineapples" because it became a thirtieth anniversary poem to my wife. The one that continues to get the most views even now, however, is "Unbound View," in response to Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire. 

Next week I will begin sharing my second series of ekphrastic poetry. This series I am calling The Artsongs Series. My hope is that on occasion, poetry will be achieved, or at the very least, you can be pointed in the general direction. If nothing else, you will be able to spend some time viewing the works of the masters, including Renoir, Raphael, Picasso, and Rivera. You can see the first post on Wednesday, October 5.

Photo by J Pellgen 


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