Poetry, like any art, requires practice. It's easy for us to accept the idea of practice when we think of a painter's figure studies or the sounds coming from the hives of practice rooms in a conservatory. But since we consider ourselves already fluent in language, we may imagine that talent is the only requirement for writing poetry. Talent, certainly, is essential, but so are curiosity, determination, and the willingness to learn from others. Writing is solitary work, but most poets would argue, as they have here in exercise after exercise, that the aspiring poet must apprentice him or herself, must master the elements of language, the complexities of form and its relation to subject, the feel of the line, the image, the play of sound, that make it possible to respond in a voice with subtlety and range when he hears that music in his inner ear, or she sees in the world that image that's the spark of a poem.
This book is a compilation of suggestions for practice in the art of poetry. It's for anyone interested in writing poetry, whether alone or in a class. We want to give you the chance to benefit from the knowledge and insight of a wide range of poets who are also teachers of poetry. A source book for writers of all levels, as well as teachers who are looking for fresh approaches, The Practice of Poetry is intended to sketch out the contours of apprentice work, from the "scales" to the large personal and formal questions raised by the act of writing. It's a collection of memorable commentaries by practitioners of the art as well as a "how-to" workbook.
When we first set out to collect these exercises, we had in mind a slender volume that would supplement the many fine texts and anthologies currently available. Most texts, while admirably covering the basics of how to read poetry, do not provide specific suggestions for how to write it. Therefore, teachers of poetry writing have always designed inventive and challenging ways to help students explore language. Our task has been to collect these exercises, these meditations and suggestions for practice, and make them available for the first time in book form. We want to give aspiring poets, whether or not you're actually enrolled in a writing workshop, the chance to listen in on a variety of poets as they teach what they know about how to prepare for that moment in language when the angel comes and taps you on the shoulder.
We asked hundreds of poets to share with us their favorite writing exercises. Although we anticipated a great deal of interest, we were unprepared for the extraordinary range of work we received, both in number (hundreds), and in ingenuity. To our delight, the exercises were as different from one another as is the work of the writers who produced them, and they covered just about every aspect of poetry writing, from how to get started to sophisticated technical problems. The contributors were extremely generous and nonproprietary. The overall feeling was one of a community enterprise--everyone was curious about what others would have to offer, and enthusiastic about the idea of having the material gathered in one place. It soon became clear that The Practice of Poetry was going to be much bigger, much juicier, than we first imagined. We were especially pleased by the commentaries that accompanied the exercises. In them, one can observe the poet's mind at work, inviting the reader to participate in the heat and excitement of the act of writing, and the pleasures, frustrations, and challenges of teaching.
The exercises in this book are extremely various in approach, style, and content, and cover a great deal of territory. Some of them aren't necessarily intended to result in poems. A good exercise serves as a scaffold--it eventually falls away, leaving behind something new in the language, language that now belongs to the writer. Sometimes, this new thing will be a real poem. In any event, exercises can result in a new understanding of the relation of image to meaning, or a way into the unconscious, perhaps a way of marrying autobiography with invention, or a sense of the possibilities of various kinds of structures, ways to bring a dead poem back to life, a new sense of rhythm, or a slight sharpening of the ear. Exercises can help you think about, articulate, and solve specific creative problems. Or they can undermine certain assumptions you might have, forcing you to think--and write--beyond the old limitations. If an exercise leaves you better equipped to write the next poem, then it has done its job. If it leaves you with a seed that might develop into a poem, then that's a fringe benefit. And if you manage to get a real poem straight out of the exercise, then you are probably a poet and likely to have found your way to that poem regardless, although the exercise may have sped up the process a little.
Good exercises are provocative, challenging, and often entertaining. A good exercise will engage you on at least several levels, and should necessitate the breaking of new ground. To the beginning student, who may be intimidated by the blank sheet of paper (as all of us are from time to time, whether or not we care to admit it), they provide a way to enter the mysteries. For the more advanced student, they can keep pushing back the frontiers. And if you're the maverick who's already a poet, you'll write your own poem in spite of the exercise.
ABOUT THE BOOK'S ORGANIZATION
A glance at the Contents will reveal our basic scheme: the exercises have been grouped by area of inquiry rather than by level of expertise. We've found that many exercises travel gracefully from one level to another. Besides, who's to say what's difficult for whom?
Each exercise consists of the assignment, just as the teacher would give it to his or her students, followed by a brief commentary. Exercises designed for groups are indentified in the Contents as well as in the text.