Monday, April 3, 2017

That daily poem is not your symphony

The daily poem is a staple of National Poetry Month. Practically every poet I know is part of an April 30/30 project, cranking out a poem each day, offering and receiving instant feedback, responding to prompts or forging ahead on their own projects.

I often work in projects, and particularly daily projects, throughout the year. It doesn’t have to be April for me to be working on a new poem each day. I have meditation-related projects, where I think intently on a subject and write about it in a discrete poem every day; I also sometimes observe seasons—liturgical, hemispheric … even sports seasons.

It’s a lively way to operate as a writer, and when the theme of the project is constant, it’s one way of going deep the limited time available in a busy life. I like the energy of this kind of challenge, and it’s sort of fun to see the poems pile up. Obviously, some of them are no good, but some have life beyond the challenge, and these seem to make the whole exercise worthwhile.

Recently, though, a mentor said something rather thought-provoking to me. We were enjoying a rare in-person visit, and she pulled me aside to tell me, “You know, I don’t really understand this poem-a-day thing. To what point?”

No one had ever really put that question to me before, and it’s rather substantial one—why do you operate the way you do? And while there was an element of real curiosity in my mentor’s question, the gentle critique was there, too. Is a poem the product of an available hour? Or should poetry do something more substantial?

Most of my favorite poems were the product of longer contemplation. Maybe an exception can be found among the Romantics, who took long walks or did copious amounts of drugs and then wrote like the wind, with a draft in a single sitting (or, in the case of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” a partial draft, lost when that single sitting was interrupted). But then there’s William Wordsworth, rewriting The Prelude his whole life (when he should have quit while he was ahead).

The contemporary lifestyle doesn’t allow for long, focused contemplation. We have work and family—not always the case for writers through the ages—and we have huge houses (and no staff). What we don’t have is quiet—Xbox or the big game in the next room, playdates and ringing phones, projects after the work day, pets.

There have always been distractions. I’m just not sure we’ve ever known our current level of distraction, or that we’ve ever had quite as much vying for our mental energy.

But what if we did devote more focused attention to a single poem, instead of one a day? What if all of April’s writing activity resulted in only one poem—and not even a long poem, but a fine one, the poem that makes all other poems seem a little less necessary?

What if we cultivated a contemplative spirit instead of a quick one? What if we toyed with the idea of a masterpiece, instead of a lot of minor pieces?

I was talking about this today, and a musical analogy occurred to me. These daily poems play an interesting role in the life of a poet. They keep us limber, and they train us to think like a poet does—a little obsessively, prying beneath the surface of things. They hone our skills, much like finger exercises keep a musician limber.

But where’s my symphony? Or where’s my concerto, at least?

Maybe I’m squandering my poetic life on arpeggios. And maybe for me it’s time to think past the daily poem.


Have you been following my contemplative prompts for National Poetry Month? Visit Better View of the Moon for tips on cultivating a writer's spirit.

1 comment:

  1. The best part of the PAD for me is the enforced daily poem time. It's the time, not the output for me although some good poems began as a PAD poem. I see them as drafts and push them as far as I can that day.