by Hannah VanderHart
As much as I am inspired by Chekhov’s Six Principles of a good short story, I feel a resistance in myself to the idea of rules in poetry and writing. I’ve spent some time thinking about why, and the primary reason is (I think) because the concept of rules is so often linked to a formalism that only very lightly masks elitism and privilege.
Here is the thing: where craft is concerned, whatever your hand finds to do, you should do it. Don’t discredit any tool. Don’t deny yourself or your work creative options. I want every single available creative option, even while I know I’m not a brave enough writer to access them all. But I want to be. There’s a real delight when something breaks in our house, and we have the tool on hand—AHA. I know what to get! How to fix this! What if it’s a new tool, or one you’ve never used before, that is perfect for the job? Even better!
That said, there are some preoccupations I have been returning to in my writing, over and over again. I see them in the better poems from my MFA thesis, completed eight years ago.
Here then, are my top six preoccupations:
- Attention is Poetry
I return to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” because it shows me, always, how attention is poetry. How looking at something, and describing it (in words but also in sound/visual/others mediums) is beauty. Whatever kind of text I’m reading, from critical scholarship to poetry to fiction, I go to for its peculiar attention. I want to see what the other sees; I want to watch them look. I am better for setting myself aside and looking at what they see.
- Tell it Plain
I love directness in writing. I think you can write ornately, simply. I think you can be rococo in an elegant and simple way. Sometimes this means short sentences. Fragments. Other times, it’s a long and elegant Henry Jamesian sentence where all the grammatical parts are present and in working order. It is care. Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons are enormous but also: plain (in the sense that we see facets plainly on a stone because they have been cut and chiseled there). I have come around to the position that complex and profound ideas can be relayed simply to another person, in the language that we actually speak.
- Use “Real Nouns”
I’ve been all about Jack Gilbert’s epistolary-essay of the same name this spring. Are your nouns real nouns? Does your reader believe them? Do they carry the heft of life in them? I think a (magical-)surrealist/realist text knows what real nouns are. I think speculative fiction know. I think our writing is waiting for us to discover them. Eileen Myles’ poem “The Honey Bear” is a great example of a poem with real nouns.
- Ask Questions
I feel like my best poetry comes when I open myself up to being wrong, and to learning something—either about myself, or my surroundings, or others. Even without containing a grammatical question, your work can question rather than prescribe or dictate. It can ask things, in part by remembering the first preoccupation: giving something your full and entire attention. Question: Have you ever written something, and then looked at it later, and thought: “No, I don’t think that at all!” or: “No, that is not the correct conclusion—it’s actually the opposite of what it should be!” As deeply uncomfortable as those moment can make me, and as embarrassed as I feel when I realize, with a start, that I’ve written the direct opposite of what is right or what I feel, those moments are beautiful moments that reveal your thinking actually happening in your writing. Where your writing (the active agent) has pushed you into questioning thought.
We are in this writing life because we love language, which is a physical, material thing. Our languages, our idiolects, have unique textures and vibrations. “It is almost as if we sing to one another all day,” Robert Pinsky wrote re: human speaking. Sing in your writing, too. You know what it is that you love, what makes your writing you. Sing that building down.
- Read like the library is on fire
Other writers and their books have a gift for you: you can call it grace or kindling or currency— whatever metaphor suits you. Reading calls the muse down like a dove on your shoulder. If you actually want writing to inspire you and tell you something new about the world, go to new voices. Not just the voices that remind you of your own writing and your own preoccupations. Confession: I am reading more in my thirties than I have my whole life and writing the most I’ve ever written. These things are related. Always be reading a book.
Hannah VanderHart lives and teaches in Durham, NC. She has her MFA from George Mason University and is currently at Duke University writing her dissertation on gender and collaboration poetics in the seventeenth century. She has poems and reviews recently published and forthcoming at The McNeese Review, Thrush, The Greensboro Review and Poetry Northwest. More at: hannahvanderhart.com