poems should not be mysteries

It’s always been a goal of mine to write a real, bonafide poem that would say in so few words feelings that run so deep. Something that would awe any who read it, would touch some spot deep inside them, perhaps what we call the soul.  Somehow I’ve never been able to do so.

Every attempt I’ve made that were fortunate enough to be reviewed by real poets resulted in more and more instruction and frustration.  Some were very helpful. Be more visual so the reader will see it as they read it. Some would muse aloud that while writers could be taught to write, poets were born. I remember some advising me to use more metaphors. While I was always grateful for their advice, something inside me rebelled and yelled back to ears that would never hear why must my words be shrouded in mystery? Why can’t I just say whatever it is I want to say?

I thought if I could just get the right advice and not give up, sometime–somewhere–I’d hit on the magic formula. In the meantime I continued to produce bad poetry that mostly never saw the light of day. Finally I gave up and turned to producing questionable short stories, non-fiction, that eventually won a very small degree of acknowledgment, mostly through writing conference awards and writing contests.

In the meantime I kept reading books of and on writing poetry. The simplest usually appealed to me most, those I didn’t have to ponder and wonder what the heck the poet was trying to say. I mean, what part of if I can help one fainting robin unto his nest again is the mystery? Sure the robin might be Dickinson‘s metaphor for people, but then again why couldn’t it be simply the fallen robin she had encountered walking one day. Nothing wrong with that.

I’ve always suspected that writers, like painters painting the scene they see either in the landscape or inside their heads, simply write what they feel like saying at that precise moment in time. Nothing more. No mystery.  It’s us, the scholars and academics among us, who insist on dissecting it and trying to find a deeper meaning. I do wonder sometimes if the writers, the painters, the poets behind all the words that make it into literature were amused at what their works became after all the analysis.

I was very gratified, therefore, as I recently refreshed my memory with Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, to re-read her take on poetry specifically, but one that can extend to any kind of art. She writes “Poems are taught as though the poet has put a secret key in his words and it is the reader’s job to find it. Poems are not mystery novels.” She refutes the method of reading a poem and then stepping away from it to talk about it as we are generally taught in public schools. As an example, she points out a poem by 20th century poet William Carlos Williams.

The Red Wheelbarrow
by William Carlos Williams

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

She sums it up thusly:

  • “What did the poet mean by the ‘red wheelbarrow’? Did he mean a sunset? A chariot? And why was it ‘glazed with rain’? So many questions. He meant nothing so much as a wheelbarrow, and it was red because it was red and it had just rained. So much depends on it because poems are small moments of enlightenment–at that moment the wheelbarrow just as it was woke Williams up and was everything.”

Writing Down the Bones was first published in the mid-1980s. It’s just as appealing and appropriate as it was when it was first written. Thanks Ms. Goldberg. Maybe I don’t really have to be a wizard of mystery. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

8 thoughts on “poems should not be mysteries

  1. Good post!!!! I’ve always wondered about how poetry is judged, too. I don’t write it anymore but I still wonder.

    And yeah, “Writing Down the Bones” is good stuff. Since in my heart there’s a novel, I like “Telling Lies for Fun and Profit” by mystery writer Lawrence Block. It not only is loaded with info — it’s a good giggle!

  2. Kay, you absolutely do have a novel inside. Go for it, although I know at the moment your free time is pretty limited! & thanks for the recommend; I’ll check at my library and see if I can free the two novels I used to hide inside.

  3. Not being a poet, I can pass on what others tell me. Just write. Keep it spare. Just write. See. The important stuff. 🙂

    Hope you are feeling better.

  4. I always felt the same way about analysis of paintings or photographs. There is an awful lot of junk out there that depends on lengthy analysis for its pedigree. I learned a long time ago not to listen to other people’s evaluations of my work; just kept working and didn’t worry about it. I declared myself an artist and worked for my own satisfaction. You can do it too.

  5. Fine article, Alice. When writing haiku, because traditional poetry scares me, I I try to evoke in the reader’s mind a myriad of feelings. Since the rules are so strict, it forces me to find the right words……..Yes, there’s a lot to learn from Natalie Goldberg’s books. Sat through her booksigning once, she’s so human, she made me feel that even I can get some ideas across in my writings……Every once in a while, I take out and re-read your book, “A Movable Feast” for recipes or to see how you wrote about your experiences. Great book….. Be well.

  6. There once was a poet from Florida.
    We read her and said “We adore ya!”
    She wrote with such style
    That it made us all smile.
    No mysteries and now we want more of ya!

  7. I am with you on everything you said! I, too, have wished I could write a beautiful, expressive poem that knocked everybody, even me, off their socks. I can write rhyming poetry and have fun doing that but it is very difficult for me to write one thing and mean another no matter how hard I try.

  8. ML, you’ve been holding out on me. I didn’t know you could write such clever limericks! This one is so neat! Thanks.

    Eiko, as ever, you’re my best critic ever. You’ll never know how much I appreciate you.

    and Grandma Henke, I’m not giving up, and I hope you don’t either. Some day I may get brave enough to share one of mine here; trouble is I don’t know whether to post it as an entry in writing or humour?

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