Reading, Listening, and Making Poems
I’ve been thinking lately how certain literary influences have informed and shaped my writing. As a narrative/lyric poet interested in story and expressed feeling, the poets I keep returning to for inspiration include Richard Hugo, Stanley Plumly, James Wright, Philip Levine, William Matthews, B.H. Fairchild, Lynda Hull, Sharon Olds, and others who draw from personal history and experience to craft poems generated by the self, yet speak to the larger human condition.
I agree with William Matthews, pictured at left, when he says:
“I think of poems as having engagements with subject matter which produces something that really isn’t subject matter and that really is poetry.”
So, in conversations with Goddard College’s BFA in Creative Writing students, who are encouraged to seek out and critique their literary influences, I remind them that the intent is not to write like the poets whose voices, styles, and subject matter they feel a strong affinity for, but rather to consider how they might adapt various approaches to form and style these writers employ, and make them their own.
Another interesting dynamic in the relationship between reading and writing is how writing much different than ours can nevertheless show us approaches to style and language we might not otherwise recognize. For instance, when I read poems by W.S. Merwin, I’m invariably drawn to start writing. Merwin’s poems of heightened imagery and unique syntactical structures engage in poetic devices unrelated to my own endeavors, yet reading his work, I’m made aware of the possibilities we might find in language, regardless of the form we place it in.
Making poems also has to do with paying attention, not only to our internal musings, but to what the world around us might be saying and showing us.
I frequently carry a small notebook to record overheard conversations or describe some detail I find interesting. Over the years, I have found this practice of compiling ideas or lines to be extremely helpful. I’ve often returned to these notes and written poems from them.
On one occasion, I was visiting a coastal town in New Hampshire. As I walked by a row of shops, a woman stepped out of a boutique, holding a cell phone. Obviously irate, she screamed at the person she’d been talking to, “Let me tell you all my problems.”
Here’s an exercise for you to try: write a poem with a beginning line “Let me tell you all my problems.”
Read, pay attention, make poems.
–Walter Butts, BFA Faculty Advisor