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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Reader's Diary #84- Fred Sedgwick: How To Write Poetry (up to p. 60)


As I'm reading through How To Write Poetry I've come to two conclusions about Sedgwick. 1. He's a very religious man and 2. He's very old school.

The first point is really neither here nor there to me. It's not an encumbrance to the book. It's not like's he's guiding people on writing specifically religious poetry, but it's just a view you don't see expressed in books much unless the book is marketed that way.

The second point is where I tend to skew a little from Sedgwick's opinions. I've mentioned before that he seems to dwell too much on the etymology of words, and in one particular instance that became more of an issue for me. In tracing back the roots of the word "poet", he discusses Greek, Sanskrit, and Slavic origins to define a poet as "one who makes, or arranges". He then uses the ancient definitions to refute the more modern connotations of "expressing feelings", while subtly taking a swipe at hippies. It's fine and dandy to be against poems which are fluffy and which blatantly overemphasize feelings, but my issue is with his debate tactic: delving back nearly a thousand years to make his case. Word meanings change and we can't rush back to some archaic meaning to make a point. Is Sedgwick aware of a little word called "gay"?

So I disagree with some of Sedgwick's arguments. I'm still enjoying the book. Of particular interest to me was his discussion on a particular poem he wrote (and got published) entitled "Ascension Day". An editor pointed out to him that a particular line about mallards was not public. That is, the mallards represented something specific to Sedgwick, an event in his life, that is unknown to the reader and thus problematic. He cautions against having an image or event in your head so vivid that you think you've expressed it well enough to the reader, when really it's a vague reference that an outsider would (unfairly) never get. It's okay of course to not make things obvious in a poem (that's half the fun), but poems should at least be possible to understand. I had this discussion with Rj recently over a poem I posted on his site. It was a quickly put together piece entitled "Curiousity Shoppe Ghost" that afterwards I was concerned maybe people would not actually understand what was going on. Likewise, when I posted a fib on Sure B'y's post it was only after hearing my wife read it out loud that I realized it was perhaps not clear that I was supposed to be sleepy in the first part of the poem. It was based on a memory that, although my wife was obviously part of, was so vivid in my head that I thought the poem expressed it well (but maybe not). Definitely something to be more cautious of from now on.

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