Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Sunday, June 14, 2020

How Long Does Poetry Take?

     How long does brain surgery take if you know absolutely nothing about medicine?  Use a club to knock the patient unconscious, drill through the skull, root around until you find something that looks out of place, rip it out, close the wound, and you're done!  As is the patient, but no one said anything about successful  brain surgery, right?

     Newcomers often ask how long it takes to write a poem.  It can take forever but, generally speaking, the answer depends on how good the poet and poem are.  Poor poets produce dreck at breakneck speeds.  Their process involves far fewer steps.

     Jotting down an outline can take minutes.  A newcomer may now say:  "Voilà!  We're done!"  First thought, best though, right?  Time to find an unsuspecting reader... 

     A slightly less raw neophyte might take the rest of the day to produce a draft.  (Note we didn't write "a first draft".)  Then they're done.

     If writing for the "publish or perish" academic crowd the journey is a little longer.  One has to inject some clever, original phrases.  A random text generator can help find the perfectly baffling modifier or metaphor.  One or two of these per poem should suffice.  Thus, we can finish in a weekend and ship the end product off to Poetry magazine or our university press. 

     Because it has to have objective merit, technical verse will take weeks--a month if free verse.  There is a trick to this:  Do the sonics before the rhythm.  Choose soft sounds for reflection, harsh ones for drama, and repeat them (as assonance, consonance, alliteration, or rhyme) as appropriate.  Attend to cadence last, either in meter or in rhythm strings (which distinguish free verse from prose [poetry]).

     At this point, what you have might win a Nemerov but it won't draw a crowd.  Why not?  Because we've forgotten that poetry is a mode of speech.  We need to gear it for an audience, not a readership.  We must perform it (or find someone who can and will).  This usually means memorizing it and practicing our presentation.  We have to sound natural, performing rather than reciting.  And certainly not reading.

     At no point onstage can we look up and to the right, a telltale sign than we're trying to recall something.  This is vital, since our eyes must be free to search the audience for hints of waxing or waning interest.  If the people at an open mic are leaning forward and shushing those around them, we have them.  (This, incidentally, is the greatest feeling in human experience.)  If, on the other hand, we see them slouching backward and whispering to each other we have work to do.

     Once we have something worth showing the world the final step is to create a video and post it to a public forum such as YouTube or Vimeo.  We will address the basics of this process in a subsequent blog.

     With talent, education, practice, inspiration, and some luck, an actual poet can often finish a work in two months.

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