Letting the noise of thinking subside

Chase Twichell writes poetry and practices Zen. In No Imaginary Fences, Twichell compares zazen and poetry saying they might seem to come from different planets, since one is languageless and the other expressive, but both are primarily concerned with the quality of attention one pays to the world.

‘In zazen, we sit without moving and study, without judgment, what the mind does. The mind is very, very busy! It dislikes silence and stillness. It thinks, and thinking gets in the way of seeing things as they actually are, free of all of our associations and distractions. To me, writing poems requires the same kind of concentration, and the same patience, to let the noise of thinking subside.’

Sometimes poetry sneaks in when you least expect it. The chosen words are more than the sum of their parts. The gestalt of a poem is not constructed. It arrives, using the words as its bridge. The task is to make the best possible choices for that bridge. Letting the noise of thinking subside might seem like the wrong direction; writing is an act of doing rather than not-doing.

Twichell has an answer for this.

It’s said that poetry goes where prose can’t, and I’d add that Zen goes where poetry can’t. But poetry gets closer than anything else.

This short video A Day in the Life of a Zen Monk includes the practice of zazen.


Letting something creep, crawl, flash or thunder in…

Dylan Thomas

I suspect everyone has a different answer to the question of poetry and each answer would be valid. Resonance has no monopoly. I like the description given by Dylan Thomas. There are several versions of its origin online.  I don’t know which one is true so am breaking academic law and quoting without reference. It feels strange to do so!

‘You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick, and say to yourself, when the works are laid out before you, the vowels, the consonants, the rhymes or rhythms, ‘Yes, this is it. This is why the poem moves me so. It is because of the craftsmanship.’ But you’re back again where you began.

You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.’

The sense of a poem tapping into a universal truth like an archetype or some other manifestation of the collective unconscious is often referred to. Poems need spaces which can bring different meanings to different people. Back where this began; poetry is individual and part of the success of a poem might be measured by the number the people it resonates with.

Simon Armitage – free ‘Poetry Testing Kit’

Simon Armitage poem on stone

Image from the Stanza Stones project, a 50 mile upland walk from Marsden to Ilkley visiting the Stanza Stones carved with poems by Simon Armitage.

On the Poetry Book  website Simon Armitage takes on the role of Sherlock Holmes for solving the mystery of the difference between poetry and prose. The Poetry Testing Kit offers ten guidelines for identification of a poem with the proviso it  will never be an exact science. That’s ok. If it were, the magic would be lost and the mystery is part of the gestalt of the poetic form.

These guidelines are useful indicators for developing the necessary skills to turn plain words into something really special.

 Poetry Testing Kit 

The Eye Test – How does it look on the page? Has some thought gone into its shape? Does the form bear some resemblance to the content?

The Magic Eye Test
 – If you look for long enough into the poem, will it reveal another meaning or picture hidden within it? Will further readings uncover further meanings and new rewards, and so on?

The Hearing Test – How does it sound? Read it out loud – does it work on the ear in some way?

The pH Test – A test for Poetic Handicraft. Does the poem use recognisable poetic techniques, of which there are hundreds? Are the techniques subtle, or do they poke out at the edge?

The IQ Test – Not a test for Intelligence Quotient, although that might come into it, but a double test for Imaginative Quality and Inherent Quotability: does the poem have some sort of dream life you can respond to: does it have lines or phrases that might stick in the memory?

The Test of Time
 – Would the poem outlive its immediate circumstances? This doesn’t mean it has to be ‘classic’ or ‘great’ or have some eternal message – it might just be a case of the poem withstanding a second reading. Remember, good poems can create their own contexts, and have poetic value way beyond their apparent shelf-life or sell-by date.

The Test of Nerves – Somebody once said that a poem shouldn’t just tell you not to play with matches, it should burn your fingers. In other words, does the poem create a sensation, rather than simply an understanding?

The Lie Detector Test – Poems don’t have to tell the truth, but they have to be true to themselves, even if they’re telling a lie. Give the poem a thump – does it ring true?

The Spelling Test – Does the poem cast a kind of spell or charm? At the very least does it create a world, even just a small but distinct world, capable of sustaining human life; a world whose atmosphere we can breathe and whose landscape we can inhabit for the duration of the poem?

The Acid Test – This is the final test and the one that really counts. It’s like a test for the mystery ingredient that separates a truly great tomato sauce from its rivals. It’s the X-factor, although it might be to do with the author’s experience of poetry. Is it possible to write a good poem if you’ve never read one? Somehow I doubt it.

Free online course on modern and contemporary American poetry

Open educational resources and course take advantage of the internet to offer free learning opportunities. One of the leading platforms is the US based Coursera at https://www.coursera.org and I’ve been looking at its Modern and Comtemporary American Poetry or MoPo as it calls itself. The course has just completed a ten week teaching schedule but the content will remain online for the rest of the academic year and is well worth visiting.

Coursera Modern American Poetry course

Starting with Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman the syllabus traces the development of poetic modernism including Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein before moving onto Anti Modernism, Formalism, the Beat Poets of the 1940’s and 50’s and onto the New York School and Language Poetry before finishing with Conceptualism. Materials include links to all the relevant texts and videos of round table discussions between the tutor Al Filreis and his students at the University of Pennsylvania. There are communication forums, recordings of live webcasts and an interesting peer review assessment technique. This is a brilliant introduction to 150 years of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry and its free. What’s not to like!

Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition

The 27th annual Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition is now open for entries. Entrants are invited to submit a collection of 20-24 pages of poems for the chance to win a cash prize and publication by Smith/Doorstop Books. Judged by Simon Armitage, closing date is 29 November (post) or midnight 1 December (online). A £1 surcharge is applied to online entries. I’m guessing this is for printing expenses.

Entering competitions is good practice. It can be motivating to have a structure and a deadline to work to. The downside is submission often comes at a cost. There’s not much money in poetry so to some extent its understandable why charging for entry is seen as an income generator, but the £25 being charged by Poetry Business seems more of a deterrent than incentive. The explanation is as follows:

Our two expert readers and judge all need paying appropriately for what is many hours of intensive reading. In addition, the competition needs to be promoted, there are substantial administration costs, £2,000 prize money and a winners’ reading – all of which is paid for by the entry fees. (The winning collections are printed and publicised out of our usual budget.) The competition makes up an extremely important part of our income though, and allows us to continue with our less lucrative activities (such as publishing poetry!).

Fair enough but  £25 is a lot of money and risks reaffirming poetry’s reputation as exclusive rather than being for everyone.

If you have 20-24 poems plus a spare £25, the competition details are here http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/competition-menu/competition