Innovation and Craft: A Trans-Atlantic Theory of Poetry

“Poetry must be as new as foam, and as old as the rock”


Dichotomies are often false but useful. Contemplating the similarities and differences between British and American poetry, having steeped myself in both for some time now, I have been slicing my experiences as a reader along two axes: innovation and craft.

Ancestors to the word “craft” come from Germanic languages and originally had to do with “strength, force, power, virtue”, making the transition to mean skill in art or occupation exclusively in English. To “innovate” comes from Latin and French and has always meant, as Ezra Pound would assert, “Make it new!”.

To better define the effects of innovation and craft on readers of poetry, here are some comparisons:

Craft Innovation
Reassures us with skill Disorients us with newness
Builds trust Generates excitement
Pleases the senses Delights the mind
Refers to convention Inaugurates new paradigms

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Top “Poetry Words”

Having counted the occurrence of words in nearly 3,000 poems published in Poetry Magazine to create a parameterised random word generator, I am making some other interesting discoveries about these words.

First, as one Twitter user pointed out, the words that come up at each “frequency of occurrence” setting on the generator have their own distinct feel, as if very different types of poets might gravitate toward different clusters of words:
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Enlightened America

“…how amiable the gorgeous advantage of the newly born.”

-Marvin Bell, “The Book of the Dead Man (#42)”

I am somewhere over the Midwest as I type this, returning to the West Coast from a weekend in Boston. Val and I made the trip to attend a very special wedding. Seeing two dear friends — both kind, courageous men — exchange vows with each other, and blessings with all in attendance, renewed my understanding of what marriage is all about.

We stayed in the Omni Parker House Hotel, home to Emerson and Longfellow’s Saturday Club, and spent what little time we had on this trip getting acquainted with American history up close. We visited beautiful old churches, and made the trip up to Harvard — a school founded by Puritans to unite scholarship with spiritual pursuit. Continue reading…

What’s It All About, Ralph?

Midway through the first semester of my MFA, I seem to have hit a slump. Not horrible — just not the zealous enthusiasm with which I seemed to attack the first few months. I have just been getting up early and sitting down in the chair to write anyway — even if no material I really liked seemed to be coming. As I said before, I am in this for the long haul. So, observing myself and learning to deal with all the ups and downs productively is part of the bigger lesson of this program for me.

Another tactic that sometimes helps me get things flowing again is to revisit an old favorite. Ralph Waldo Emerson is eminently quotable; his essay The Poet reads like a poem in itself. It is remarkable to read some of his thoughts and realize certain conditions in poetry are hardly new or unique. So, I pulled a few excerpts from this 1844 text that seem to be as relevant to contemporary poetry as they were to poetry back then.

Notwithstanding the necessity to be published, adequate expression is rare.

The sign and credentials of a poet are, that he announces that which no man foretold.

For, the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.

Of course, the value of genius to us is in the veracity of its report. Talent may frolic and juggle; genius realizes and adds.

A beauty, not explicable, is dearer than a beauty which we can see to the end of.

The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!

The vocabulary of an omniscient man would embrace words and images excluded from polite conversation. What would be base, or even obscene, to the obscene, becomes illustrious, spoken in a new connexion of thought.

Every word was once a poem.

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Writing Tip: Getting in the Mood Poetically

My wife and I were recently discussing that J.S. Bach would often start off his composing sessions by playing someone else’s work for awhile, then move on to his own composing. I have found this to be an extremely successful technique for writing poetry as well. I recall that Emerson quoted an obscure poet in his famous essay Self Reliance, and explained that it wasn’t so much the literal meaning of the writer’s words but the ideas it sparked in his own inner workings that were of great value. Likewise, I find that reading other people’s poems with pen and paper handy is often a great way to give my own creative process a kick-start. So far I have not found the work I produce as a result of this method to resemble the work I was reading at all.

The notion that many nascent poets have that they might somehow pollute or corrupt their voice through immersion in other poets’ work simply has not proved remotely true in my own experience. Quite the opposite — I find that reading poetry seems to activate my poetic mind, to get me into the music of poetry (even if they are not the rhythms I prefer), and to stimulate more creative and original work than if I were to simply sit down by myself in an empty room and try “to be original.” The notion of being fed artistically is one that is very important to me — in fact central to my current pursuit of writing — and this technique seems to be a kind of filling up to overflowing, so that I can write out of the overflow of creative energy rather than swirling the dregs of deficit.