When I was in journalism school, the new administration decided journalism could be taught as a lab project rather than through the classroom and practicums, one of which included writing for the university daily of which I was editor at the time. The dispute between these two educational philosophies was dubbed the Green Eyeshades vs. the Chi Squares. The products created by these new-age journalism lab rats reminded me of the mimeographed “Junior Journal” from my junior high days. They were odiferous—literally and figuratively. The experiment in this new pedagogy cost the school its Big Ten accreditation, which took years for it to win back. Fortunately, I got my B.A. and M.A. before that happened.
That old consternation generated by the abandonment of dedication to quality was recently reignited when I discovered the “new school” of poetry—that what you initially put on paper is that which is truest to the poet’s intended emotions and thus should be considered indelibly written. The philosophy at least offered an explanation for stuff I was reading and finding wholly lacking in quality, content, and clarity. I’ve always thought that any bad aftertaste from reading something should come from the subject matter and not the quality of the writing itself.
I have searched the world for an example of where this theory, that first is best, has been successfully applied to other human endeavors, in addition to literary ones, and have found none. The success of humans on this planet—and off-planet for that matter—is in part a product of our species’ innate drive to make incremental improvements to everything we do. I’m not saying that we’re always successful or that some of our choices have not been unwise or self-destructive even, but those are downside attributes of being sentient. Overall, however, we have improved our literary condition from those days when our creative medium was the charred end of sticks pulled from the cave fire. However, much of the poetry that is the product of this new thinking might better serve as the fuel for fires that char the sticks.
The “old days” were marked by the power and authority of gatekeepers who denied access to the undeserved, but unfortunately also unfairly blocked access to many who were deserving. Technology has helped break down those gates and level the playing field and now offers a soapbox to anyone who wants one. That can be seen as either a democratization of literary access or opening the gates to anarchy. Or, as one old boy told me in my formative years, life can be a bit like a cesspool; it’s not always the cream that rises to the top.
As a result, our new, technologically enhanced literary world offers great opportunity to the talented and the not so talented. What we need to keep in mind, however, is what differentiates the two and develop the skills to differentiate them as they float by on the literary surface. The distinction between the two is particularly important to those of us who seek to create literary content. My position is simple: rather than rationalize mediocrity, we must still demand the highest level of performance by keeping our own expectations and efforts high. The market place is very good at making and determining credibility—and thus the survivability of creative effort.
Not everyone will be Robert Frost; nor should they want to. The ideal is to be talented in your own special way, not talented at copying the style of others, unless parody is your wont. Along the way you will borrow elements from various sources and in time blend them and modify the results to become your own style. That is the process that has been going on since Bubba scratched the first stick-figured hunters and prey on those cave walls. But no one in the creative arts should ever consider just good enough as good enough. First thoughts and first drafts are usually rough thoughts and drafts, and, like diamonds, require additional effort to be shaped into glittering facets.
This blog entry is an offshoot of the introductory essay of the soon-to-be launched poetry page on my lowellforte.com website. In that essay, I explore the distinctions between prose and poetry and won’t repeat them here; the essay is but a click away at www.lowellforte.com. In my efforts to write that essay, however, I discovered the important distinctions between poetry and prose and the values that exploring them offer the prose writer.
Prose and poetry are two distinctly different genres for obvious reasons. But as I tried to describe their differences, I struggled to distill several thousand words of effort into the essence of what constituted the distinctions. That experience is a perfect of example of writing to learn. It is also an example of first never being best. The first draft made little sense, but gave rise to insights needed for the next draft, and the next, and so on. In the end, I found the distinctions between prose and poetry involve the level of intimacy between the writer and reader and the writer and her words.
A prose writer, armed with a thesaurus and Webster’s Third, can do great things. But a poet must dive below the surface of definitions and usage and immerse herself in the syllabic texture and rhythm and flow of individual words. It’s the difference between the person seeing the ocean from deck of the boat, and swimming the coral reefs with the fishes along on the sandy bottom. In poetry, it’s not always the search for the right word, but for the perfect word.
The multiple thousands of words that can be expended in trying to describe the differences between poetry and prose is mostly an academic exercise. To truly understand the distinctions, a writer needs hands-on experience. As part of this learning-by-doing invitation, I reiterate my dislike of what is called modern poetry, especially any claim that the words that first hit the page should be impervious to the eraser’s ire. But I’m not going to climb up on my soapbox and demand a return to some past dedication to iambic pentameter or the writing of Shakespearian-styled sonnets, although efforts at each would likely enhance your respect for the forms and the contemplative processes that fuel them. But so would writing a few limericks, clean or obscene. It’s all about the effort to find just the right word to fit just right in the just right place for just the right purpose.
Set aside some time to explore poetry. Read some—old and new—and try to analyze why you liked this but not that. Poetry is an endless shelf of spices—some bitter, some sweet, and with an infinite variety of flavors in between. Besides limericks, you might delve into the structure and discipline of Haiku. (Check the poetry page for the “illustrated Haiku” I’ve put together, and for the rules on writing Haiku.) Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. Try writing one. Or compare the works of some of the U.S. Poet Laureates. You’ll discover the differences between these genres as did I—prose deals with sentences and paragraphs and chapters and plot; poetry involves self and emotions—matters of the heart.
As for the level of effort to invest, do your best. Aim high. You will learn a lot just from the climb and it will bring you that much closer to the thinner-aired nest from which writers take flight.