At our writing critique group the other day an interesting question came up. It was voiced by a relatively new, relatively inexperienced member. He is new to the experience of seriously writing. Thus he is looking at the subject with new eyes. It’s refreshing.
Anyway, he was completely baffled by poetry. He did not “get” it and therefore did not feel competent to critique it.
Of the four or five serious members of the group, two work on poetry consistently. Though the rest (myself included) only write poetry occasionally, but do understand it well enough to critique.
So we were suddenly placed in the position of trying to explain what poetry is and how it works to someone with absolutely zero concept.
It was a challenge.
Some very, very gifted and intelligent people have spent their entire lives studying and trying to perfect the form. We did our best in the fifteen minutes available, though I don’t know how much good we did.
The problem is that you can talk rhyme schemes and meter all you want, but that is window-dressing. The same is true of connotation, allusion, metaphor and simile. They are integral tools in the poet’s toolbox, but they are just devices that help her reach her goal. They do not explain what the goal is.
The goal is to create a “good” poem. A piece of poetic art.
And thus, the circle of reasoning is complete is because now we have to try and define what a “good” poem is.
We couldn’t do it. I don’t think you can do it. You can’t define art. Like obscenity, you just know it when you see it. It’s instinct, visceral. It’s art.
So much of what the poet (or novelist, or whatever) does can’t be explained by rules or guidelines. It is art and art is something that can’t be taught in the same way that mathematics or science is taught. You can’t tell someone to do A, then B and then you will have a good poem.
Ask a poet why she put a certain phrase in her poem and odds are she will answer that “it felt right.” It’s instinctive. It’s the same when I create a particular plot twist or character foible in my writing. Why did I do that? Because it felt right. Instinct tells us to do it. Then it works, or it doesn’t.
So perhaps the question the neophyte poet or writer should be asking is how do they develop that instinct?
There is only one way I know to do that and that is to study the subject. Read as much as you can get your hands on: good stuff, mediocre stuff, classic, modern, and experimental. Read it; memorize it. Figure out what you like and what you don’t, then try to understand why that it. Write your own work in imitation of your favorite pros. See what works.
The key is that as you do this, as you study the form, you begin to internalize the rules, guidelines, and successful examples of the art. Then, as you work on creating your own examples of the art, this internalized information will bubble up out of your subconscious. Often without your conscious mind being aware of it.
Then later, when asked why you chose to use that particular word or device at that particular place, all you’ll be able to answer (unless you choose to make up some literary-sounding gobbledygook) is that it just felt right.
So what about our new member who wants to understand poetry better? We point him in the right direction. It’s up to him to do the work. It’s up to him to groom that feeling.