Thursday, October 30, 2008

Pet Poetry?

Dead dogs do not good poetry make.

A few years ago, I was talking to an editor of a literary contest. He was moaning about the "quality" of entries. He told me that of the 800+ poems entered; at least 700 were about pets, or even worse, dead pets. Amazing, yes? I racked my memory. For the life of me, I could not think of a single good pet poem. Hell, I still can't. Other than rhyming couplets on roses, there is not a more painfully clich├ęd topic.

Now before you lynch me, I do love my dog. I know that people often care more for their furry friends than fleshy ones. I'm also sure there must be a perfectly good 'Eulogy for Pogo" or "Ode to Mr. Socks" out there. I bet there's even a famous one or two. However, the thought of reading an earnest pet tribute makes me cringe down to my chromosomes. As for contests; keep your pet poems on a tight leash at all times.

Stafford Inspires

I have been reading a wonderful book from the Poets on Poetry series, "William Stafford: Crossing Unmarked Snow, Further views on the Writer's Vocation" edited by Paul Merchand and Vincent Wixon. The book is a combination of Stafford's poetry and his thoughts on the writing process. Why should you care about Stafford and his thoughts on crafting poetry? It's very simple. In his lifetime, William Stafford authored over 20,000 poems. Of those poems, 6,000 were published. The sheer volume of his productivity is mind-boggling. Here's the most amazing part. Stafford didn't publish his first book of poetry until the age of 46.

Predictably, he has some very strong opinions on the process of writing poetry. Much of his advice concerns letting go of obsessive thoughts of quality, embracing the feeling of being lost instead of fearing it, and simply allowing the poems to come to you. I have to admit that I sometimes get wrapped around the "quality" axle. Many times I feel myself getting so tangled in expectations that everything becomes a slow grind. Here are a couple of quotes from the book that helped me "ungrip."

"A writer must write the bad poems in order to approach the good ones--finicky ways will dry up the sources."

"But this makes me think that if you write...the way I do, accepting what comes--then many of those poems will seem insignificant and they are insignificant even ludicrous and grotesque to those who have standards. I'm willing to look awkward when trying to catch the one that can't be caught, to stumble because of the inability of language to get from there to here. So, I don't feel protective of poems."

"Somewhere deep where we have no program--our next discovery lies."

I admit I have a personal connection to Stafford. In 1983 when I was 16 and first learning to write poetry, Stafford visited my high school in Salt Lake City. There were about 30 of us in the library to meet with him. He was very stately with Silver hair. He had such personal dignity and patience. He answered questions slowly, as if holding them in his mind and imaging them in three dimensions. This consideration and seriousness made me feel like a person of worth instead of a dumb ass teenager. He then read a few of his poems. I'll never forget one image about crossing his knife and fork before every meal as a silent protest against war. Imagine the trust he must have had in us to share this kind of thinking. It wasn't until much later in my life that I read he was a conscientious objector. Most importantly I was left with the knowledge that poetry has value beyond the smothering ether of black letters on white paper. Poetry lingers in the mind, often for a lifetime.
Here's a nice bio on Stafford: You can also find links to some of his poems at that site.

Musing about Villanelles

I have been thinking about writing a villanelle. These poems are powered by two refrains that repeat strategically through the 19 lines. If written well, the refrains echo with new depth and layered meaning with each repetition. What the heck am I talking about? If you are not a traditionalist, you may recognize the form Dylan Thomas' juggernaut classic "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night." Notice how the refrains (lines 1 and 3) repeat through the poem and close the final quatrain.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Do you have a favorite villanelle? Feel free to share. Here's a link to one that I admire. Felix Dennis's "White Vase."
It's a doozy about Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun's last moments.

Have you written a villanelle? The meter tends to be pentameter, but I understand that this is completely up to the author. It seems to me the key is nailing the refrains. Any advice before I give it a try?