I’m turning this post over to my friend and extraordinary poet, BJ Ruddy. I have dabbled in writing bad poetry. My intention was to write brilliant poetry, but as it turns out I am only brilliant at writing gut-wrenchingly awful poetry. BJ on the other hand, not only writes great poetry, he writes poetry that you seek out during those moments when you’re feeling introspective or when you just want to connect with words. I’ve read his latest book of poetry, Pond and I found it both moving and accessible. I asked him to share his thoughts on poetry with us. Read on, and do your part in supporting poetry, buy his book!
To sum up what will only be expounded upon, writing poetry is, simply, capturing a moment. You can, really, become the linguistic photographer: attain an image that evokes emotion and leave it right there on the page. I’d search for some analogical connection to the novel, but that would only sell both crafts short.
A difference between poetry and all other genres of writing that can be easily noticed is that poetry unabashedly accepts language’s imperfections quite openly. It does not strive for the absolute; it knows that’s impossible. But poetry has metaphor, with all its specifics, and the use of the concrete to reveal the abstract. Roads less traveled explain the individual’s place in society and silverware explains divorce. These are intense, large things that a few well-composed lines of poetry can reveal.
My son, who is about to turn nine, is interested in music and writing because (I like to think) he sees me involved in these crafts. When he asked me, recently, how to write poetry, I took him for a walk by the pond and the surrounding “woods,” a phrase I prodded him to narrow down to oaks, maples, pines, reeds, wild flowers, moss, grass, dirt, and (perhaps most importantly) garbage. What else could I do – teach him the functionality of iambic tetrameter? No. He’ll learn that if he cares to take poetry seriously – if he catches the feel for the craft. Fun leads to love. No kid can grasp the beauty of a perfectly executed twelfth inning suicide squeeze without first having a blast playing wiffle ball.
I would stress emphatically that serious poets should read poetry, know who’s written what when and why form and meaning can be quite relative. I recently composed a sestina simply because I assigned a class to do so. While I usually work in free-verse, the stringent restrictions of the sestina’s form made me view language in completely new ways and it ended up being a lot of fun – like reading Donald Hall’s “Baseball,” which includes nine “innings,” each consisting of nine nine-line stanzas, each line containing nine syllables. Not only is the poem’s story enjoyable, the form becomes an added dimension to admire because Hall is clearly someone who can command what language is available and reveal sincere meaning.
And that’s what poetry is, really, all about: using the sparsely available words and symbols to allow for intellectual and emotional connections. An interesting exercise in metacognition is to attempt thought without eventually picturing words, as they’re the essential symbols for communication. This is what makes Robert Bly as “good” of a poet as T.S. Eliot and why what Billy Collins reveals of the human condition is as acute as what Shakespeare did.
All of these people, in unique ways, use language as a means to interesting and effective ends. Poetry is, you might say, enjoying baseball because the Yankees and Red Sox exist to create something incredible that either one by themselves could not accomplish – the moment of the game.