By Colorado Review Editorial Assistant Daniel Schonning
Poetry, at least in the way that I’ve engaged with it lately, may be productively viewed as the collision of two parts: what is known and what is not. In this, of course, there is quite a gradient—within the known is the familiar, the personal, the deeply and reassuringly true. Within the unknown is surprise, productive mystery, probing or explorative questions for which the answers cannot be found. As we advance in the craft, we find new mechanisms to bring subjects from the former category into the latter, and to hurl the understood and mundane back into the unfamiliar.
As one begins a relationship with poetry, the unknown dominates, and the new writer is uniquely underequipped to explore it. And so, these new poets sometimes advance in ways that, for those of us who consider ourselves further along in writing, may seem trite or unproductive. When writing about their breakup, the new poet uses an ABAB rhyme scheme, without meter; when writing about the sky, the new poet compares it to blue skittles, cotton candy, windshield wiper fluid. In new poets’ poems, people die en masse; flowers appear, but only daisies, sunflowers, and roses; awkward addresses of love and clumsy acts of intimacy pervade. It’s difficult, once initiated, to return to a place of novelty, and therefore difficult to meet these poems on their turf—that said, I think it’s vital for each of us to do so, and to remind ourselves that they are just as righteous in their excavation of the unknown as any other work.
To build on Wilde’s truism, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling,” I would offer that all bad poetry springs also from vital feeling, feeling being precisely that tool without which the poet cannot write. After all, in writing, we are always chasing the ever-more-distant locus of our desire—of our most deeply held feelings—and those loci are relative to the person, each as worthy as the other. In poetry, the ideas that exceed us are like yeast in dough—gritty bits that irritate, germinate, and give the product its full flesh. The moment at which one treats a genuine act of feeling as obsolete, they take the rise out of the bread, turn new poets away from the pursuit of that unknown and dampen the profound wonder of the craft.