Thursday, March 15, 2007

Stanley Plumly on Poetry

The summer after my junior year in college, I spent several weeks in a writing seminar series in Prague. The poet Stanley Plumly was the leader of workshop group I joined and, as I mentioned in a previous post, he refused to allow anyone in it to treat the writing of poems lightly, even if it was the summer, and Prague, and all very romantic. He reviled lazy writing and did not hesitate to cast judgment on the poems we brought before him. Tears were not uncommon. I recall one or two people dropping out of the class.

Having someone take my poems seriously was just what I wanted, and I quickly learned to welcome his criticism -- I figured that the sooner I could identify and understand where the words went wrong, the sooner I could set them right. He taught me that the poem matters and the poet does not, or not much. In the end, he also provided me the support and genuine encouragement to continue writing, and in that way he was kind. His guidance helped me get my first publication--of a poem he critiqued--in a national journal, the Ohio Review. I suspect he isn't aware what a difference that class made to me.

Throughout the workshop I tried to write down everything Plumly had to say about writing poetry. I forgot about all of those quotes until this morning, when I came across them in an old notebook. They're still illuminating and I think they're worth sharing here:

[On the writing process:] “I sit there a lot, in silence, like a good quaker.”

“There’s no such thing as omniscience in poetry; God doesn’t need to write poems.”

“Use form for tension.”

“The hardest thing is to resist therapy.”

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, poetry is about losing.”

“Poetry is about making a world, however small it is.”

“You can’t live on only the energy and emotion of your art—it will eat you alive.”

“Remember there are only small things, and you are a small thing among them.”

“The poem has to live in your world, not just in your private consciousness.”

“Embrace the object. Do not lose sight of that objective.”

“Language ought to be a transparency over experience; what we don’t want is a linguistic opacity.”

“If you write badly, it’s because you don’t know, you aren’t focused, you aren’t being honest, or you aren’t feeling it.”

“Editing is a way of rewriting, the emptying of a previously filled space.”

“Beware commentary; when you enter a poem, you’re in there—you can’t go out again.”

“Cliche comes in when we’re in a hurry to get somewhere else.”

“Work against the material.”

“[in poetry, answer:] What is your problem right now? Where does it hurt?”

“So much about writing is getting to what needs to be written.”

“Everything in a poem has to be answered... or unanswered.”

“You mustn’t treat your experience as if it only happened to you.”

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