You’ve got the (writing) blues, and we can help! It happens to everyone: you feel like you have nothing new to write, or you’re worried your writing isn’t very good. Maybe you’re wondering if your poems even matter, or you’re feeling isolated as a writer. The bottom line is, you’re discouraged. Reading excellent craft essays, listening to craft talks, reading other poets’ ars poeticas, and finding new poems you love to read can all help you feel engaged with poetry again and help you remember why you do this zany writing thing.
Try These Craft Essays
Craft essays in which poets describe why they write poetry can help us connect to and recognize our own muses, and craft essays can remind us of why we sit down to poetry in the first place. In her essay, “The Art of Finding,” Linda Gregg writes, “I respond most to what is found out about the heart and spirit, what we can hear through the language.” While she acknowledges the pleasure musicality and language-making can create, she describes the aspects of poetry that draw her in even more deeply than the pleasures of a well-crafted poem: the discovery and illumination embedded in poetry, and how the best poems are ones that make her understand her life and spirituality in a new way. To Gregg, poetry is more than just craft—it is more than the best language choices or the best meter and form. She is more interested in something profound in poetry: “Instead,” she writes, “I am referring to finding the resonant sources deep inside you that empower those subjects and ideas when they are put in poems.”
Gregg describes finding replenishment and inspiration from poems that pull from unique and individual life experiences, even minor or seemingly unimportant ones. Of those individual life experiences, she writes, “They are present as essences. They operate invisibly as energy, equivalents, touchstones, amulets, buried seed, repositories, and catalysts. They function at the generating level of the poems to impregnate and pollinate the present—provoking, instigating, germinating, irradiating—in the way the lake high up in the Sierra mountains waters the roses in far away San Francisco.” To Gregg, it is important that a single individual person is the only one who can write their own poems; any individual is the sole keeper of their own life essences, the sensory, spiritual, and intellectual experiences that build over the course of daily living. She writes, “The point is not what they are but that they are yours. Whatever these sources are, you must hunt out them out and feed your poems with them, not necessarily as topics, subjects or themes, but as the vital force that fuels your poems.”
Considering that vital force—unique to you, as a writer—might help you remember that your work has purpose, and purpose that only you can manifest. In this essay, Gregg also includes an excellent writing exercise that she shares with her students, one that can help you stay grounded in your poetic practice even if you don’t feel like writing actual poems. This craft essay can help you find poetry again, in everything you do. You can read the entire essay here.
Another craft essay that can help you get centered in your purpose in poetry is Chen Chen’s “Craft Capsule: On Becoming a Pop Star, I Mean, a Poet.” In this essay, Chen shares a list that answers the question why poetry? If you’ve got the poetry blues, you might find it helpful to consider making your own why poetry? list. Why did you choose poetry? Why did poetry choose you? How has poetry emerged at different points in your life? Chen’s list is both moving and comical, and sharply honest, much like his poetry. He writes, “7. Poet because I am a failed musician. Failed painter. Failed scientist obsessed with the moon. Failed gymnast, though once I was very, very good at cartwheeling. Poetry because my favorite scenes in Power Rangers were when, instead of running, they all backflipped and backflipped to where the fighting would take place.” Is your poetic life something that came out of a different kind of failure? Did your love of poetry come out of a different kind of love? Chen Chen also explicitly calls out the fact that the poetic world did not tell his story, making it necessary for him to tell his own. He writes, “6. In eighth grade I began writing poetry outside of school assignments because I couldn’t keep imitating Robert Frost. I kept writing poetry because it seemed no one else with a secret like this looked like me.” What are the poetic narratives that only you can tell? What are the gaps in the poetic world that only you can fill?
Next, try this uplifting narrative by poet Jean Anne Feldeisen, who published her first poem at the age of 70. If you have ever worried your secret dreams are out of your reach, read this essay. Feldeisen is living proof that it is not too late: you are right on time, and you are exactly where you need to be in your process. There is room for every kind of poet and every kind of poetic voice in this world, including yours. Of cherishing and valuing one’s own individual experiences, Feldeisen writes, “I still had all the poetry I had ever written. I had saved it because I cared about it and thought it was important somehow. I could use that as a start. There were themes, about the meaning of life, about nature, about my relationships, that I had been thinking and writing about over the years. I could use these for raw material and glean them for ideas about my thought. These were words that I had put together at various times through all the stages of my life. In my own original voice. And some of them were worth using or reusing. I bet you have some of these things in your mind’s back closet. Things you’ve thought hard about and care deeply about.” Reading Feldeisen’s determination and dedication to her own work can help fuel a renewed dedication to your own. Only you can tell your story, and only you can write your poems.
Read Some Ars Poeticas
OK, now we’re going to deep-dive into the uplifting potential of ars poeticas! An ars poetica is a poem that explains the art of poetry—and for many poets, it can be a sort of personal manifesto. Reading the ars poeticas of other poets can help you connect with your own internal manifesto and your own ideas of what the art of poetry is to you.
In Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100, I Believe,” Alexander allows the challenges of quotidian sadnesses and griefs to rest alongside the more traditionally beautiful concepts of poetry. She writes, “Poetry / is where we are ourselves” (ll 2-3), but also, “Poetry is what you find/ in the dirt in the corner,/ overhear on the bus, God/ in the details” (ll 9-12). In naming what poetry is, Alexander creates space for the discouraged writer to reconnect with poetry’s essence. By allowing for the expansive, complex description of what poetry is and why it matters, Alexander makes room for any writer grappling to find a sense of purpose to consider what draws them to poetry and what keeps them there. She writes, “digging in the clam flats/ for the shell that snaps,/ emptying the proverbial pocketbook” (ll 6-8), letting the strangeness of the writing life exist in this very specific, very vivid description: it is a search, a treasure hunt, and also an emptying, a loss. Alexander’s ars poetica is a declaration, but also an invitation. It invites us all, as writers, to live in the strange, often necessary, often contradictory space that writing creates, without shying away from what makes it challenging.
Similarly, in her Ars Poetica, Dorothea Laskey writes, “I say I want to save the world but really/ I want to write poems all day/ I want to rise, write poems, go to sleep,/ Write poems in my sleep” (ll 13-16). Her poem explores the uncomfortable space between who others think she is, who she wants to want to be, and who she truly feels she is. Reading this poem allows a writer to think about how they want to spend their days, and to consider how their poetry might bring them closer to their own sense of truth, and of true self. Laskey is unflinching in her love of poetry, and unapologetic about how necessary it is to her appreciation of life and self. As you read Laskey’s poem, you might ask yourself in what ways poetry makes you appreciate your life or experience your life more authentically. Laskey writes, “I am no good/ Goodness is not the point anymore” (11 27-28); this freeing statement at the close of the poem allows a discouraged poet to consider what measurement, what weight, is truly valuable, when considering a life (and a life of poetry). If “goodness” is no longer in the balance, how might that shift your beliefs and values about your own writing?
Write Your Own—Even If It Isn’t a Poem
Once you have read these two ars poeticas, you might consider writing your own—either in prose form or in verse form. If you had to define why poetry matters to you, how would you start? Would you make a prose list, like Chen Chen’s, about why you have kept coming back to poetry? Could you describe, like Elizabeth Alexander does with her vivid figurative language, what poetry means to you? What effect does trying to describe your relationship to poetry have on how you feel about poetry? Does it help you feel more connected to your own process?
Another great way to feel connected to your own poetic process is to take a poetry course—and connect with other poets—or to find a mentor. Tell Tell Poetry offers collaborative, insightful on-line classes as well as one-on-one poetic coaching. Both can help you find your way to an engaged and encouraged writing process.