Poetry is hard
Letter to the Editor | Monday, September 25, 2017
I’m getting to the point where I’m OK with calling myself a poet. Yes, I still kind of feel like I’m wrecking the word, and I’m also all too aware that to declare oneself a poet is to sort of proclaim that you’re a Grade-A obnoxious person, but let’s be honest, I’m the worst (you deserve to know that).
This is super hypocritical, but in general, writers kind of suck. Get a group of them together, and writing is all they talk about. It’s a muscle flex of I’ve written /this/ amount of words, I do /this/ much planning, I write for /this/ many hours. See, writers are quietly arrogant. They think that nobody /really/ understands them the way other writers can. They’re secretly trying to one-up each other. They think that writing is this awesome gift, and they were one of the few to be selected.
I don’t think that’s true. Most people write. Most people have to get good at it for school. Everyone dreams and feels and imagines, and I don’t know if writers do any of that better than anyone else. They just think and collect and memorialize which are all very human things that literally everyone is capable of. I’ve never felt special to be a writer. I’ll always cringe when I call myself a poet. I don’t like to call attention to the amount of words I’ve written. What’s the point if the quality is terrible? Maybe I’ve got the dribble work down, but I can’t make a shot. Any monkey can sit at a computer and type. To me, writing has always been something that could be learned. Everyone has said quotable things; I’m just making the effort to put it down on paper.
That’s not to say it isn’t hard work. If you’ve ever been in a conversation where you’ve admitted that you’re working on a novel, the response you’ll get is always: “Wow, that’s impressive. I could never do that.” They’ll ask you what your novel is about and how many words you have right now and be perfectly in awe that you’re attempting this formidable feat. Novels are hard. I know; I’ve tried them. I’ve written x amount. (This is me leaving the quantity out, because it’s not important. The important bit is having written at all.) Plays scare me too much. I wouldn’t know where to begin; I can’t write one of those. They’re hard as well.
But if you tell someone you’re writing a poetry collection, the response is typically: “Oh, that’s cool, I guess.” And I know that in their head they’re thinking that poetry is easy, because I’ve been told that to my face too many times by so-called writers and non-writers alike.
But, poetry. Is. Hard. Poetry is so hard. Poetry is me staring at a page for an hour and getting a three line stanza that’s really only half a sentence. Poetry is me looking at the first draft of a poem and then staring at one word for three hours because it’s not the one I want. Poetry is metaphor and analogy and sound and image. There are so so so many things you have to think about when writing a poem that you don’t have to think about when writing a novel. There’s still planning. There’s still pacing. But you’ve got to say it faster and different and topsy-turvy. You’ve got to understand yourself. You’ve got to understand other people. You’ve got to understand syllables and rhythm. You’re still story-telling, but in a tighter space. There is no margin of error in poetry. You might be forgiven for an entire page of filler in a novel. One wrong word in a poem? Bam. It’s over. For a long time I only wrote prose because I thought poetry was too hard. You have to think about shape. You have to think about what style (free verse, haiku, sestina, villanelle, ghazal, sonnet, limerick, cinquain, etc., etc., etc.) is the best way to make your point. It’s not random. It matters. It’s a mental rotation task with words. It’s untangling the twisted web of life with your toes. I could give you so many other analogies, but I’m sure you get the point. Poetry. Is. Hard. And that’s why I love it.
So yes, I’ll go atomic when my fellow “writers” all turn to novels and screenplays because “writing poetry is the easy way out.” I’ll never belittle novels or playwriting, but to say that poetry is easy? I don’t believe that writing is intrinsic. I’ve worked for these words, fought to understand them. If poetry is easy, then you’ve never written a poem. If poetry is easy, then do you understand writing at all?
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.