Poet, professor, and Stoneboat friend Chuck Rybak, offers some thoughts today on the concept of rules as applied to poetry. You can even test yourself at the end and see what you are made of. Did I just dangle a participle? I sure hope so.
I don’t care for rules, especially the rules of poetry. I write this on the 100th anniversary of Ezra Pound’s “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” originally published by Poetry magazine in March, 1913. That Pound wrote and published such a piece is ironic, as his life’s work is a five-alarm blaze of rule breaking, on the page and off. But like I said, I don’t like poetic rules, especially because those rules have birthed innumerable manifestoes and lectures, all designed to help non-famous schleps like you and me write poems more in the style of the beautiful people.
Rules, when handed down from poetry mountain, are not meant to help you as a writer. They are meant to put you in your place. This applies to most rule-driven systems. If that’s not complicated enough, there are rules to go with the rules, the first being that you must sit politely and nod your head while the rules are delivered by poetry’s rule-making class. (What should we call them? The Yessiragarchy? Something else?) And we already know these rules, don’t we? Do not write about yourself. Poems are not journals. Show, don’t tell. Don’t make one of your rhyming words “purple” or else you’re screwed. A line should weigh ¼ of a pound and smell like cherries. As a creative writing teacher in an institution of higher learning, I spend a good deal of time delivering such rules (“no poems about vampires,” “your soul is not literally on fire”), followed by an equal amount of time trying to teach away the damage those rules may have caused. But whether or not we acknowledge it, those rules are meant to draw authoritative lines: they are the students; I am the teacher, and with that sorted out, do what I say.
In the poetry business—meaning the world of publishers, prizes, and academies—these rules enforce just such a sorting function. Being a “rule maker” is simply another award, another privilege, a clear sign that you’ve “made it” somehow. Congratulations! You have collected enough poetry points to tell those with fewer points how to build and tidy up their aesthetic ranch-style homes. What’s the problem with these rules? The rule makers do not follow them, and are thus continually able to differentiate themselves and their work from the masses. For example, the most frequent complaint about contemporary poetry is how it’s too personal, how it amounts to journaling, how we’re all the deformed, inbred descendents of a once interesting gene pool called Confessionalism. How do we solve such problems? We need rules! Do not write about yourself, your troubles and anxieties, or anything else that amounts to navel gazing. Start reading history books and writing poems about immigrants crossing an ocean. Write from the point of view of a popsicle, as long as that popsicle isn’t you. That sounds good, until people swoon over the newly released personal poems of Mark Jarman or Sharon Olds, who just won the T.S. Eliot prize for a book about her divorce. I like both of these writers, but I also wonder why the rules don’t apply to them. One answer? People who are good writers are good enough to not need rules—they are “creative” writers after all. The rules are for the masses, while established poets congratulate themselves on writing poems so wonderful they levitate above the snares that would drag an inferior poet down.
A long time ago, in a classroom far, far away, I read Robert Pinsky’s critical work, The Situation of Poetry. (Established poets are always assessing the situation of poetry, which is another form of rule making.) One section of this book has lodged itself in my memory, pretty much at the expense of all else: Pinsky is deeply critical of Robert Bly’s poem “Silence.” Pinsky establishes rules about images, contorting his way to the conclusion that Bly’s image (“The fall has come, clear as the eyes of chickens”) is inferior to those of Elizabeth Bishop (or maybe it was Robert Lowell), because it’s just too darn clever. That image, a narcissist, thinks too much of itself! Bly’s image is tricky and smart while Bishop’s is down-home, genuine, and tries to show readers something for the first time in a magical, gentle way. I have no idea what any of this means, but I know it’s about rule making and rule following. I know it’s about who gets to be a rule maker.
Still, I don’t want to be a cliché (another rule). I understand that rules, in all areas of life, are necessary. But I’ve also lived enough to know that good rules free and bad rules fetter. Creative writing, with the focus on “creative,” is a realm that needs fewer rules. I suggest everyone read Richard Hugo’s book on craft, The Triggering Town, to get a sense of how the rules of writing should operate—each rule Hugo details is knowingly contradicted in a different part of the book. And because I’m writing a piece about rules (and thus started this sentence with a conjunction), I would feel negligent if I didn’t hand one down, so here it is:
Do whatever you want, and do it well.
What other meaningful rule for poetry could there possibly be? It’s easy to remember, you don’t have to look it up anywhere, and I give it to you free of charge. Once more for the people!
Do whatever you want, and do it well.
Now, for a little fun. On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Pound’s essay, Poetry has, of course, invited a few poets to write down some rules, specifically a collection of “don’ts.” Poetry included four poets in their March issue, and four more will appear in April. While such pieces should be taken lightly, I still found myself chafing at the pretentiousness that seeps into such pieces. It’s a game that never ends well. What’s a reader to do? Well, make a game of it of course! Do you have what it takes when it comes to the rules of poetry? Are you a real poet or not? Do you want to find out? Lucky for you, I have created a small (rule-driven) choose-your-own-adventure that you can play to answer all of these compelling questions. It’s free and passes judgment on you. What could be better? Go to the provided link and give it a whirl!
Chuck Rybak lives in Wisconsin and is currently an Assistant Professor of English and Humanistic Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He is the author of two chapbooks, Nickel and Diming My Way Through and Liketown. His full-length collection, Tongue and Groove, was released in 2007 by Main Street Rag. Poems of his have appeared in The Cincinnati Review; Pebble Lake Review; War, Literature & the Arts; The Ledge; Southern Poetry Review; Stoneboat; Verse Wisconsin; and other journals. His new collection, </war>, will be released in April 2013.