C.E. CHAFFIN                      

Advice to Young Poets

Over the past several years, while teaching poets in online tutorials, I have, of course, been asked many questions.  I am not Oz nor was meant to be.  Being outside of the university-based study of English literature since my undergraduate days while earning my living through medicine, I have read what I wanted and written what I chose to write. The result may be questionable, but I have legitimately earned my opinions without post-graduate interference.  My mentors, as Bertrand Russell said of the University, are in the books.

In response to a recent letter from a student in Africa, I thought it might be useful for some beginners in this craft or sullen art to hear the thoughts of a poet and critic essentially divorced from literary academia but much exercised in his love of poetry.  As a disclaimer I always like to quote Donovan’s song, “A Young Girl’s Blues:”

The book (essay) you are reading is one man’s opinion of moonlight.”

Below I include some responses to young poets I’ve saved, while addressing the four questions from my most recent pupil.  Though her questions may appear simple they are not–when one understands the ineluctability of general advice, especially regarding poetry.  It is much easier to speak to an individual student, as their strengths and weaknesses are evident. 

An illustrative anecdote:  One student, in fact, had so much trouble with rhythm and scansion that I finally asked him if he could dance.  He said, “No, my wife helps me fake it.”  So I told him to read his work aloud to his wife, and she, possessed of innate sense of rhythm, fixed his poems, and then the progress generalized to his own editing.  I remember of our six chats, four were devoted to midwifing him through this block.  General advice, on the other hand, by its expected broad audience and reliance on principal, is not so specific to a poet’s needs.  My remarks below may aid some, but no doubt they will also bore some by over-elaboration and frustrate others by too brief an explication.  Such is the nature of such a blunt teaching instrument, and remember, I address beginners.  

A further disclaimer:  I want to confess to a few of my ongoing prejudices, which are further elaborated in my essays on poetic theory, or Logopoetry, available in Melic’s archives.  Logopoetry is a rather simple concept I belabored for reasons of philosophical grounding.  The short definition of Logopoetry is summarized in the second of the four essays:

“Intelligibility, the acknowledged cooperation of the brain's hemispheres, man's need for meaning, and the idea that language is first a vehicle for communication–these constitute the introductory principles of Logopoetry.”

I would also recommend “On Modulation,” a short essay for Melic’s submission guidelines.  What follows below is a partial list of my poetic prejudices:

1)  I don't generally like poems about visual mediums, excepting perhaps sculpture.  Music I like, but it's been overdone.  Music is the universal language, and poetry falls short of its power, however skilled the description. 

2)  I don't like poems about the artistic process.  I find the subtitle of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, or “Growth of the Poet’s Mind,” particularly egregious for this reason, though it contains much good verse.  Show don’t tell, as the saying goes, but especially don’t tell about the process that produced the poem.  I know about “the endless visions and revisions” that often go into a good poem.  It’s almost painful to read another’s account of the same.

3)  I don't like the piling on of images or alternative tropes to extend the reader’s appreciation of a certain object or situation–I prefer a poet pick the best single image and go with it.  For me, each additional approximation usually deducts from the whole.

4)  I don't particularly like “relationship” poems, though a good one overcomes my prejudice.

5)  Any unnatural syntax in traditional form I view as a failure.  If Robert Frost could write naturally despite the limitation of traditional forms, we should all try to emulate his colloquial achievement. 

6)  I have a high respect for words, which makes me anxious not to waste them and gives birth to my perpetual suggestions for greater economy.  “Poetry is language distilled into its most powerful form” (from the Melic Poetry Course syllabus).

7)  I favor Meaning, Economy, Lyricism, Innovation and Clarity–whose acronym comprises M-E-L-I-C, though our magazine’s title was originally chosen only for lyricism, in Greek, “to sing.”

8)  Much of my life has been spent speaking to people who could not or would not listen to me, as a doctor and psychiatrist–many of them prematurely dead for that reason.  I admire poems that somehow impart wisdom, or some spiritual benefit, which is part of meaning, and a poem should mean and be, IMHO.  Eliot’s Four Quartets are my favorite example of such writing. 

9)  I don’t mind confessional poetry if done well, as someone has well remarked that all writing is essentially autobiographical, but when someone goes on about their hair curlers and brand of coffee in the morning, my stomach churns at the unnecessary inclusion of irrelevant detail, only included in the poem because they actually happened to the speaker.

10)  Any poem that feels the need to explain itself has failed, I think.  This error is most often committed in the last few lines, even the last line.  I have edited many poems to good benefit by simply striking the last line.  Too many poets are afraid their audience won’t get it if they don’t add that last touch, but it usually turns out to be overkill, and can often ruin an otherwise good poem.  Naturally I have more prejudices, but these should suffice for an introduction to my limitations as a critic.

Lastly, by way of introduction, I was once asked by a graduate student composing his thesis to respond briefly with advice to young poets.  My knee-jerk responses:

1)      Don't write poetry unless you absolutely have to.

2)      Read much more poetry than you write.

3)      Imitate the greats.

4)      If you persist in writing poetry for at least a decade, you may become a journeyman in this art, perhaps even discover your “voice,” unless you happen to be spectacularly gifted like a young Neruda or Keats.  But it’s hard work in the long run in any case.

5)      Poetry is its own reward.

6)      Don’t seek fame, rather excellence.

7)      A little recognition doesn't hurt now and then.

8)      Running the gauntlet of editors through the process of submissions is damn good training.

9)      Be willing to kill your best lines at the drop of a dime for the sake of the whole.

10)  Try not to fall in love with your own voice; it leads to adolescent excesses.

11)  Try to write about things besides yourself!

12)  Lastly, I believe poetry is often an outlet for those who suffered a pre-verbal developmental insult.  Those afflicted by emotional abandonment in the first critical two years, after acquiring language, may spend the rest of their lives trying to express in words what they lacked in human bonding.  See Keats’ “negative capability.”  Often the identities of great poets are somewhat tenuous and chameleon-like.  No group of artists has a higher rate of mood disorders, especially manic-depression, estimated at 20%, or suicides, most prominent in our last century, afflicting many from Hart Crane to Primo Levi.

Now to my aforementioned student’s questions:

1)    I have no clue about the editing process–I can play with my stories, but somehow it’s more difficult when I come to poetry, because it seems to be about a feeling or idea and less about narrative.  You’d mentioned you had “rules” of editing–would you mind sharing them with me?

If I have rules of editing, I best expressed them in my Logopoetry essays, where logos is associated with the rational process where we consciously labor to improve our art, while Logos refers to the inspiration that drives us toward unattainable perfection.

More practically speaking, the old saw, “When in doubt, throw it out” applies.  At first composition one may be very enamored of large portions of a poem which later prove expendable. 

My best advice for editing is to put a poem in one of its initial drafts in a drawer for at least a month, then look at it with fresh eyes.  Often the edits will be self-explanatory.  Less is almost always more, unless writing a very long poem where pacing allows for more leisurely diction. 

It is a particular advantage to have a competent editor (who actually likes your verse) to assist in the editing process, as “We knowers are not knowers of ourselves.”  I am blessed in being married to a poet who is also a terrific editor, and even claims to enjoy my work. I routinely submit my work to her merciless scalpel while reserving the right to bitch about her cuts, as most editing is simply deleting the unnecessary, trying to find the core poem within the poem.  As one professor said to a friend of mine, “You must kill your darlings.”  In self-editing you must be ruthless with yourself.

Beware of adjectives, adverbs, articles, prepositions and punctuation.  Nouns and verbs are usually safe.  Line breaks work well as commas but not as semicolons.  I’m rather fond of dashes–but my wife thinks them a sign of lazy punctuation and won’t accept Emily Dickinson as an excuse.

Most importantly, at whatever stage you have completed a draft of a poem, read it aloud.  Nothing compares to the alacrity with which unpropitious phrasing, jerky rhythms or poor line breaks magically appear when you listen to your composition out loud.  A written poem should also succeed as a spoken poem.  Each poet’s “written” ear is quite individualized, but reading a poem out loud with careful inflection usually suffices to identify most errors of flow and sound.

2)    Regarding “Substance,” to be successful, must a poem comprise all three levels of emotion–understatement, overstatement (hyperbole), and direct statement?  How do you do that in a simple page?  The modern poetry I’m reading in class this fall seems to be based on Imagism, or ideas, complexities of the intellect rather than complexities of emotion. Then there are the confessional poets, like Plath, with whom I am most familiar, who seem to do the opposite–all emotion and no metaphysical idea. Where’s the in-between?

For those unfamiliar with the course, in the learning module “Substance: Heart,” I make the simple observation that emotional substance appears in three main forms: Understatement, to which irony often belongs, also when speaking in a tentative, questioning voice. 

Direct statement, best demonstrated by the Chinese masters, but also evident in such didactical poets as Hugh McDiarmid, is simply describing what you see or saying what you mean, without intentionally employing undertones of hyperbole or understatement. 

Finally, hyperbole, perhaps best typified by Whitman and Ginsberg in American poetry, consists of such embellishment of a subject that it can approach the ridiculous and thus result in satire, among other things, though Whitman uses it more innocently.  Alexander Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” is a good example of sustained hyperbole, all about a piece of hair unlawfully taken from a lady, a poem in which he describes a woman of high society as a great ship, in accordance with the tonsorial and sartorial excesses of his age. 

A poem may contain one or all three major divisions of emotion and succeed.  Usually some direct statement is necessary, but not always.  As Ginsberg writes of his deceased mother,

“Blessed be you Naomi in tears! Blessed be you Naomi in fears!
Blessed Blessed Blessed in sickness!
Blessed be you Naomi in Hospitals! Blessed be you Naomi in solitude! Blest be your triumph! Blest be your bars! Blest
be your last years' loneliness!
Blest be your failure! Blest be your stroke! Blest be the close of
your eye! Blest be the gaunt of your cheek! Blest be your
withered thighs!”

This is, of course, hyperbole, but in its obvious overstatement one can read Ginsberg’s compensatory grief.  Almost any emotion can be communicated through the three major divisions of emotional substance, or a combination thereof, when in good hands.  

3)    Lastly, what is your advice for a budding poet?

I like the organic metaphor of “budding.”  No artist I know proceeds gradually and predictably along the way to lasting accomplishment.  We grow in starts and stutters, often suffer frost, and sometimes our fruit dies on the vine only to be resurrected later by an errant seed that flourished while we mourned our losses.

This does not mean one should wait for inspiration, and here I will quote directly from the course material about inspiration:

“I like to say inspiration is a crock and overstate my case, but we all know that's not strictly true.  Inspiration normally occurs when one is enamored of a thought, scene, subject, person, etc., to such a degree that one feels compelled to write about it.  And the result may be good or bad, but the compulsion is strong.”

What I mean to say is that reliance upon inspiration is a crock, and a bad habit for any serious writer.

What Edison said about genius also applies to poetry:  “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”  Even the most inspired poems need editing.  I have met more than one self-styled poet who wouldn't change a word of a poem because ‘it was inspired; that's how it came to me.’  This is nonsense, pure mystical self-indulgence. 

There are a few good poems in the language like ‘Kubla Khan’ that were truly inspired, almost ‘automatic writing’ if you will, but if you read the second part of ‘Kubla Khan’ you will quickly recognize that it was appended to the original fragment in Coleridge's attempt to flesh out, by poetic craft, his initial inspiration. 

The best guarantee of regular inspiration is regular writing.  By exercising one’s imagination on the least subject (like Donne’s ‘The Flea’), the mind remains aware of all the possibilities that constantly suggest themselves for exploration.  I have written poems about television shows, smog, my daughter’s pet turtle, even repairing my brakes as a poverty-stricken medical intern.  It’s not a paucity of subjects that afflicts poets but a paucity of practice.  If you are in ‘good voice,’ i.e., writing regularly, then nearly any subject can lend itself to an acceptable treatment.  And if the greats, like Frost and Yeats, achieve only one great poem out of every five or ten they published (and who knows how many they rejected?), then likewise the more we write the better chance we have of writing something worth preserving.

Some recommend a writer’s notebook to scribble down ideas or impressions.  I think that a good idea.  I don’t use one, though often I just inhale a scene for future reference and it bubbles up later.

To write well, one must get over the idea that it depends upon the right mood or inspiration.  Just write and worry about inspiration later.  Better to write a bad poem than not to write.  Could I make this any clearer?  Forget the muse and get out your pen! 

One qualification: I do think the best poems often have an unconscious gestation period. One feels them brewing inside until the day comes when one feels ready to fit words to them, but the words were already forming themselves at a deeper level.  Thus the unconscious works on a subject until the conscious is ready to declare it.  The process usually begins with a deep impression of which the writer may not even initially be aware.  This is what ‘inspiration’ consists of, near as I can tell.

4)    Also, anything else you’d like to say, of course…

Err…. with me that’s not exactly like pulling teeth!

Perhaps best to reprint an interview published in the Adirondack Review for an overview of my ideas about poetry, especially poetry on the net. 


Q: You coined the word “PEMLOD,” an acronym for “Personal Emotive Monologues with Lots of (concrete) Details.”  Is poetry today mostly confined to this subgenre, if you will?

CE: Yes.

Q: Does your own poetry ever fall into PEMLODisms?

CE: Yes, but I hope my Details are usually germane to the poem, not trivial line fillers.

Q: Isn’t individualist poetry legitimate, even laudable, because it lets us look into another human being's soul for a delicious flash of time?  Individualist poetry allows us human connection and understanding on a highly intimate level that poetry of a more epic nature might not.

CE: To quote Galway Kinnell, “The most personal poem is also the most universal.”  Or, when the speaker transcends the trivial accoutrements of his narrow existence to impart a core experience, then the term, “PEMLOD” no longer applies.  If one took Whitman’s POV seriously, and did not grant him a universal ‘I’, he would be the greatest narcissist that ever wrote.  But the Whitman of the poems is not the Walter of his life; herein lies one difference.  Or take “Prufrock,” where the voice is in some ways like Eliot, timid and professorial, but more a dramatic character speaking in the first person. Browning’s dramatic monologues are another good example of how to change the first person POV to something more than a confession.

Q: You’re a medical doctor. How does that aspect of your life fit in with being the editor of a respected electronic literary magazine?

CE: My background in psychiatry and family medicine has been helpful in helping other writers with affective disorders, some encountered online; I volunteer for DMDA (Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association) and do a bit of counseling every day, it seems.

The negative capability of which Keats speaks requires us not to describe, but to become the tree, a thought more fully elaborated in Hopkins’ theory of inscape–or better, in psychological object relations theory.  The suspension of natural defenses, which allows poets to write poetry, has a dark side in everyday experience, where natural defenses are needed for routine sanity. In short, one must have effective boundaries to stay sane, but still be able to lose them in order to write well:  “Regression of the ego in the service of art,” in analytic terms.

Q: Do you often find poetic inspiration while practicing medicine?

CE: First, I’m no longer practicing due to physical impairments–that’s what’s given me time to try and promote my writing a little. I think I've written one or two serious poems about my experience as a doctor, the rest satirical.  No inspiration there–it's a very left-hemisphere exercise: numbers, statistics, empiricism.  Sometimes you stop and muse on the reality of it–here's one poem I remember from medical school:

My First Terminal Patient

His tallow eyes are streaked with red.

He rarely rises from his bed.

Such effort is phenomenal.

His odds are astronomical.

Q: You seem to imply in your essay that today’s poetry is often over-dramatized.  Why do you think this is so?  Does dramatic poetry get lost in itself, perhaps existing to entertain, rather than stir another’s soul?

CE: I think the homogenization of culture through mass transglobal media makes individuality more and more a pressure, a pressure to distinguish oneself from the mob.  Yet the more individual a voice tries to be, the more it succumbs to the danger of individuality for individuality’s sake, and poetry is trivialized, and humanity thereby in the very attempt to be original.

I think too many poets define drama as personal drama, drawn from the confines of their own lives instead of the universal drama all around us–the hawk swooping on the swift, the homeless man mumbling to himself, a storm, a love cut short–poets need to get out of themselves to attain a self that more cares about the art of poetry than its experiential validity or supposed personal uniqueness.  There is no unique human experience, only unique humans; but as one famous psychoanalyst said, “We are all much more alike than otherwise.”

In short, I think people by and large take themselves too seriously, poets most of all, and the narcissistic reverence in which some artists hold their own creations is laughable, for the most part.  To the adolescent, everything is drama; the voice I see all too often in poetry submitted on the net is adolescent; I mean, to be blunt, what does anyone under thirty have to say to me, anyway?  This is also my main criticism of MFA programs; they teach poets how to say something before they have anything worth saying, and thus voice is sacrificed for technique, and graduates go on to repeat the same error in their teaching, until poetry is not poetry but an exercise in original diction with as few red pencil marks as possible.  The bland leading the bland, in other words.

There are some very good words on this matter I discovered shortly after writing the above, from a lead article in the L.A. Times Book Review, 2/25/01, by Marion Wood:

“Where once most good universities had writers-in-residence (a boon to their incomes if not to their work), over the last decades they shifted (very profitably) to creative writing programs.  For them to work, they not only need luminaries teaching the courses, they need success stories.  So young people enter these programs prepared to network, to gain the accolades they know they will need to get agents, to get publishers.  The manuscripts come in to publishing offices in the hundreds.  Some submissions go so far as to include the appealing author photos, and almost all come with at least one and usually three endorsements from faculty who know full well that their own success with their programs is in seeing their students get published.  What kind of work do these MFA programs produce?  Occasionally, some original voices.  Too often, tepid prose containing derivative work that is usually autobiographical.  The problem is, few of these young writers have had enough life experience to make their autobiographical stories or their visions of the world of much interest.  Creative writing programs do not, however, thrive on gently telling their students to go back and try again.  Students generally graduate.”

Q: You have said that poetry tends to be read almost exclusively by [would-be] poets.  Why could this be unhealthy for society or even poetry itself?

CE: I don't know if it is or isn’t; I simply like to point out that without an audience an art is dead. Should we count all the wannabe poets as our audience?  If we do, we have an audience, but it is suspect.  It is not a pure audience in the sense that say, those going to see Hannibal are.  What if moviegoing were largely restricted to wannabe filmmakers?  I submit that moviemaking would then be an obscure art.  I have likened poetry to fencing in the past, another nearly vanished art, attended mainly by aficionados who also fence.  Lawn bowling might be another good metaphor for poetry today.  The audience for poetry has been shrinking ever since the ascendancy of the novel in the nineteenth century; 1850 would be a good date from which to trace its decline, the year Wordsworth died and Tennyson replaced him as Poet Laureate, though the trend is visible much earlier.

I think poetry's time has passed in culture; it is the age of the movie.  Even CDs are being subsumed by the movie culture; soundtracks sell millions in advance, sight unheard.  Any art that requires a little work to enjoy, as poetry does, pales in comparison to an art that can satisfy near all the senses with little or no effort on the part of the psyche. Poetry is a cultural vestigial organ; I can only see it devolving as humans become more and more impatient for instant entertainment.  I think the same fate has befallen the novel by and large; to read Dickens or Dostoyevsky nowadays simply requires too much of a Tom Clancy or Stephen King fan.

Q: Melic hosts the Roundtable Poetry Board.  What are the advantages and disadvantages to hosting such a board alongside your literary publication?

CE: I can’t really think of a disadvantage; it’s free, it’s fun, and it helps people to polish their craft while making new friends. 

Q: Does having 90% of Melic visitors show up mainly for the discussion board discourage you?

CE: It’s really more like 85%, thankfully, and I don’t find any discouragement in that.  Of course people would rather hear comments about their own work than read somebody else’s.  It’s human nature.

Note: the “Sound and Sense” modules of the Melic Poetry Course Syllabus were contributed by this issue’s editor, Sharon Kourous.