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Poetry as a Practice // Antoinette Prescott

We all know that a working knowledge of the fundamentals of grammar and a


decent vocabulary, not to mention familiarities with figures of speech, are pretty
much the basic requirements for creating good poetry (or any literary work for that
matter). If you put a poem out there for the world to read, everyone will expect that
you have the basics nailed. Well, ideally there are actually people who expect
their readers or to correct the syntactical aspect of the work. This is akin to asking
your teacher to check a solution to a math problem without realizing that
multiplication is just repeated addition. "Adding 7 to itself 47 times would have been
much quicker if you just multiplied 7 by 47," your teacher would say. To which you,
the student, will reply, "Oh, of course! Sorry I have not learned much about
multiplication, yet. I'll do that next time."

In cases like those, we can't really do anything much but help, and say that they try
and (re-)learn the basics. We can't blame 'em; sometimes, it really is just
unavoidable. Granted, the math example above does not really happen often but
that's probably because most students aren't really eager to learn about
multiplication early on. But with poetry, it's different. People discovering poetry are
always in a rush to try it, thinking that it is easy (well, it is, really, but more on that
later). If as many people are as excited with math as they are with poetry, then
maybe we'll get a bunch of incidents like the one above.

That said, in writing poetry, saying "just improve your grammar and try to add more
flourish" isn't really that much of an advice to go on, is it? In fact, the gist of what
my first paragraph was saying earlier is that, ideally, this advice shouldn't be
appearing anywhere near completed poetry all. By default, poetry out there should
already be free of grammatical errors. Keep in mind that I am talking about
conventional poetry here; grammatical quirks obviously brought about by
experimentation and style choice should be exempted.

So, barring advice about grammar, improving your metaphors, growing your
vocabulary, and abolishing the abuse of alliteration, what advice should we more
often see in poetry?

When I write, there are unspoken principles going through my head. They're not
really hard rules explicitly tacked on to my brain; more like meandering suggestions,
guidelines built out of habit brought on by years of trying to write good poetry. And
these principles, I've realized, are the things that stayed constant throughout my
writing. My style changes every period or so (or I forcibly try to change it), I switch
from long lingering lines to sing-song-y, nursery rhyme-y verses in a heartbeat, but
the principles, they're there. They're constant. Some people like what I do, and I
take this to mean that I must be doing some things just right.

First of all, when I sit down and write or, more realistically, type I already see
the lines as complete, and they are beautiful in their completeness. I don't mean
that I plan ahead every time I write. In fact, I wouldn't know how many lines the
poem will contain. I don't know if the lines will follow a rhyme scheme, if it will be
one continuous ramble or broken into stanzas like bread crumbs on a Gretel-trail.
Sometimes, I already know what the first line is; most of the time, I don't. Even so, I
already believe that the completed poem will be beautiful. This is not narcissism
(although pointing out that this practice is not narcissism is kind of narcissistic in
itself) it just instills a sense of purpose into the poem.

About the time when I started getting the privilege of submitting my works to
SaveLiterature/PAPEL (an online writing organization I'm sort of kind of a part of;
they tolerate me heh), Ms. Nheng [Minguez] used to tell me (to the point of
scolding) to always put my name in the media I post my poems in. I didn't always
include an author name when posting my work. That obviously is a problem, as
Nheng pointed out that it could be so easily plagiarized. That didn't actually cross
my mind before because while I honestly believe my poems are okay, they're not
good enough that they'd be plagiarized. I also believe that nothing would stop a
plagiarist not a name, not a byline if they really ever did want to copy
someone's work. I did end up getting the habit of putting names and bylines in my
postings after, because, you know, ate Nheng is just that persuasive. Heh.

Anyway, the point of not putting my name on those poems before is that I like the
idea that they stand on their own. Their purpose, their beauty in completeness, I
didn't want it to be attributed to any one person, much less to me. I'm trying to put
the poem on a pedestal not because I wrote it, but because I want it to try and
express a universal truth: I mean, I would want it to say that I can't be the only one
saying this! I can't be the only one who thinks this way.

***

Now, we've already touched on how knowledge of grammar and how it works is
important. Aside from the obvious reason not sounding like a retarded dog or a
trying hard person, doesn't matter which; they're almost the same another reason
why it may benefit you to familiarize the rules of grammar is so you could break
them.

I've learned not too many weeks ago that funk music was born when a certain
drummer experimented with the regular 4/4 beat. We will not get into complicated
music mumbo-jumbo but let me just say that you know 4/4 it's the most common
time signature that composers even forego writing "4/4" on the music sheet and in
its place they write "C" for "common." But as I said, I've learned that one of the
biggest musical revolutions started because some drummer decided to hit the snare
a bit late on ye olde 4/4 beat. This was later called "syncopation," and became a
staple technique not only in funk, but in other musical genres as well.

Music thrives on surprise. No art thrives on surprise. That key change in the hook
after the bridge? It sounds awesome because it is surprising. Dumbledore dying?
And killed by Snape, no less? Surprise. Snape being the good guy all this time,
always? Surprise. The kid telling Bruce Willis that he sees dead people? Surprise.

It should then go without saying that when applied correctly, the element of
surprise could make your work unforgettable. This is true with poetry, too. You make
your reader comfortable, treat them right, and when they least expect it, you pull
the trigger and you blow their brains out.

So, obviously you can't pull this off if you don't know how common conventions, like
grammar, work. There wouldn't be a convention to break in the first place because,
well, you broke it already, and the pieces are all over the place. The only feedback
you'll get is "yo dawg, clean this up."

***

Poetry should be something you do for yourself. You could say that poetry can be a
concrete expression of one's own selfishness (you would be correct, most of the
time). Poetry should be something you do because you want to. Perhaps because it
will make you feel better that way. Perhaps the place and time is made better just
because of the existence of the poem. Perhaps there are people you want to affect.

When people say that "You know, I felt real sadness after reading your poem," do we
consider it a good thing or a bad thing? I don't know what it does for you, but I
would personally consider comments like these a good thing, because you
expressed something, and they felt it. When talking about poetry, or art in general,
you may see the word "catharsis" thrown around. This is an important concept
the release of things and insights and imaginations inside you, that's one of the
genuine purposes.

Poetry shouldn't do to you what you don't want it to do for you. It shouldn't be
forced; it should be genuine. This seems to be an overstated adage and you'd think
it's pretty obvious advice, but you wouldn't believe the number of people who
forcibly place a word even if it makes objectively zero sense to place the word there,
just to complete a rhyme scheme. When you write like this, the readers will not feel
that they will never ever see a poem as lovely as a tree. They will never ever try
and compare their girlfriends or boyfriends to a summer's day. What they will say
instead is "Hey, it would've been a nice poem, but there are moments when it felt
forced." There is no middle ground here. Either your poem is good, in its entirety, or
it is flawed and you will have to re-write it.

So am I saying that we should just write how we genuinely feel and call it poetry?
Not exactly. It leads us to another question, being: Why can't we just lump together
a bunch of words together to form lines and call it poetry? The simple answer, I
believe, is because poetry is art.
Art means a lot of different things to different people, and everyone almost has their
unique way of expression, sort of an artistic fingerprint. Thom Yorke's artistic
fingerprint is to mumble depressing lyrics over droning bass (kidding) while Willie
Revillame's artistic fingerprint is basically "Buksan mo, papasukin ako (papasukin,
papasukin)" and variations thereof (not kidding). So obviously, we fall into
subjective territory where a person may consider something as art while another
person doesn't.

This subjectivity is what actually makes the question difficult to answer absolutely.
What we could do, however, is rely on years and years of material considered
poetry to base our current works on. We have centuries of material from
Shakespeare to Cummings to Plath to these newfangled concrete poetry and slam
and spoken word artists, all creating a sense of umbrella and answering your
questions about when poetry should be considered poetry. It's like, say, what
separates origami from crumpled paper. You can call a bunch of crumpled paper
"art" and I seriously wouldn't argue with you. I will accept that. It's just not origami.

Yeah, you can even take it further and counter-argue that you could just as well
string random words together and call it poetry because poetry is art and what you
did is art; none could care less. Chicken liver spicy river / mother glucose cocaine
silver. That's already a poem, right?

Most of you probably wouldn't think so, and I would agree. There's a difference
between revolutionizing, pushing the limits, and taking it too far.

***

Being artistic and genuine is actually a lot easier than forcing something to be
"artistic," and if you only let your mind and imagination find its footing and then run
its course, your work will shine. Do not do it because you want to please your crush.
And please, please, please do not do it because you want to be praised. Do not do it
because you want to be noticed, but because you want what you advocate to be
noticed. We all want our work to be noticed, honestly, but it is important to keep in
mind that it should be the message of the work that gets the attention first and
foremost, if at all.

***

Good poetry is something I've been trying to write for years, and there are times
when I feel like there is no sense of progress at all in this "skill." But that's neither
here nor there. Sometimes I just find myself sitting and typing because I wanted to
share a story with people, with strangers (like what I'm doing right now). I wrote
some because I was angry, or bitter, or hurt. I wrote while the coffee mug sat and
waited for the next sip. I wrote some because I was happy. I wrote some because I
felt loved.
In the end, does any of this matter? What you write if you write like I do are
basically glimpses of your insights and imaginations and the sum of all the life
you've lived so far expressed in lines. There are shy lines, confident lines, dry, lines,
colourful lines, dull lines, desolate lines, vibrant lines... there are perfectly-phrased
lines while some are awkwardly cut. I wrote each one of them, remembered how
they reverberated through people or how they fell flat, seen as contrived clichs.
There are hundreds, if not thousands of words given as advice, some followed, some
ignored.

That said, the biggest advice I could probably share is this: do not take poetry
lightly. Because, as you see, it means a lot to some people. It is important to me,
personally. So don't treat it as a passing fad, as a way to make your self look cool, or
as a cheap way to earn followers and friends. Poetry, in practice, is a way to make
people see how you see the world. It is a chronicle of how you witness beauty and
make sense of a universe that is naturally headed for chaos and entropy. So, you
will be either good at it, or suck at it. But when you write poetry, you *will* write
poetry, and above all, you will love it.