Monday, October 06, 2008

MFA Reflections #5

One of the most powerful mini-lectures from Stan Plumly in a poetry workshop was about time in poems. I cannot now recall the poems he used as samples, certainly one was a Bishop poem, but the impact was to look at how time is used in poems and controlled by poets to create the experience of the poem. I remember being astounded by it and having it open my eyes to how tension and resolution were created using time in poems. I think about it with every poem that I write. While one strategy I use regularly is to place the poems in the present tense, Stan’s reading and explication of how time works (and his sardonic comments on when it doesn’t work - I’m sure my poems were the subject of those comments) was much more complex than that. He talked about the way particular words signify the progression or regression of time in the poem as well as the importance of making time explicit to the reader. It’s a framework that I find myself returning to in my current writing practice.

Another element of time, however, has also become important to me since completing the MFA. That is the time of distance from a poem and aging of a poem. I could never be a dedicated wine collector. If I find a wine I like, I want to drink it right away. But the joy of a wine that has been laid on its side for a number of years. The aging process for wine brings greater complexity. The aging process for poems brings greater perspective. This is true not only of the experience within poems - experiences that happened longer ago have another layer of perspective, but also of the craft of a poem. I’ve added time as a new part of my process of writing. One of the things I learned in putting together my thesis was that there is an incredible perspective and clarity on poems when they have been set aside for six months to two years. (As I write this I realize that this is critical advice from Donald Hall as well.) When I put together my thesis, I was able to easily select the strongest poems and set aside the poems that didn’t work as well. If I engage in that activity with poems that I have just “completed” I am too in love with the poems to have that perspective. The most recent ones all seem like the best poems and perfect in the moment. After six months have passed, however, it’s easier to see where they trip in particular spots and where they don’t work as all. I can set aside the ones that don’t work and work on the trips in the ones that do.

So time is one of the things I’m thinking about these days; time both within my poems and how it is working and not working and time in a linear perspective in my life. I’m finally able to put poems in a folder and let them be quite for a number of months before returning to them to see what works and how they might or might not work in a manuscript.

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