“She read my mind and slapped my face...”
-- Bill Cox and Cliff Hobbs
Here’s the thing: whatever you feel when you’re writing comes through for the reader, whether you or the reader are conscious of it or not.
We have a mockingbird who comes to the porch feeders. Back when we had a bluebird house, the mockingbird ran off all the cowbirds and brown-headed blackbirds that monopolized the feeders and tried to substitute their eggs for the ones the bluebirds left. He’s got some nerve, and he keeps his own schedule. Months go by without a song, then he lets loose. I’ll open the window for as long as he’s on. When he’s not around, I look at the internet more.
What was that take-the-top-of-the-head-off feeling, anyway, adrenaline? I’ve overheard more than one writer say they know they might be onto something if they get a little turned on while they write. The feeling that you’re maintaining interest, not simply performing to meet expectations, but actively engaged, which will usually produce a physiological result. You will feel it. This is what feeling means. You either hit it or you mark time, possibly admirably. The reason, as far as I can tell, that we all put all our energy into this thankless art, is that we each have a memory of being worked up by it.
I want to think for a poem to trigger this reaction it has to be unwilled, accidental, but then how would I classify speaking the unwanted truth. The whole stadium identifies with the left fielder, everyone jumping to their feet. The audience, or rather the reader, feels what the poet is feeling while she’s writing.
When I say adrenaline, I don’t mean confrontation, shouting, melodrama, hyperactivity, necessarily. I have defenses against these easy methods of getting a rise out of me, and I assume other people do too. But I enjoy them sometimes, in small doses. Some people have a thing for novelty, for constantly absorbing something new. And then there’s the rush of traveling with the herd, of having your experience validated by others. And the pleasure of familiarity, of returning to what you know. Methods are just methods. They might work, if nobody sees them coming.
Writing isn’t only about feeling; can’t necessarily control it. A good way to avoid having much feeling come through -- talk about nothing.
When Steve McCaffery read at Poetry City, he ended one poem by holding the page up to his face and splitting it with his tongue. I admired the nerve, but was repelled by the gesture. An extreme case of something coming through.
There’s very little agreement about what poems are supposed to do, and that’s fine. One of the most admirable things about poetry is that there’s no consensus about what poetry is, what it accomplishes, what it’s for.
What I do think each reader does, whether conscious of it or not, is to work out over time a sense of the necessary and sufficient conditions for a text to work as a poem. Not: is this a poem or is it prose -- who cares? But when is it working for you, what is enough, and are your conditions for a poem oppressive or could they use some beefing up or are you okay with them. To notice how the conditions change over time, get stricter or more generous.
If you like that game, you can play that game with critics and the poets they read, to work out how they overlap, and what necessary and sufficient conditions you understand they share.
And then, to stop playing that game too, and go back to playing with words. Light-hearted.