Friday, March 11, 2016

Is it a bad habit, or is it your style?

As a poet, I have a few compositional habits that show up with suspicious frequency.

An example: I often start poems with some marker of setting—usually time, often place—rather than jumping into the substance more directly. So many of my poems begin with “This morning …,” or “Yesterday, …,” or “When I was a child ….” Since I’m aware of this tendency, I watch for it, and I tend to edit it out later in the drafting stage, but these markers are my entrĂ©e into the poem, and I tend to use them in the early drafts. Squelching the impulse too soon has proven unhelpful, leaving me stuck.

I am also in the habit of writing “chunk” poems—short pieces without stanza breaks that sit on the page like a flat stone from a river. In the interest of a varied manuscript, I sometimes go in and insert stanza breaks, but nearly as often I take them out again. Something about those poems just wants to be a chunk, and who am I to argue?

Another habit (and in describing these in my blog, I sort of feel like it would be less revealing to just post a naked self-portrait for all to see) is this certain hand-crank way of propelling a line. I turn and turn and turn and it gets harder to push and then I move to the next line and boom, there it goes—relief, and the cranking starts again. Think of a Jack-in-the-box. In my poems, the deranged clown-head pops up predictably at the start of the next line. It’s where I put my energy—into surprising readers at the start of a line. And at some point, that’s no longer all that surprising. I’m letting down Ezra. I’m not “making it new.”

I’m reluctant to call these “bad” habits—they are part of my process, and they get me into a poem, and some of them, like the setting markers, are easy to eliminate. I’ve taught composition for years, and I would never tell a student writer at the outset of a new draft that it stinks, or I’ve seen that hackneyed strategy before. When a draft is finished, I’ll often talk about things like this—“Do you think you might be able to liven up this intro?”—and the revision almost always shines. But imagine a teacher standing over your shoulder as you try to begin, and picture her saying, “Nope. No good. BORRRRRING!” You would be paralyzed. It would be impossible to write anything at all.

I don’t actually have to imagine this scenario. I remember very well my first day as a newspaper reporter at a small newspaper. I’d set up my desk with its pictures and its pencil holder, and I was getting ready to jazz up a news release when in walked the members of the local school’s teachers’ union. It was a small paper, down a few staffers, and the entire newsroom consisted only of me, the editor-in-chief, and two sports reporters. The editor was married to a teacher and union member, so that left me, on day one, to write up the biggest news in the city: the teachers were walking out.

The story could not have been more important to my editor. (I’m sure he would have heard about it, had we gotten it wrong.) And he didn’t know me well at all—didn’t know first-hand if I could even write a story, much less report important, nuanced breaking news that he had a personal stake in. He couldn’t write it himself, and he was a very ethical person who would never have interfered with my reporting, unless he noted a substantive error. But what he could do was stand behind me, his hands on my chairback, and bend to look at my screen. I remember trying to write that story—my first four column inches of a career that would include tens of thousands (maybe more). I could hear him breathing. I’m an extremely fast typist typically, but that day my keyboarding was glacial: “Kenton … teachers … staged … a walkout … today … to … protest … … …” (delete). “Today, … the … entire … faculty … … …” (delete).

We do this to ourselves sometimes. We know when we’re using the same old tricks, and we’re like that editor, staring down our page. We feel his breath on our hair. We sense we’re potentially screwing up something important.

Some of our habits can turn out to be good. Collectively, they can make up our style. All habits, though, need to be scrutinized. Am I writing this poem in this way because that’s the easy way? Am I too bound to certain ways of thinking? I know that sometimes the shape of my argument can be similar from poem to poem: I set up some claims, I offer a faulty hypothesis, I resolve at the end. A repetitive rhetoric is something readers pick up on. I’m firmly convinced that this is why Billy Collins doesn’t always get the credit I think he deserves; it’s because most of his poems have the rhetoric of a joke—a big setup and a fast punch line at the end. I continue to enjoy his work, but I see how some readers roll their eyes and fail to take him seriously.

It’s a fine line, isn’t it? We want to squelch our habits, especially our most transparent ones, without chasing away the muse. The suggestion I offer myself is to be continually observant but to let the draft happen. When I notice myself showing my hand, I gentle up my gaze and move on, knowing that I’ll get to the matter on revision if it continues to be problematic.

I make myself continue, though. The poem needs to come into being. With luck and with resolve, I’ll fix it eventually.


  1. Thanks again, Karen! You are so generous with your insight and tips on this blog. The metaphors bring the messages home.

  2. "Flat stone from a river." Now that would make a good poem. Or series of poems.