The Apostrophe Blog
Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not, perhaps, bring about its opposite. And as you get used to this idea you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, and the truth of the work itself.
— Thomas Merton
Since last fall, maybe early November, I’ve been drafting (mostly) a poem a day with time off for Thanksgiving, a 60th birthday party, Christmas, and our recent delirious spate of February spring. I’d long meant to tackle such a project. I’d taken a look at Robert Bly’s Morning Poems and David Lehman’s The Daily Mirror, both examples of how language can flow poetically when you simply commit to doing a poem, day in and day out. Perhaps the ultimate coach for daily poetry scribbling is the venerated William Stafford. Apocrypha has it he woke at 4 a.m. every day and cranked out a piece at his solitary desk. What was it he advised again?
Here’s an excerpt from his essay published in FIELD back in 1970:
“A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them…I get pen and paper, take a glance out of the window…and wait. It is like fishing. But I do not wait very long, for there is always a nibble—and this is where receptivity comes in. To get started I will accept anything that occurs to me. Something always occurs, of course, to any of us…. If I put down something, that thing will help the next thing come, and I’m off. If I let the process go on, things will occur to me that were not at all in my mind when I started. These things, odd or trivial as they may be, are somehow connected. And if I let them string out, surprising things will happen. Along with initial receptivity, then, there is another readiness: I must be willing to fail. If I am to keep on writing, I cannot bother to insist on high standards.”
During the month of February, I decided to post my thoughts about the process, as well as excerpts from the daily poems on my blog, Stream of Consciousness, one-a-day like a creative vitamin.
Now that I’m near the end of the month of posting, a poem-a-day, after three or four months of focused writing, what have I sorted out, what lessons (if you can even call them that) have I learned?
—One thing that comes with writing so regularly and so often—you do feel that it is the showing up at the page that calls forth the work, not a muse or inspiration.
— I am definitely feeling more confident, for sure. It is as William Stafford and Franz Kafka say. If you sit still, wait, listen, something will come up that wasn’t there before.
— I think I am getting to “well-crafted” sooner rather than later. So that must be the whole result of focus, immersion, and regular practice like any sport or work. Apprenticeship. Sticking with it. Absorbing lessons from draft after draft, revision after revision
— I am pleased with my ability to write in different styles, voices, and tones. I thought my work was beginning to sound all the same. Now, I can see that, with some study and deliberation, I can break out of that. So versatility is perhaps another trait I am surprised to have discovered.
— That said, I also think I am now more clearly writing in my own voice—which isn’t a bad thing either. In fact, perhaps a necessary sign of the beginning of a poetic maturation?
—Throughout this daily poem project, I’ve been surprised how much I can “mine” from earlier drafts I was ready to toss in the trash. Another lesson that even failed work doesn’t go to waste.
— And the more I draft, the more I feel confident about how and what to revise. I’ve even begun to develop a stable of questions to ask my first draft work as I seek to begin, complete, and then move on. Oh, I’m still tinkering and doing subtle revising—and probably will always work that way. But I find now I’m also more willing to let a piece go because I know there will be more where that one came from, something I often wasn’t certain of before I did this poem-a-day project.
— Writing daily and such a diverse batch of work has also helped me to refine my own aesthetic for how/what I want to write as well as read. And what I want to ignore and toss out as uninteresting to me as well. So I’ve definitely gained more confidence in my own instincts as well as the ever-present sense of too many books, too little time!
— And this may sound strange. But it has occurred to me that maybe this poetry writing “thing” isn’t as hard as I’ve been making it since I returned to it in 2004. That it isn’t as inscrutable as many academics would like it to be in order to defend their own engagement with it, their publish-or-perish treatises on endless (often boring?) minutia of poetics to justify the getting of tenure and working in the academy, etc. That the more I practice my daily writing muscle, the more joy seems to attend to the actual working with words, the more play and experiment enters in, and the less angst remains in the room.
Not every poem I’ve written during this project will necessarily be a “keeper.” And there have been those few-and-far-between, unexpected gifts that have come, I swear, directly from Erato, the muse of poetry, poems that both surprise and delight. Mostly what has been great for me about this journey has been the knowledge that the well of creativity, with some priming and pumping, now does feel inexhaustible.
Only to keep showing up at the page…and doing the work.
A few books that have been helpful to me in this process are listed below. Several are about form; the others are filled with exercises and prompts that can work for both the beginning and more accomplished poet. I have no way exhausted all of the resources in these books but they certainly offered both direction and inspiration on more than a few days when my own muse’s energy flagged.
A Poet’s Guide to Poetry. Mary Kinzie.
An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art. Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes, editors.
In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop. Steve Kowit.
The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, editors.
The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry. Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux.
The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach. Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, editors.
The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms. Ron Padgett, editor.
Vitamin photograph above by Карма2.