Each answer went through a number of drafts, and there was some fun stuff didn’t fit into my final answers. I’ve gathered some discarded snippets here: Deleted Scenes & Bloopers.
Is every poem trying to accomplish the same thing as every other poem? Is each poem trying to accomplish only one thing, or several things at once? Are all artforms trying, each in their own way, to accomplish the same thing, or are they trying to accomplish different things, and therefore manifest themselves in different ways? Is art even trying to accomplish anything in the first place? If I intend a poem to accomplish one thing but it doesn’t, and instead it accomplishes something else entirely — something I couldn’t have predicted — is it still a successful poem? What if a reader expects my poem to accomplish something, but I expect it to accomplish something else? If I write a poem which I hope will accomplish absolutely nothing whatsoever, and I succeed, is it still a poem? And what if I fail, and it accomplishes something anyway?
I could mention quite a few poets who have expanded my understanding of what can be done within the form; who, as it were, gave me permission to go where I wanted to go (even if I didn’t necessarily end up going even remotely where they went). A few of them: Arthur Sze, Joanne Kyger, Harryette Mullen, Lyn Hejinian, John Taggart, Robert Bringhurst, Louis Zukofsky.
But I’m not sure that’s quite the same thing as changing how I think about writing. For that, I’d have to look to my poetry teacher, the late John Engman. He was the first poet to help me see that poems are not accounts of our experience but are experiences in and of themselves. Even when a poem is “telling a story,” the poem is primarily an event that the reader experiences. This was the first necessary step for me to realize that “self-expression” generally takes care of itself and is therefore not on my checklist for what makes a poem, much less a successful poem.
When I was starting out as a teenager, I thought that a poem was a vessel I could pour my expressivity into. A message in a bottle. A poem was finished when it said what I wanted it to say. A big problem with this was I didn’t really know what I was trying to say. Not only that, but I believed I was supposed to know what I was trying to say before I started saying it. And, frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure whether the poem was the message or the bottle. If it was simply a message, why put it in a bottle specifically? Would it still be a poem if I put it in a mug, or an envelope, or my pocket, or the fridge, or the glove box, or the chamber of a pistol?
A little later on, I thought maybe the reader might be the vessel, so a poem was like a strange elixir that I would somehow inject into the vessel. The poem was finished when the vessel glowed, or levitated, or vibrated, or shattered, depending on the elixir’s alchemical composition. But I had no idea what the hell I was doing: I couldn’t tell the difference between a reaction and a side-effect; was I out to heal or to harm? And I had just moved the problem around — was the poem the elixir, or the vessel, or the reaction, or the syringe?
And there was a certain hubris underlying these attitudes that I found more and more troubling the older I got: both attitudes implied, whether I realized it or not, that I wanted to remain the most important corner in the triangle of author/poem/reader. More authoritarian than author. This flew in the face of my experiences as a reader, where my own engagement with and interepretation of the poems I read was just as important as the author’s intent. Thanks, Author, I’ll take it from here: you’re not the boss of me.
Once I accepted that the writer is only one part of a vast, ongoing collaboration, and I let go of the idea that poems are necessarily vehicles for (and that readers are passive recipients of) my “self-expression,” I could finally let poems be themselves. As Grace Paley said, “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.” Poems deserve this, too.
And just because poems are made of language does not mean that they are always trying to communicate. Communication isn’t the only thing we use language for, and language isn’t the only thing we communicate with. So why should art-forms built with language always be about “communication” — much less its solipsistic sidekick, “self-expression”?
Poems are events. It’s not so much what I’m saying or how I’m saying it that makes a successful poem, but how well I laid out a path that the reader finds compelling enough to follow. A poem is finished when I believe I’ve built something worth exploring, an event worth experiencing.
It is so absolutely fundamental that it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve begun to fully grasp this, much less notice. I don’t mean, however, that I have to listen to music while I write. In fact, I usually don’t. I mean that music has always been part of my inner life; it’s where I started and where, if you’d asked me anytime before my early 20s, I thought I would stay. I started playing the violin when I was about four years old. I sang in choirs in high school. I picked up the guitar when I was seventeen and started writing songs. I even went to college thinking I might be a music composition major.
Once I began writing poetry seriously, I came to think of poems as scores for unaccompanied voice. That is: as much as the text must be able to live silently on the page, it’s not quite complete until it’s read aloud. How does it sound? How does it feel in your mouth? How does it make you breathe?
Unlike a musical score, however, the text of a poem has no additional notation for, say, tempo or pitch; any sense of meter or rhythm is discernable only to the extent that it conforms to, or works against, the natural speech patterns and syllabic stresses in the language. There are no costumes or stage directions; there’s no soundtrack or laugh track. If I want a poem to be read in a certain way, I have only vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, and line breaks to guide the reader. It is, in the end, up to each reader to decide how to perform the poem. This is the first of many moments where the writer and reader are collaborators.
The great Hal Holbrook died recently, and his obit in the New York Times closed with this wonderful quote: “[Twain] had a real understanding of the difference between the word on the page and delivering it on a platform. … You have to leave out a lot of adjectives. The performer is an adjective.”
I think this may be one of the reasons why poetry seems so minimal compared to other artforms, particularly the language arts of fiction and drama: poetry expects the reader to be an adjective.
This last year has wreaked havoc on how we answer questions like How are you doing, not to mention What are you working on… I’d already been having some difficulty writing over the previous few years, and the fun-filled laff-riot that was 2020 only made things worse. So, starting last April, I committed to writing a poem every day.
I turned to some writing exercises that relied heavily on chance operations. I rolled my old D&D dice to pick a handful of words from a very long list I’d collected. And using other chance operations, I selected a line from a book. These randomly chosen words and texts were the starting points for the poem I would try to build each day.
Full disclosure: it hasn’t been every day. I quickly settled into a pattern of several runs, or series, each a few months long, with a month or two off in between. Before starting the next series, I would refresh the list of words and switch the source book, to keep things fresh. I’m in my fourth series now.
The point of using chance operations was to leave as much of the decision-making process until the very moment I began composing. I was too swamped by the quotidian to hear anything else; if I allowed myself to pick the words, I knew they would be nothing but fear, rage, mask, police, murder, racist, climate, protest, Covid, Covid, Covid — and that’s what most of each day already was. I knew, of course, that those concerns were going to turn up in my poems anyway, I just wanted them to knock first, not kick in the door.
Before this year, it was not part of my normal composition method to rely so heavily on chance operations — I’m usually more of a bricolage guy, setting fragments from my notebooks next to each other, to see what slips and sparks. But I’ve been so grateful for this tool, which has allowed me to keep working even when working has, so often, felt impossible. And it has allowed me to write more poems in the last year than I’d written in the previous five. An unexpected gift in a year notoriously short on good news.
Robert van Vliet is a poet, designer, and teacher who lives in Minneapolis. His poems have appeared in The Sixth Chamber Review, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, The Eunoia Review, Otoliths, and elsewhere.