Foreword

by T.R. Hummer Editor, The Georgia Review

Of all the mysteries at the core of what this book calls the art and craft of poetry, perhaps the most recalcitrant is the mystery of process. A painter can learn from watching other painters not only how the brush is held and how the paint is mixed, but also—through the whole exfoliation of a piece, from sketch (perhaps) to finished painting—the rhythm of the arc of a concept. Likewise, a musician observing other musicians learns both theory and practice. A saxophonist wants to know how other saxophonists practice, how they prepare their reeds, what kind of mouthpieces they use and how they modify them. Equally crucial are certain objective facts about what happens in the course of a performance: there is an enormous lesson to be learned from watching how John Coltrane, for instance, stands when he plays; study that film of the master again, ephebe, and do likewise.

Writing, however, is a transparent process. Observation—even apprenticeship, as any MFA student will tell you—will take an aspiring writer only a little way toward mastery. This is not to say that writing can't be taught; it can, up to a point. But the means are oblique.

Watching a writer at work, we can learn how she rolls her typing paper into that aging IBM Selectric, how he holds his pencil and yellow legal pad, what word processing program is the choice du jour; but learning this, we will have learned next to nothing. One poet I know must write poems with an expensive fountain pen; another uses a similar pen, but must throw it away when a book is finished and buy another for the next project. This kind of information is both fascinating and useless. We learn vastly more by reading what poets have written (lesson one: a writer reads); but even there, most of the time, we encounter only the finished product, not the process whereby it came to be. This is true even when process is the subject of what we read.

Cases in which drafts of a poem are preserved teach us a great deal about the practices of individual poets; we know x, y, and 2 about how Elizabeth Bishop composed her marvelous villanelle "One Art," and the a, b, and c of how Pound revised Eliot's The Wasteland; through study of his papers we find out that Allen Ginsberg, contra his doctrine of Beat spontaneity, revised Howl obsessively, and we learn how he went about it. While this sort of knowledge may be indispensable to a poet's—or any reader's—knowledge of poetry, the awful truth is that, when one turns to attempt one's own poems, none of it may be of the slightest use.

The writing process turns out not only to be perversely idiosyncratic but also infinitely variable. What I knew about how to write a poem the last time I wrote one may serve me not at all today; in fact, it may be an obstacle.

Poetic process resides inside the head of the poet during the composition of a poem; it is invisible to an observer, and to a greater or lesser extent (depending on who you talk to) invisible to the poet as well.

It's no wonder, then, that poets young and old find themselves from time to time in blind alleys, box canyons, strait jackets—choose your favorite metaphor for frustration. And at such times it's a godsend, so to speak, to have anything even remotely resembling a road map to the abyss.

Michael Bugeja's The Art and Craft of Poetry is actually more an atlas than a road map. Replete with facts, myths, lists of inns and oases, and traveler's advisories (including, crucially, the occasional here there be dragons), this book wisely takes as its originating given the knowledge that no one approach, no twelve-step methodology, no dictum and no idée fixe will serve real poetry for long. His book comes at the problem from many directions at once, offering facts for the curious, advice for the panicked, exercises for the chronically blocked. Equally at home with Western traditions of prosody and with the more slippery (but historically definite) practices of free verse, Bugeja presents an impressive array of terrains without himself galloping off madly in all directions. With his dual credentials in poetry and journalism, he knows his subject and he knows how to present it.

No book can give a poet all that he or she needs to learn, or relearn, how to make poems. Ultimately, every poet is self-taught—and the name of the self that does the teaching is so far unknown. But every poet learns, and relearns, lessons from other poets; and Bugeja's The Art and Craft of Poetry is one of the best—most complete, most flexible, most readable—compendia of advice and information ever assembled.

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