What Poets Don’t ALWAYS Do

I remember trying to write poetry in high school, the key word being try. I still have my old notebooks that I wrote them in, and I remember very clearly carrying them around with all my books, prominently displaying it on top so that any girl who asked would find out that I was the sensitive type who wrote poetry on a regular basis. My plan backfired, of course, because most girls at my high school really didn’t care if you wrote poetry, and, frankly, it was pretty awful.

The upside to this experience was that I actually continued to write poetry. I got a little less public about it (I think), and looked at new forms and styles in which to fit my teenage angst. What helped so much here was that those new forms (sonnets, mostly) forced me to think about what I was writing. It wasn’t always a free-for-all, and I learned, at least a little, better how to express myself.

What surprised me, however, was the reaction from some of my friends in high school who also wrote poetry, who thought that “form” and “style” were restrictive and that poetry was all about “writing what you feel.” If you submitted your feelings to form, you weren’t writing poetry. You were writing an essay.

Now, being much older and wiser now, I know this isn’t true. Truthfully, I haven’t written any poetry since college, but in reading Hirsch’s How To Read A Poem, I’m learning even more how good form can be for what you’re writing. Hirsch even talks about people who “write what they feel.” For millennia, people have thought poets were slaves to their passions and the Muses, only producing whenever they feel “inspired.”   It is true that poetry can’t be entirely willed, that there’s something about it tied to madness, as Plato knew, but, “there is no true poetry without conscious craft, absorbed attention, absolute concentration,” as Hirsch says.

That’s exactly what the inner inspiration of poets brings.  It’s a “transfiguring passion. A force beyond the confines of the conscious self.” Poets depend on “a force beyond the intellect,” and yet, they utilize their intellect to express what that force speaks to them.  Does that mean that you MUST have form in your poetry?  By no means!  One of my all-time favorite poets, Allen Ginsberg, didn’t utilize traditional forms in his day at all, but employed new ideas, similar almost to jazz music (with a little help from Walt Whitman), to express himself and what he saw was happening in his generation (see Howl, one of my favorite poems period).  However, never should we SHUN the use of villanelles, sonnets, sestinas, limericks, haikus, and the myriad others that exist.  All forms (or lack thereof) can breathe life into poetry, the poet, and the reader.

Just don’t write poetry for the sole purpose of getting girls.

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One thought on “What Poets Don’t ALWAYS Do

  1. When I was studying in college, I had to take a poetry course in which we only studied and wrote poems in form. The idea was that even if after that we never wrote another poem in form, the lessons and the tools that exist within a form could still be applied to free verse poetry. Learning to write a good sonnet teaches a lot about pacing, for example, and you can easily write a sonnet-feeling poem that has no line restrictions, rhyme, or isn’t even fourteen lines.

    A nice meditation on form in poetry. I hope you’re continuing to enjoy Hirsch’s book.

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