I am loathe to hear that question. Fingernails raking a blackboard sound like Bach by comparison. The title question almost always leads to a sappy discussion evoking the dreaded M-word--Muse. As in, 'My muse has abandoned me.' Pardon me while I upchuck.
Oh, woe is you! Your imaginary friend took a powder, did he/she/it? Well, big bloomin' deal. How can an imaginary friend desert you, anyway? He, she, or it only exists in your artsy-fartsy imagination, Shakespeare. So, simply snap your fingers and imagine he, she, or it back. What could be simpler? Unless. Unless your imaginary 'friend' was never a friend at all. Unless your muse is just a handy excuse.
What kind of writer needs a freakish, twinkly-faced apparition for inspiration, anyhow? If you're imaginative enough to create some ethereal 'muse-ling', surely you're imaginative enough to write without one. Duh!
But whatever you do, never, ever, write about your missing muse. For one thing, you'll humiliate yourself among your simpering peers. For another thing, I'll find out where you live. Stories and essays about missing muses are grounds for immediate divorce from the International Society of Rational Writers . . . if not from the entire human race.
Get off your crutch, Moaner, muses are for morons who'd rather write whiney excuses than meaningful paragraphs or couplets. A 'muse' is nothing more than a silly affectation employed by people who wear berets and talk with their hands. Loudly. Really, those who can't write, do tend to demonstrate--like monkeys. Loudly.
I've never heard of anyone who needed a muse to walk. You just put one foot in front of the other. Simple, right? Well, writing is no different. You just put one word after the other.
I, for one, am a believer in the 'Momentum Theory of Writing'. It's all about overcoming inertia--then shoving it over a cliff. You know what inertia is, right? It's when you wring your hands and moan you have nothing to write about. If you can moan, you can write. Hell, most writing is one form of moan or another, anyway.
I don't care what you write. Just get the ball(point) rolling. Write a letter to your favorite aunt. Then write a letter to Richard Nixon--unless he happens to be your favorite aunt. In that case, write a letter to Groucho Marx. Write to Santa Claus. Write to Claus Von Bulow. Write about Brexit. Write about Bridget. Write about Gidget and her trained midget. Write about anything but your damned absent muse. Write to today, tell it what you expect. Write to tomorrow. Write to yesterday, for all I care. Frankly, if I wrote to yesterday, I'd complain. Yesterday did not live up to my expectations. I didn't win the Lotto . . . again. Then some idiot dinged my car in the Shop-Rite parking lot. Oh, yes, I have a lot to say to yesterday. Maybe you do, too.
So, write. It doesn't matter what about. Just get the ball rolling. Overcome your lame inertia. Soon, you'll figure out what you want to say. Really. I promise.
Look, an individual's imagination is as unique as an individual's DNA. Thomas Edison imagined one way. Salvador Dali imagined differently. Still, they both imagined creatively. And I don't think either believed in Tinkerbelle. Why should you?
Time isn't static. Today becomes yesterday, and tomorrow becomes today, carrying changes from the past into the future. Some claim time killed poetry, but poetry is extant, not extinct. If it were a tree, its roots would be deep in the ground of human history. And its branches would be the way it has evolved to reflect the practices of professional and amateur poets and the preferences of academic and non-academic audiences.
We need poetry. It shows us things we don't see or don't know how to express. "Poetry is what you are seeking and the poet has found," wrote Carleton Noyes, "that step beyond which you were about to take but were not certain of the way." And thanks to libraries, the Internet and other media, poetry from today and yesterday--even thousands of years ago--can speak to our hearts and minds.
Poetry is reaching fewer people in the general public because a large percentage of contemporary poetry has become appallingly awkward or annoyingly incomprehensible.
In ancient times, before written language, poetry was an oral tradition, and poets were the storytellers. When poets began writing poems for the page, something to be read rather than heard, poetry lost some of its story-telling power and persuasion. Then poets began experimenting with non-traditional forms, and disconnecting style from content, causing everyday readers to feel as if they were working a crossword puzzle without the clues.
In school, the find-the-meaning approach to poetry made it unlikely that people would read poetry after they graduated. Then radio, television, lyrical music, movies, novels, and other forms of modern media further displaced the role poetry had previously played.
As we moved into the digital age, poets began flooding the Internet with a raw, un-crafted flow of passion and pain, angst and anger. Poetry was beginning to sound like children carelessly pounding the keys on a piano.
Efforts to make poetry more universally available and appreciated offer an alternative to the mass mediocrity of amateur poets and the style-and-content experiments of professional poets. This branch of poetry makes it more likely that people will encounter poetry in their daily lives. More likely that those who think they don't like poetry will change their opinion of the role it can play in their lives. More likely they will relate to social, cultural and political concerns in a personal way. Below are just a few of the many blogs, essays and websites aimed at making poetry more appealing to general audiences. Click into each site, then ask yourself, "What criteria are they using to choose the poems they publish?"
Academy of American Poets sponsors National Poetry Month, Poem a Day and other events, activities and forums aimed at fostering the appreciation of contemporary poetry.
American Life in Poetry provides newspapers with a free weekly column featuring contemporary American poems that paint word pictures of everyday life.
Bagley Wright Lectures discusses how poets work, why they do what they do, and how they see the world to give both general and specialized audiences a deeper, more lasting understanding of what contemporary poets are doing.
Can Slam Poetry Matter? discusses the literary, social potential of performing poetry.
Mass Poetry is a website dedicated to reaching mainstream audiences.
Page & Spine publishes poetry by poets who use ordinary language in ways that stretch, shade, and deepen its meaning--ways that merge the semantic focus of "What does this poem mean?" with the evocative power of "How did this poem affect me?"
Poetry Foundation publishes Poetry magazine to place poetry before the largest possible audience.
"Let us go then, you and I..." and explore ways to make poetry more universally available and appreciated. That means crafting poems aimed at the hearts and minds of people who may be more familiar with prose than with poetry. So the tips below are aimed at smoothing the differences between prose and poetry. That doesn't mean we should write down to mainstream readers or avoid writing poems to entertain, inform and inspire more specialized audiences. It means we can challenge all our readers to read up to us by crafting poems that are profound but not puzzling, conversational yet witty, accessible on the surface yet deeply meaningful.
Complex poems won't be well received by everyone. Some will be unwilling or unable to plumb the depths of ambiguity or appreciate sophisticated imagery, extended metaphors, and changes in line length. And enigmatic, sentimental, poet-centered poems will leave readers scratching their heads in confusion or shaking their heads in disgust.
So make KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) one of the tools in your toolbox. And use poetry as a vehicle for your reader's thoughts and feelings, not as a container for your maudlin, diary-dumping angst. Marriage to Jake, tragic mistake, I'm leaving that man, soon as I can... lacks the sensory-rich, evocative power of, Her gold ring, tossed on the tracks–no match for iron wheels rolling into the station... which merges showing and telling so readers are both involved and informed.
Prose is merely about something--more like an explanation with its meaning at the surface and on the lines. Poetry is something--more like an experience with its meaning on the surface, below the surface and between the lines. If prose were a sex manual or a recipe for chocolate, then poetry would be sex and chocolate. That gives poetry the power to convey thoughts and feelings with fewer words and more subtlety than prose. But poetry requires a closer, deeper reading.
So even though some of your readers will avoid one of your poems because it is not easy to understand, there will be more than a few who will invest themselves in it enthusiastically because it is difficult to understand. Deep, unfathomable mysteries can feed our curiosity, satisfy our need to look at the unknown and accept the unknowable. Some readers will see your mongoose stalking a cobra, your moon orbiting earth.
Prose is typically literal and linear, whereas poetry is figurative and frequently non-linear. That can make it difficult for some readers to grasp cause and effect relationships. So make similes and simple metaphors a tool in your toolbox. They are explicit and obvious, whereas complex metaphors (extended and verbal) convey more sophisticated comparisons because they are implied and subtle.
Prose stories typically conclude with the plot complications and the character's fate resolved. That's satisfying, because in the real world, some problems are never solved. So we enter the world of fiction, where we know the problem will be solved at the end of the story. A large percentage of contemporary poetry doesn't always wrap things up neatly and clearly.
So craft poems that are conversational, accessible and story-like with adventure, discovery, humor, surprise and suspense. Exploit the Wow! factor of real life with poems that are psychologically valid, emotionally realistic and therefore loaded with clues for shaping and navigating the sticky web of real life.
Perform your poetry in public places where people who don't normally seek poetry can experience it face to face and eye to eye with you, a poet. Deliver it from the passion that bought it to life, not from a piece of paper. And recite the poetry of other poets so your audience can receive your performance as an effort to celebrate poetry, not to solicit applause. Start with simple, lucid poems that tell a story and make a point on the surface. A live audience can't take your poem home and digest it word by word and line by line.
Prose is the dominant source of local, national and global news. So give poetry a voice for culturally relevant issues. Write poems that address economics, history, philosophy, politics and religion. It might help to cross-train your literary muscles by writing stories, essays and other kinds of prose.
Ask your local newspaper to publish poetry. Refer them to American Life in Poetry, which provides newspapers with a free weekly column featuring contemporary American poems that portray everyday life.
Study Ted Kooser's The Poetry Home Repair Manual. It's a gold mine of tools and tips for reaching mainstream readers by putting as few obstacles between yourself and your readers as possible.
Study poets who use ordinary language in extraordinary ways to show us familiar things in fresh new ways. Here are a few that you might consider as examples of what this essay has been about:
Charles Bukowski -- "I Met a Genius"
Billy Collins -- "Introduction to Poetry"
James Dickey -- "Cherrylog Road"
Robert Frost -- "The Road Not Taken"
Ted Kooser -- "Selecting a Reader"
Joni Mitchell -- Both Sides Now
Marianne Moore -- "Poetry"
Octavio Paz -- "After"
Pablo Neruda -- "Poetry"
Slyia Plath -- "Mirror"
William Stafford -- "Freedom"
When I first started writing, I focused on children’s stories, essays, and articles. I enjoyed writing these genres, and most of my manuscripts sold and were published. Many years later, my writer friend Becky and I formed a writer’s group to critique one another’s work. She wrote mainly essays, poetry, and devotionals. I found her devotionals appealing and inspirational, and she wrote them well.
“You should try writing a devotional,” Becky suggested.
“I don’t think I’d be good at it,” I said.
“You won’t know until you try,” Becky said, encouraging me.
Not quite confident, I followed the format of Becky’s devotionals: basically scripture, meditation, and prayer. I discovered I enjoyed writing them—and they began to sell! I was excited that my devotionals were helping people in their spiritual lives.
After my husband Kurt passed away, I wasn’t feeling creative, and I wasn’t feeling as close to God as I had been. I disliked feeling distant from God, and I missed writing.
Then I woke up one morning with an idea for a devotional. When I sat down to write it, I reflected on God and scripture and searched for the appropriate verses to go along with the devotional. I also added a pertinent prayer. Soon another devotional came to mind, and then another and another. I was writing again, and most of my manuscripts were devotionals. Through my reading and contemplating scripture, I began to feel close to God again. Devotionals became my favorite genre.
Originally, I wrote devotionals to inspire others in their Christian lives. What a surprise to find that writing them would one day inspire me by drawing me closer to God.
Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging.