Is There a Formula?

I think I started to write poetry when I was in elementary school. I’m sure there was some type of formula based sheet that I filled out, and that we had to share some type of “I am from” type scenario. I’m know that I used to bring poems home from school, and that my mom would put them on the fridge. It made my parents happy, or at least they feigned happiness, and I was excited because someone cared about something I had written. It was important, but only because it got me through my formative years. No one told me that my poems were “wrong” or that I had to edit certain lines, or find a better metaphor, or lessen my obtuse thought process, or that my rhyme scheme wasn’t perfect. It was a poem, and if I filled in the lines properly, then I got an A, or a check plus, or a VG, or whatever the grading system was at the time.

I didn’t get much exposure to poetry during high school. My freshman English teacher introduced me to the work of Langston Hughes, and that proved to be a life-defining moment for me. It was the first time that I truly understood that poetry could make you feel something, believe something, and discover something so pure and honest about myself through the words of someone else. It was so visceral, and beautiful, and it lead me to start writing poems, which turned into lyrics, which weren’t very good, but they worked for me at the time.

In college, poetry was all I thought about. I lived for William Blake, and John Donne, and Sharon Olds. I explicated, and analyzed, and thrived on finding hidden meanings in Emily Dickinson’s words – her use of fourth and fifth definitions. I yearned for the free verse of an E.E. Cummings, and sang the songs of Whitman. And while we studied formulas, I ran as far away from them as I could. I no longer believed that a poem needed a formula to foster emotion in others. There were still cadences, and pauses, and line breaks when needed, but I started to believe that a poem simply needed to say what needed to be said, and nothing more. A poem needed to follow Strunk and White’s rule number 13 to Omit Needless Words, and just keep everything clear and focused.

When I started teaching Creative Writing, my belief never changed. I didn’t teach how to read poetry via stressed and unstressed syllabus, and I strayed from focusing on rhyme schemes. In fact, I told my students to write out what they wanted to say in paragraphs, and then begin to break them up into lines, cut out words that were no longer needed, and be as matter of fact as possible. I wanted them to force their reader to feel exactly what they were supposed to feel, and never have to question what was on the page in front of them. Cadence, rhythm, and style are still incredibly important, but those can come in the editing stages, and when working on delivery. I just want my students to understand that they don’t have to be Shakespeare to write a poem. In fact, a lot of them are much more interested in being Kanye West, or Jay-Z, or whoever the newest rapper might be, than even considering the work that has lasted hundreds of years. Who needs Blake when they’ve got Biggie?

I believe you should be able to write whatever it is you’d like to write, in whatever style you’d like to write it. As long you improve on the blank page.

In summation, I will leave you with “Young Poets” by Nicanor Parra. Enjoy.

Young Poets

Write as you will
In whatever style you like
Too much blood has run under the bridge
To go on believing
That only one road is right.

In poetry everything is permitted.

With only this condition of course,
You have to improve the blank page.

(trans. by Miller Williams)

Nicanor Parra

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