The Trouble With Poetry

The trouble with writing poetry is that, take away this need to be a poet, – to write something recognized as poetry in the eyes of others – and I find a deeper and more primary need. Call it my principle. This is a responsive need. Something needs to be said. I need to say it.

I haven’t found anyone yet who can help me do that.

People apply superficial categories to poetry. Old-fashioned and modern form, somehow, a dichotomy that blots out consideration of the basic question: has the poet said exactly what needed to be said and nothing else? When old-fashioned language, so-called, will allow me to express something with a precision that has been blotted out of contemporary usage, my allegiance is to the thought (in its precision) and to the poem waiting to be born, rather than to the expectations of my contemporaries that I sound like someone from now-a-days.

Not too long ago arbiters of poetic virtue had to fight the same battle in the opposite direction. Poets were sacrificing the actual thought in favor of something that they came to call “poetic diction.” Now, poetic diction is a dirty word.

I think it should be obvious that what might be ornamental in one situation might be the only way to say something in another.

I’ve spoken of self-organizing systems and how in what we call inspiration, form arises out of the cooperation between intelligence and nature. By nature, I mean, of course, the real qualities of the pre-existing materials one is dealing with.

When writing a poem, this means that the poet must have a sense of the semantic range (and its weighted center) that is attached to the words available to him. He must also entertain with exquisite hospitality a living perception of whatever it is (the central thought) that needs to be expressed in those words. Like a building must be built upon some certain site, with its weather, ground conditions, elevations, and shape, so a poem has to be built on its own ground – on the mind of the poet and the conditions under which that mind is living.

I believe that a poet is most able when he stands within a tradition but simultaneously takes his honesty to its final degree – that is, when he does not express anything that is not his own.

Poetic diction is not a dirty word to me, nor do I eschew old-fashioned speech. But when I see something that’s been put in for the sake of the form, I immediately sense that here is an semantically empty space in the poem. This makes me cringe. Somewhere, the poet has not been intent enough on the resonance we search for in the process of composition – that we hear when a poem is perfectly pitched and meaning has had verbal expression shaped around it with such respect and care that a perfectly natural form is there.

This is one reason why I continue to edit some of my poems years after I wrote them.


  1. Right, a bit obscure. Lazy writing.

    Well, in that sentence ‘this’ refers to my description of what I think inspiration is, in the previous paragraph. So, when I am writing a poem, my idea of inspiration constrains me (“must”) to pay attention to semantic ranges and so forth, because these “real qualities” of words comprise the nature of words and unless I cooperate with them, authentic form cannot arise.

    It’s a provisional must. If my ideas about form, poetry, and so forth are true, then I “must” write in a specific way.


  2. About a year or so ago I joined the poetry forums at and found some of the advice there helpful. I had never before received any criticism I respected, and the experience was a little jarring, but enlightening — sort of like when someone finally tells you there’s a sprig of parsley stuck between your front teeth. You’ll doubtless find some bloviation, visceral reactions against perceived archaisms, whether justified or not, etc., but there’s usually a fair bit of intelligence mingled in too. I’m sure you don’t need the persuasion to ditch the empty archaisms and lazy, form-driven filler like I did, but if you have a thick skin you’d probably find some good feedback.


  3. Sure, I’ll check it out, thanks.

    Yeah, I was thinking lately that thick skin (the ability to remain cool in the face of criticism) isn’t really humility like I used to think it was – it comes from confidence. Congratulations on having it.


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