The Trouble With Being A Poet

The trouble with poetry flame

The last two times on the Gyroscope Blog, I talked about listening vs. performing poetry. Here’s one last thought on that topic, more along the lines of reading vs performing poetry.

Billy Collins. I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed Collins’ poems until I started listening to his CD “Live”. I didn’t come to appreciate it until I was into about the tenth listening while driving across the barren Wyoming plains week after week. About then I recognized all the layers that are in some of the seemingly simple-sounding poems.

I have an earlier CD of him reading his work, The Best Cigarette. He reads his poems. Period. I can picture Billy, a microphone, and an empty room. In Live something else happens. Is it the “relatively enormous audience” as he says in the introduction, or is it the chance to engage real people? Poetry is such a solitary process, like any writing. The switch from private scribbling to public presentation is an interesting one. I’ve had to retool my style a bit for the performance of the poem.

I can’t assume that my work will always be read on the printed page. That calls for a different approach, especially if it’s me reading my work. There are a few words I like to use, I like the look of them on the page, the way they sound, the roll of vowels and consonants in my head. The problem is, I can’t pronounce them. I look at them on the page, I hear them properly in my head, and then between brain and tongue, I slip. I stumble, mispronounce, or flip the word out of order. No matter how much I adore the word, there is no way I want to go to a public reading and trip all over the line containing The Word.

I know my tongue will betray me at certain times, with certain words, so I plan ahead. It’s also forced me to quit using the same word as an easy out, a crutch, and search for more descriptive words. I’ve regulated the Words to placeholders, a comfortable relationship for both of us. I’m sure the Words were tired of being mangled also.

Poetry makes you obsessive about language. I love Word A Day sites, the dictionary, new poets, and any other place that plays with the English language. The relationship between words and ideas is an obsession. There is a simple pleasure in stringing together vocabulary like popcorn for a Christmas tree. What do I want the reader to take from my poem? What do I want to say? What do I have to say? What is the best way of conveying these emotions through words?

Driving across the dry Wyoming landscape, visor blocking the sunset and gold grass waving luxuriously by the side of the road, I find new meanings in the words Collins throws out so casually. “Here, a poem, take from it what you will”. In a poem called “The Trouble With Poetry“, Collins touches on what poetry can do to the poet,

“Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

“But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.”

That’s what it feels like at times. When all goes well, we want to shout our lines from a car window while speeding down the highway, when it’s a struggle, the darkness presses close and envelops us. But there is always the thought that just one poem, one stanza, one line, even one word will be the tipping point and flame will erupt from the end of your pencil, and engulf you.

Read Part I of the Essay on listening vs. performing HERE

Read Part II of the Essay on listening vs. performing HERE






*This essay previously published by Constance Brewer at Life on the Periphery.