On February 26, I wrote a list of principles that serve to define my own thoughts on the craft of poetics. I call it the Millennial School. I’d like to reprint those principles for you now:
- Craft is of utmost importance
- There is no room for prejudice
- Form is just another element of craft
- Creativity and craft go hand in hand
- No topic is taboo
- There is no such thing as language that is too archaic
- All poems are individuals
- There is no acceptable method to writing poetry
- All convention should be shunned
I’m going to cover each of these points one at a time and let them stand on their own. Today we’ll cover “Craft is of utmost importance.” What do I mean by that?
Poetic Craft Is Of Utmost Importance
It might seem that it should go without saying and I agree, it should. But it doesn’t. The reason is because postmodern writers have really gotten away from craft. Academics and poetry workshop leaders stopped discussing craft years ago in an effort to make poetry “more accessible.” Instead of teaching young poets to hone in on the elements, poetry workshop leaders instead told their students to just write what they feel or to put their thoughts down and worry about editing or revising later. As a result, many poets learned to finish a poem after the first draft or if they did any revision at all it was simply to make their free verse expressions freer or more prosaic. Craft was not essential.
Poets quit studying previous schools and poets to learn about craft and instead just read them and were influence by them as readers rather than as writers. When I took my first poetry workshop in the 1980s, my poetry workshop instructor at the University of Texas at Dallas was a feminist poet by the name of Sheryl St. Germain. My first poem for the workshop, a poem based loosely on Sharon Olds’ Satan Says, but primarily was simply an unleashing of my passion with craft coming into play only with a limited knowledge of it. It was there, but I was quite unfamiliar with poetry at the time and therefore any craft that I brought to the poem was merely an accident or a carefully thought out fluke.
I’ve always been attentive to the sounds of words. Poetry came naturally to me then and over the years I’ve developed my style by studying craft more than just writing stuff down. Sheryl told me mid-way through her workshop that she didn’t know what I was doing but whatever it was, it was working. That threw me into whirling crisis because I had nowhere to turn to help me hone the craft that I was trying to obtain. I only had my own instincts. Sheryl could not help me because she didn’t know what I was doing. I learned from that that I had to rely upon my own instincts and personal studies, but that is not the best way.
One would not expect a martial artist to work alone and learn to become a black belt in his chosen style without a mentor. One would not expect any other professional in any profession at all to just learn through independent study and without some kind of guidance and mentoring or coaching from a more experienced and more knowledgeable craftsman, or tradesman. Why then should we expect that from poets?
Poetry is a craft. It should be studied as a craft. It should not be treated as a blank slab upon which to release bottled up emotions and closeted thoughts. Those can be useful, to be sure, but they must be sharpened by the flint stone of craft. Like a hunter sharpens his game knife, so too should a poet sharpen her skills through study, practice, and mentoring.
Craft is essential in poetry. If poets forget about the basics, the essentials, and simply write as if journaling one’s feelings and fantasies then all we’ll ever have is a series of rambling sensations. While that might entertain for a while, in the end it will only serve to make us lazy and to devalue the craft for future generations. Poetry is craft. Craft is poetry. The two go hand in hand.
The next installment of this series will be “There is no room for prejudice.” Please come back and join me as I cover this principle of poetics in more detail.