Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Brief Excursion into Poetics; Garden Poems

What is an intentional poem? It's a poem you write intentionally about a subject already chosen. The subject should be broad enough to allow some wiggle room, and the poem may end up only loosely associated with the subject, as poems have lives of their own, part of the mystery that makes me go on writing.

An intentional poem goes against the common grain of inspiration, sharing the values of the 18th century more than our own. Inspiration has been all the rage since the Romantics and in Post-Modern times has been expressed through spontaneity and serendipity as in the work of William Carlos Williams or John O'Hara. It's been said that modern poetry can be divided into the "raw" and the “cooked.” We must remember that great formalists like Richard Wilbur are still alive, representing the “cooked” school. Nowadays poetry can partake of any age, though it's dominated by the inspiration of the moment. Yet that, too, can be sleight-of-hand in many hands; witness Billy Collins who appears deceptively spontaneous although he must plan the effect (in his revisions if nothing else).

Inspiration is the lifeblood of poetry but is only of value if the poet is already accomplished, having plied his craft for years. Inspiration alone rarely a good poem makes.

Even the most inspired poems need some trimming or rational additions after their birth. The most famous example is Coleridge's “Kubla Khan,” where the first part of the poem came straight from an opium vision and the second part of the poem, appended for closure's sake, is obviously intentional.

Inspiration is the water for which we build a fountain. It is the sunlight we capture with a lens. It is the bird we study with binoculars.

Without knowing the craft of poetry, without being in voice from long practice, inspiration cannot produce a good poem. Forget Richard Bach and automatic writing; you're not going to write a good poem that way.

On the other hand, a purely intentional poem rarely rises to greatness; because its subject was planned it's hard to rise above a workmanlike effort, though this may occasionally be overcome as one becomes inspired during the effort.

Below, today's intentional sonnet. I asked Kathleen what I might write about today and she suggested the garden. I'll say nothing about it here because that is the poem's burden. But I’ll put an older, intentional free-verse below it for comparison’s sake. Both are intentional; they differ mainly in form. And because both are intentional, neither one is outstanding.

I teach my poetry students to write often. It's like a singer staying in voice. If you write often you will be prepared to erect the form, the fountain that holds the water of inspiration. If unprepared, it is unlikely you will be able to do the inspiration justice. Also, what feels inspired during the process you may later find was actually plebeian, because to write at all you must suspend judgment during the process or you freeze up.

Here endeth the poetry lesson for the day, except for today's intentional poems, below, one written today, one six years old.

The Garden of Disappointment

My garden promised better than it became.
In June the peas were climbing and the beans
Were following after, up the wires and string.
Their snaking tendrils had the ways and means
But somehow faltered. Sure, I got some peas
And beans but only enough to garnish greens.
They looked above mere salads; they fed the bees
And I was sure they would ascend like trees.
Not so. As for tomatoes, two giant plants
Reached six feet high, where globes are hanging still
But only globes of green. Fall has advanced
And it's unlikely they will ripen. The till
And tiller are disappointed; so many hours
Spent gardening. The lies were in the flowers.


Sleeping Beauty

The puce and yellow snapdragon
knows nothing about beauty.
It wants a bee, a breeze,
a bath and nitrogen.
Today it droops, mouths sealed
while red gramophones
of petunias sicken and wilt.

Touch the nasturtium’s
velvet underside
and white flies scatter
like snow brushed from a boot.
Beauty is powerless,
why I must dust these flowers
with poison snow.


Feeling a little stronger today after resuming Zyprexa last night and upping my Wellbutrin back to 150 mg. twice a day; I had had to lower the Wellbutrin as I waited for my Canadian prescriptions to arrive. Hear that, Mr. DEA man? Hear that, Pfizer and Merck and Lilly? Americans pay the highest drug prices in the world while these same companies sell their wares much more cheaply abroad. What's that about? It's about the pharmaceutical lobbying, of course. But why should a senator care? He has health insurance and I don't. As my middle daughter's boyfriend, who works for customs, remarked: "Government jobs are welfare for the middle class." And the U.S. government is thwe largest employer in the world, I imagine. At the very least it has the highest budget.

At rodent neutral but less fragile today,

Craig Erick


  1. Anonymous4:15 PM PDT

    "On the other hand, a purely intentional poem rarely rises to greatness; because its subject was planned it's hard to rise above a workmanlike effort, though this may occasionally be overcome as one becomes inspired during the effort."

    I think you've hit on it. Inspiration can't write a poem, but without it, you can't write a great, or even good, poem.

    And it usually arrives when you're walking down a lonely road without any pen or paper, and with a memory that you know is going to let you down.

    But once in a while, it comes when you want it to come.


  2. Keep a pen and paper handy. That has been one of my failings. But my best poems have been from things burned into my brain through experience, as in beholding the Vietnam Memorial for the first time. Something must impress itself on our soul to yield the proper intensity of reaction, I think. Which makes one envy the passion of a Keats, for instance, beholding the Elgin Marbles.

  3. Sorry it has been awhile since I came reading... I have been sick, broken teeth, and other stuff. I am also writing hard.. I don't seem to have as much time to blog.


  4. I write intentional poems all the time. It seems I break every rule your book, CE. Dammit! And I try so hard to be a good student...

    And that second one should be published. The language is stunning, rhythmic and musical.

  5. Cyn, I noticed you were blogging less and was concerned about your health. I assume it's not all Wegeners when you mention broken teeth. Take care of yourself.

    And Twitches, I'm your student as well.


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