A student wrote with a question that had circulated within her writing group recently: “Are we trying out all these different poetry styles in order to “find our own”?”
She continued, “For example, when I read a book of poems by Jack Gilbert or Diane Seuss or anybody, most of the poems are in a consistent style, as if the poet had decided “this is what best expresses my sensibility.” They are not, in general, all over the map but have staked out some portion of it.”
I think we find our own voices and sensibilities through a combination of DNA, reading practice, writing efforts, accidents, experiments. Trips and side-trips into life and our other interests. I am sure that my own poems carry whiffs and essences of those I have read, and what I want to write—and how—has only ever benefited from exposure to good books and other writers who tend to suggest possibilities and strategies. They also pluck chords in me and if I’m paying attention, I’ll write from the often instinctual response to those resonances: I open or am moved. Sometimes I want to argue back in response. Bang, a poem starts to emerge.
And then there is the ”act of reading” itself, which is one of the ways I learned about the magic carpet ride that is my imagination. I’m magnetized to flecks of galactic matter and avail myself of this entrance to other realms, not just as a passenger on someone else’s poem-ship, but as a space traveler in my own right, by way of my imagination. This is my critical nourishment.
I also suspect that listening to my own music—tuning in to my particular hum—is deeply part of the equation.
Naturally, over a lifetime of reading, I’m going to learn a thing or two and apply these insights gradually to my work, too. I may emulated some of the things I find along the way; one generation’s work is influenced by predecessors and so we evolve.
This week’s Act of Poetry is this: Read a contemporary poet for the pure pleasure of it. Too many aspiring writers don’t read enough, and when they do, they want to “get something out of it”. They pick up books of poems like vials of medicine. Forget about learning or stealing or emulating (these things may happen, even without intent). Become a more passionate reader. Fall in love with a new book. My final suggestion: approach the book you choose as a great epicurean would a table laden with food.
(Next week I’ll offer thoughts on how and why a “body of work” will typically stake out some place on the map. It’s a good question.)
Thanks for reading. —Holly