I used to blog, when the going was good, as often as one post a day. I’m not sure how I did it. I don’t write slowly but I do go over and over what I write. I suppose I feel that one can never be too cautious, or too picky. I’m not just talking of mechanics here, though they are important to get right. It’s the relevance of ideas, the clarity of thought. It’s how thoroughly the subject, whatever it is, has been addressed. So I’m having another go at the question of whether writing poetry is hard, not because I want to take back anything that I’ve said. Rather, having borrowed that remarkable insight about poetry’s interrogative intent from Dionne Brand, and turned it from the reader to the poet, I’ve hardly done it justice.
Writing poetry surely interrogates the poet in the general ways that I suggest in Is Writing Poetry Hard (1)? However, it also cross-examines her in the course of her writing every poem, and as in every good inquiry, the questions are specific to the poem. And that is, literally, the rub, the erosive drip-drip-drip of queries, the near drowning demands of waterboarding. Every word set down is tested for what it means, what it implies, its near, nearer and farthest resonances, its satisfying the purposes of thought and wit and fancy, by itself and in combination with its neighbours.
It’s as well that poetry is seductive, an enchantment that begins in nursery rhymes, hides in plain sight in hymns and chants, pop songs and musicals and pantomimes, sustains itself in song and story. It thrives in oral language. Jamaican patwa, built on the scaffolding of the King James Bible, driven by the substrate structures of West African dialects, shot through with Irish, Welsh and Scots sounds and sayings, is an ideal medium for the poetic message. (For information, a dialect is a form of language specific to a place or group of people. It is not a sub-standard form of language and so not a pejorative term.)
Well and good, but what does that have to do with the matter at hand? Absolutely everything, for the Q&A between poet and poem is conducted in a language that the poet learns in all the aforesaid ways, as well as others, peculiar to him, related to his experience of life and language overall. Perhaps he is bi-lingual or tri-lingual, so he knows all kinds of lore, all kinds of literatures. And out of those come his vast store, his poetic lexicon, his imaginative grammar, and his metaphoric suprasegmentals.
I think a poet submits to these ongoing interrogations because they are question and answer, summons and response, a conversation between self and word. I say something when I put words down, and the words come back at me, with an echo, approbation, suggestion, objection or question…The feedback loop keeps going, and like an energetic child determined to play, the poem leads the poet on until he tires and puts the lines he’s written aside for another time. Either that, or it keeps pulling the poet till he achieves a first draft, at which point the he says to the pushy poem: “Enough. ‘Another time/ we’ll do that take/ again.’” (A quote from “No Take,” a poem of mine in Journey Poem, my first collection.)
When they get together again, of course, poet and poem, the whole exercise starts over. Perhaps it is why poets often say a poem is never finished. What has any writer ever said of any subject to exhaust it? Which poet provides the answers to all the questions about a grain of sand – or the world in it?