Friday, January 29, 2010

Planning to Write or Planning to Fail?

Note: this blog is a reprint from "The Widening Spell." While I was writing it, I was deep in the throes of writing a statement of writing plans as part of applying for a major writing fellowship. I took a break in the process to share the following thoughts.

Writing a statement of writing plans is like sketching a trail through a dense wilderness that one has only flown over at thirty thousand feet. On the one hand, it is quite impossible to get it right the first time (or, perhaps, the tenth); on the other, it seems like an absolutely necessary first step if new poetic territory is to be properly explored and mapped. The question of where one will ultimately end up can never be answered ahead of time. However, a discussion of possible starting points and provisional directions to push toward seems a worthwhile strategy for expanding one's vistas. But, what may be a reasonable process in the natural world may not be so in the realm of the arts.

Viewed in one way, intention has little or no place in the writing of poetry, being a sort of trap, a room with no view except for what can be thought of ahead of time within the confines of that same room. Dean Young asserts in his essay "Beyond Intention" that a poem should always subvert our best efforts at intention. "More than intending, the poet attends," he states. And if this were true of poems, would it not also be true of poetry projects and manuscripts?

But if intention should give way to attention, then what exactly is the poet to attend? Certainly one answer is the view (vision?) outside. But shouldn't the poet also sit with one's own work, day and night, like a parent on the floor playing with one's children, or like a faithful relative with a comatose patient, listening for some change of breath, watching for some motion of the lips, in order to dutifully carry the faint whispers and murmurings to the physicians in the hope that some treatment can result in a transformation of life?

In my view, on each side of the pathway that leads to great poetry (or the quintessence of any art form), there is a diversion that leads to ruin. On the one hand is the labyrinthine side trail of planning, where no risks are taken than are not measured ahead of time, and every attempt is made to plan the outcomes before the first step is taken, the first word is written. On the other hand is a sheer cliff, with little chance of surviving the plunge into the unknowable.

In front of us, however, is a path that takes from either side of its surrounding terrain, challenging us to give our most advanced thought to the creative act, along with our most recklessly primitive risk-taking. Perhaps rather than writing to a precise subject matter or with a predetermined diction or end in mind, a mapping of the meta-language of a project of poems that, for example, explores what Young calls "primary human dilemmas," is one way of negotiating this path. Young explains: "By exploration of primary human dilemmas, I mean the primitive, the assertion of the monstrous if need be, the instinctual, visceral, sexual, rogue, absurd, sometimes derangement as a form of innocence. Primary even in afterness."

An example of this primary human dilemma can be found in Yusef Komunyakaa's "Work," or in Philip Levine's "They Feed They Lion," or even in the more graphic "How to Be Eaten by a Lion" by Michael Johnson, appearing in The Best American Poetry 2009. Perhaps Dean Young best sums up the issue when he says that "Poetry is when the animal bursts forth, inflamed. It ain't always pretty. We are permitted to say everything is possible, brief consolation for what we've taken that we don't want and what we should have taken but were too afraid, proud, or stupid to. We can't have everything."

More thoughts on this to come. And, hopefully, more poetry. But for now, it will have to wait. I have to get back to writing my writing plans.


  1. I just read your last 3 posts & they are all terrific. Great writing & O
    exactly what I needed to hear.-Mercedes