I have been having difficulty writing poems for the last year or so, as I pushed to finish my PhD dissertation. I am constantly feeling inspired to do so, and I have pages and pages of fragments collected and scribbled in multiple notebooks, but creating a whole poem has been out of my reach for awhile. This has alarmed me greatly, because I have been writing poems quite steadily for most of my life (since I was eleven years old) and beginning the PhD coincided with a swiftly-dropping lack of productivity in that area that has left me feeling emptied and dull, and even a bit anxious to attempt the crafting of poems despite the strong desire to do so.
Part of this, I know, has been the sheer written demands of my program, to not only produce my thesis (117 000 words or so) but also conference papers and articles in an academic style, and that this has been incredibly draining for me, especially in the last six months as I've finished up. But today I came across a wonderful, unassuming little chapbook by Dorothea Lasky called 'Poetry is Not a Project' (go read it all online here, it is concise and brilliant and will not take long) and this has helped me greatly to articulate another block toward the making of poems: that I am trying to make poems like I made my thesis.
(This sounds very simple, but I honestly don't believe I quite identified the problem until I read this, and I am going to write Lasky a grateful letter for helping me untangle that.)
Lasky notes that it is not that poets and scientists are all that different, but that she thinks that "poems are living things that grow from the earth into the brain, rather than things that are planted within the earth by the brain". For Lasky, poems are "not intention, but life". They are not planned out before they appear. They are created within an intersection between the poet and the poem itself, the poet's internality and the external world. They emerge through intuition, not overplanning.
And so I am realizing that right now, I am perhaps half-consciously trying to discern a theme, a greater cycle, an overarching purpose and point to prove for these poor little half-formed poems in my notebooks, and being unable to come up with one, I am thwarting myself before I even begin. I am trying to make a grand scheme, a grant proposal, a PhD out of my poems, and that is never going to work. I need to not worry about what is going to happen in the end, what it is going to become (so crucial to a thesis, where there is something I must prove) and let it be.
In Lasky's anecdote about the friend who decided to write a poem about a piece of art in a museum each day, she shows that while such 'projects' can be motivational, they often become more about the particular project than the poems themselves, which are often forced out to conform to a theme and tend to fade out hollowly into the shadows. In another piece I read recently, called 'Being Dumb' by Kenneth Goldsmith, another example also resonated. He mentioned Christian Bök, a poet who came to renown for writing Eunoia, an experiment in univocalics--each chapter/poem contains words with only one vowel--and who is currently attempting to create the Xenotext. In the latter project, he writes that he is "striving to write a short verse about language and genetics, whereupon I use a “chemical alphabet” to translate this poem into a sequence of DNA for subsequent implantation into the genome of a bacterium". The bacterium then produces a protein, which is also a text.
That is a fascinating idea, I don't deny that. But I don't want to feel like I have to write something like that-- like a collection of poems all about one thing that all support that x = y, or forgo meaning for pure sound, or train bacteria to make poems for me. I don't want to feel like there is something I must prove.
While I don't equate what Goldsmith called 'dumb' as the opposite of 'smart', I do think that too often, poets try to be too 'clever'. And so many of these smart poems instantly make me feel distanced. They are cool and calculated, crisp and crafted; many also lack apparent emotion. While some do show a certain joy in language, language and meaning do not always dovetail in a way that really satisfies me emotionally and intellectually at once. (Eunoia, I would argue, divorces words from meaning quite thoroughly) I try to go deeper into these poems, and I end up feeling like I just tried diving into a pool and finding out the water was a lot shallower than I anticipated, and I come up miffed with a sore head instead of feeling enriched and enlightened.
I want to let my poems flow, and I want them to be smart, but not 'smart' in Bök's way, but intelligent in a way that moves me, and will hopefully move others. I want to express things for the sake of expressing them, because I have the need, I am drawn to create them.
Hélène Cixous writes of this deep desire to create so perfectly and passionately in her essay 'Coming to Writing', which I read recently, and I keep coming back to parts of a quote that Arwen highlighted for me:
Let yourself go! Let go of everything! Lose everything! Take to the air. Take to the open sea. Take to letters. Listen: nothing is found. Nothing is lost. Everything remains to be sought. Go, fly, swim, bound, descend, cross, love the unknown, love the uncertain, love what has not yet been seen, love no one, whom you are, whom you will be, leave yourself, shrug off the old lies, dare what you don't dare, it is there that you will take pleasure, never make your here anywhere but there, and rejoice, rejoice in the terror, follow it where you're afraid to go, go ahead, take the plunge, you're on the right trail! Listen: you owe nothing to the past, you owe nothing to the law.
This is the antithesis of creating a project, a clever 'exercise', and I do think that others, like me, also can get caught up in the need to make a 'something', and this stops us from letting the poems out, the poems that are us, that we are being. I need no governing laws in my writing, no theses to cleverly defend, no I must think less, and write the things that ache to be written, that are squirming about in my mind like restless embryos and choking away in my throat. As Cixous says (and I think Lasky would agree), we must be "ourselves in writing like fish in the water, like meanings in our tongues, and the transformation in our unconscious lives".