From the Mad Mind
of Anthony Watkins
When I Was a Boy
I wrote little verses
About dead presidents
In horse-drawn hearses
Down avenues of residences.
No, I just wrote that piece for exhibiting a point or two. And it was only one dead president, thank goodness. I started writing not too long after watching the procession on my neighbor’s black and white TV. It is slightly more “meta” than the poems I wrote back then, and I don’t think I ever wrote about that event until I was grown.
Speaking of meta poetry, a concept I had never heard of until I started taking ModPo* (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry) about 6 years ago, I still struggle with writing a poem that is self-aware. I also struggle the concept of both a meta poem as well as close reading.
The funny thing is, whatever failure or success I am as a poet, and I am certainly both, I am sure I do not write poems of great depth. There is a popular answer to the question of “What is poetry?”: the best words, in the best order. I don’t do that either, or at least, if I do, it is not through a great deal of thought. In fact, in almost all aspects of writing poetry, unlike writing something like this, I find the more thought I give it, usually the worse the result. Despite all of this, I still get asked, from time to time what is poetry, and what is good poetry. And in a sense, with every issue of Better Than Starbucks, I am called upon to exercise my philosophy, if not knowledge, as to what is good poetry.
I have a few simple thoughts, because I am simple thinker. “Say what you mean” is my number one piece of advice, but then I elaborate. Don’t use words that you think “sound poetic”, those words are in old romantic poetry because they are OLD, don’t contort your poem to get a rhyme or a meter. I know in formal poetry, writing to form is the point, but writing bad poetry to form is still writing bad poetry. And a play on the old advice about avoiding scams: “if it sounds too good, it’s probably a cliché.”
On the other hand, there are words that are simply not poetic, so there is a bit of a trick, use everyday words, say them in everyday order, but don’t use boring words. I will not list any examples. When I am writing a poem, I don’t give thought to word choice, I try to say what I am saying, then, sometimes, I will reread it and see a better choice or better phrase and change it, but as often as not, I don’t change much on a rewrite.
Then there is the debate of form versus free. Rhyme and non-rhyme. All I can say is some folk like spinach, some folks like beets, and some people would starve in a house full of spinach and beets.
This is why we have editors for free verse, sentimental and experimental as well as international, formal and rhyming, and haiku. Obviously, we have translators, because they both appreciate the poetry and can read in the original and give us a close approximation in English. Some of our editors are very partial to whatever they edit, but as a group, we respect the art in its many forms.
Kevin loves haiku the way I love good spaghetti. He has a broad appreciation for something it took me decades to get: he appreciates the poet, whether he likes their specific poem, or not. I am still learning this from him, my mentor for 30 years. I appreciate the feat of one human bravely sharing themselves with complete strangers, as the people and especially the professor Al Filreis at ModPo do, and I have come to realize there are gems and nuggets to be found in almost any poem.
If one looks past whatever flaw, or perceived flaw, of a poem one finds there is often a word or phrase that makes the poem’s existence worthwhile, and also the act of baring one’s soul in a poem can create a tenderness, an intimacy from the poet to the reader so that, whatever its failure as a perfect poem, it is still worth reading and savoring.
In a nutshell, my philosophy of poetry is read a lot, write a lot, be as true to yourself and to your “story” as you know how, and be proud that you write and be brave and share it. And, if you can, join a local poetry group and read and listen and make wonderful, if almost always crazy, friends! If you live in a remote place, or if you just want more than you can get locally (by the way, if there isn’t a local poetry group, you can always start one! I’ve started several, so if you don’t know, ask me how), I would strongly advise you join the aforementioned “class” *ModPo at https://www.coursera.org/learn/modpo
I might add for clarification, ModPo is not just for poets. If you love poetry, either reading or writing it, or are interested in learning new ways to think about writing, and in some sense, just different ways of thinking, then this might be the class for you.
I say “class” because the 10-week intensive FREE course offered from the ivy league institution University of Pennsylvania on Coursera begins September 8, 2018, (though you can join any time). Every year, between 20,000 and 40,000 students join in this priceless journey through contemporary American poetry. Do not be intimidated, there are a few dozen Community Teaching Assistants, including myself, (be sure to let me know if you decide to join up) who will hold your hand if you need it, and amazingly, especially if you have every taken any other MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), the professor is often found commenting and responding to students. It is a world class experience. Maybe the best part is after the last class in late November, there is a 42-week SloPo, which is ModPoian for the slow period between classes. Yes, I did say between classes, because 70-80% of those of us who take the course come back every year, or in truth, never leave. The SloPo period is filled with various workshops and discussion groups and remote collaborative close readings. Again, all FREE! (there are equivalent certificate courses offered, but if you are only interested in what you can enrich yourself with, and in who all you can become friends with around the world, the free course is a great bargain. More info on the fee certificate classes here: https://www.sas.upenn.edu/lps/online/certificates-courses/creative-writing-certificate
I offer the following recent poem as an example of what I write, not of what is either good or great, and certainly not what others should write:
full of the smell
of fresh paint
with the predawn
rattle of breakfast
eaten on packed boxes
in a near empty room.
The AC hums
as if nobody
and outside summer
waits like a warm
wet wash cloth
to cover your face.
and it becomes
our home again.