Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Writing with Authority

Recently, during a poetry workshop that I was conducting, someone asked what the term “writing with authority” means. We’ve all heard phrases like “he writes with authority” and “she brings the poem to closure with authority,” but I wasn’t sure how to define the term. When in doubt, Google! I found a number of related articles about writing prose but virtually nothing for poetry. When I Googled “writing poetry with authority," I found a site listed in which I could “find my inner poet” and another at which I could order a book called Shades of Authority: The Poetry of Lowell, Hill and Heaney for a mere £50.00. There were others, but not what I was after!

I did, however, find a Nikki Giovanni interview in which she stated: “The authority of the writer always overcomes the skepticism of the reader. If you know what you're talking about, or if you feel that you do, the reader will believe you.”

That was more like it! Of course, (slap to the head here) who would know better than poets? Accordingly, I asked some of my poet friends what “writing with authority” means to them. Here are their responses (for which, many thanks).

From Renée Ashley (author of Basic Heart)

Authority? I've never thought about it! If there is authority in my writing voice—and I thank you for thinking there might be—it is likely because I am not tentative when I write. I write to find out what I think, and what I think I know. And because writing is a private and exploratory activity, because it's so utterly concealed at the point of composition, I'm able to unleash my arrogance. A writer needs arrogance. It may be the stabilizing force in the authority you're sensing. Of course, a writer needs humility as well. Arrogance to get the work of getting words onto paper done and humility to look at what you've written, to re-vision and re-form (any hellish number of times) and then to expose it to the air of some unsuspecting reader who, in all likelihood, already knows at least a hundred writers who are better at writing than you will ever be. It's paradoxical, I know. You have to remember that: there will always be writers who are better at writing than you are. But you also have to wholly forget that while you're writing. My mother would call this having the balls of a brass monkey. If she's right—and she would tell you with great authority that she's always right—the secret, for me, could be having and trusting my monkey balls.

From Barbara Crooker (author of More)

Stephen Dunn was quoted on The Writer's Almanac on June 24, 2010 as saying, "I've since learned that if you get it right for yourself, it often has resonance for others." That's what I'm trying to do as well, write as honestly with as much skill and craft as I can for myself. Then if it also works for others, wonderful. I've never thought about my writing in terms of "trust" and "authority," but if my readers find this in my work, then that's icing on the cake. . . .

From Penny Harter (author of The Beastie Book)

To me "writing with authority" means that I trust my own process enough to believe in it, lose myself in it, and craft each poem the best I can. I agree that a poet's best work ought to have "skill, proficiency, polish, grace, and linguistic refinement" – and that those are qualities that encourage a reader to trust the poet and the poem. (Although, judging whether or not a poem has those qualities can be subjective on the part of the reader. "Skill" at what?, for instance.)

But when I am writing, I'm not consciously striving for those qualities; the process is all one piece, almost like a trance – as it is for many poets – and if those things happen, wonderful. Of course, when revising and editing, yes – I hope to refine what I've done in earlier drafts, polish it, etc. But again, that's less deliberate and more just going with what feels right and best for the given poem, in a kind of white heat, until I'm satisfied with it.

From Diane Lockward (author of Temptation by Water)

Writing with authority, in my opinion, means writing with conviction, as if you really mean what you say and know what you're talking about. It's not stopping to say "in my opinion."

When a poet writes with authority, there's a sense of control of one's topic and every element of craft. The poet can write delicately about a delicate subject, but that control is there working quietly and unobtrusively in the background. If the speaker in the poem seems tentative, uncertain, troubled, baffled, that's the speaker, not the poet. The poet has skillfully created that illusion.

I'm thinking of Jane Kenyon's "Having It Out with Melancholy." The speaker, in this poem clearly the poet, is writing about being crushed repeatedly by depression. And yet, every step, every line of that poem is written with authority. The poet knows what she is talking about and writes without hesitancy, even as she confronts and confesses what has done her in.

From Peter Murphy (author of Stubborn Child)

A deacon in the church of negative capability, I write what I know while also trying to write beyond the limits of my knowledge and imagination. I am most successful when I discover something I immediately recognize as true. But I am also surprised. How could I be so stupid not to have known what is now so obvious? That's when I realize I have something to say, and start crafting to make it interesting to someone who does not know or care about me.

From BJ Ward (author of Gravedigger’s Birthday)

The authority I admire in someone’s poem is the capacity to shelve the world for the poem’s duration—a span that might last beyond the actual reading of or listening to the words.

Any reasonable intellect will accommodate or at least consider various points of view—even antipodes. In a poem with authority, the poet has brought us in to the world of the creation. It is a poem so beautifully wrought—even seductive—that we forgo our duty to question while in its presence. As Frost said, there is a “momentary stay against confusion.” Just as an authority in our workaday world is what we turn to in order to settle an argument, a good poem has that kind of credibility as well—either temporarily or, in the best cases, in an enduring manner. Of course the credibility of a fine poem has a kind of supremacy in my mind that most civil authorities do not.


What do I think? Writing with authority is part mechanics and part voice. It's about honesty—what the poet gives to a poem and takes from it. It's the way a poet “owns” a poem and commands a reader’s attention. Some of that is choice, some of it depends upon skill, some of it is pure gift (and, of course, I write that with authority)!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Poetry Prompt #11 - Memoir Poem

"The past is never dead, it is not even past. " (William Faulkner)

For this prompt, try writing a memoir poem about an experience that haunts you. This is not to suggest a bad experience but, rather, a memory that continues to inform the present.

Memoir poems are narrative because they tell stories. However, we often see memoir "poems" that "narrate" in what is essentially prose (with a couple of good images, a few similes or metaphors, and stanzaic arrangements). Most of these poems don't succeed because they never reach beyond the poet’s impulse to “tell.” The poem has to be more than the story – it has to be about what happened because of the story.

Watch out for abstractions and generalizations that equal sentimentality – there's a big difference between image and abstraction. A memoir poem needs a strong emotional center that doesn’t smother meaning with sentiment or read like a diary entry.

A poem should contain an element of mystery or surprise – first to the poet and then to the reader or listener. A lot of the poems that are read and published today are so cluttered with superfluous detail (and adjectives) that there are no mysteries or surprises, and the poems become claustrophobic experiences (I call it TMW – too many words). Write short for this one as a discipline against writing too much. Leave a few blanks for the reader to fill in. In other words, tell, but don't "tell it all." Your memoir poem should lead readers to something more than the memory.

A perfect example is John Ashbery's "This Room."

In this poem Ashbery remembers a room, a person, a relationship. He incorporates a few precise details, but not many – he leaves much to the reader and still achieves a startling sense of loss and remembrance.

Other great examples (and these, too, are short poems) are William Stafford's "Once in the 40s" and Gerald Stern's "The Dancing."

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Outgoing US Poet Laureate

The outgoing US Poet Laureate is Californian Kay Ryan who served two terms that ended in May 2010. In commenting on Ryan's poetry, Librarian of Congress, Dr. James H. Billington stated, “She takes you through little images to see a very ordinary thing or ordinary sentiment in a more subtle and deeper way.”

I find in Ryan's poems a sense of observation in the process of illumination. Eminently accessible, the poems are refined and disciplined. Ryan's figurative language is rich and dense, and the sonic impressions she creates are are frequently enhanced by internal rhyme. She explores ideas with a unique lyrical intelligence and genuine inventive intensity.

From "Patience"
By Kay Ryan

Who would
have guessed
it possible
that waiting
is sustainable—
a place with
its own harvests.

Read Kay Ryan Poems & Bio:

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

New Oxford Professor of Poetry

Geoffrey Hill, often called the greatest living English-language poet, was recently named Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. The 78-year-old poet's victory follows last year's scandal involving winner Ruth Padel, who resigned after less than two weeks when it became public that she made journalists aware of sexual harassment allegations against Derek Walcott, her rival in the Oxford contest. Despite last year's "messiness," the post remains one of the most prestigious in poetry. More than 2,500 votes were cast in person and online to elect a successor to Christopher Ricks. Professor Hill, an Oxford alumnus, is the 44th poet to become Oxford Professor of Poetry, a five-year post that was established in 1708.

Read Geoffrey Hill's Poem, "September Song"

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Poetry Prompt #10 - What the Camera Sees

“The camera doesn’t make a bit of difference.
All of them record what you are seeing.
But, you have to SEE.” (Ernst Haas)

Write a poem from the perspective of a surveillance or security camera that’s “watching” you. Where are you? What are you doing? What does the camera see? This isn’t just the average “spy camera” or “nanny cam.” This camera sees your feelings, records your moods, shows you as you really are. Remember that the camera sees everything: smiles, tears, guilts, griefs, boredom, happiness, excitement – not to mention loves, wishes, lies, and dreams.

“The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.”
(Yousuf Karsh)

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Future of Poetry

I came across this article from The Guardian (June 18, 2010) and thought you might find it interesting.

From the article:

The Hungarian-born poet George Szirtes, who teaches poetry at the University of East Anglia, says poems try to capture a reality that is deeper than language. "You're trying to say: I know what this thing is called," he says. "It's called a chair, and that thing is a table. I've got this word 'chair' and I've got this word 'table', but there's something peculiar about this chair and table which using the words chair and table will not actually convey." Readers, he says, may race through novels because they want to know what happens, but they should look to inhabit poems. "Nobody reads a poem to find out what happens in the last line. They read the poem for the experience of travelling through it."

I ask Szirtes whether he thinks "What is poetry for?" is a valid question. To my surprise – because plenty of poets think it's an absurd question and that no art form should worry about its function – he believes it is far from academic. "It's a question that does preoccupy you the longer you do it," he says. "When you first do it, you never ask that question. But as time goes on, you begin to be conscious of it. My sense now is that when people begin to speak, when language develops, there are two essential instincts: one of the instincts says, 'What is this?'; the other one says, 'So what happens?' So what happens is the beginning of syntax, of storytelling. The other feeling, where you are confronted by some aspect of reality for which language is always inadequate, is the instinct that goes into poetry." Poetry, he suggests, "begins with a cry" – of anguish, fear or frustration. Szirtes quotes Emily Dickinson's maxim that "a poem is a house that tries to be haunted". A poem should not deliver all its secrets at once, if ever; it is not there to be solved.

Read it all:

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Poetry Prompt #9 - What's the Answer?

Answer a question you’ve had for a long time; write about something you don’t understand; tell about a question that troubles you. What’s your answer? Is there an answer?

An alternative prompt is the "tried and true" rant poem in which you rage, seethe, fume, boil, and really let your feelings out about something, someone, or anything else you need to vent.

Friday, June 11, 2010

On the Subject of Poetry Contests

Have you ever entered a poetry contest? Are you thinking about entering one? Before you pick your poems and sign the entry fee check, you may want to read the following articles!

"Entering to Win: Poetry Contests" by Robert Casper

An Article on Online Poetry Contests by Kurt Heintz

Friday, June 4, 2010

Poetry Prompt #8 - Not What It Seems

Try writing a poem in which you describe or tell about something in terms of what it is not. This may be about anything, including a person, a place, a belief, or a relationship.

You may find it helpful to begin by listing images that describe your subject in terms of what it is, then modify those images by converting them to tell what your subject is not.

Read “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock” by Wallace Stevens.

A variation on this prompt is to write a poem about something you didn't do, a choice you didn't make, a love you left behind. For an example, read Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken."

Another wonderful "not poem" is the title poem from Penny Harter's book The Night Marsh (WordTech Editions, 2008).

The Night Marsh
By Penny Harter

This is not about frogs,
their rhythmic croaking
from the swampy edges of a pond,

nor is it a landscape
of the hunter and the hunt.

This marsh extends for miles,
water glittering here and there
under starlight.

The sleepers feel their way
as they stumble from wet land to dry.

There is no hand to hold,
no voice dripping like moss
from the trees, singing,

Come this way
into the darker dreaming of the day.

Copyright © 2008 By Penny Harter.
Reprinted by permission of the author.