Sometimes the best teachers are those who have not mastered what they teach, but are on the way toward mastery. They are full of how the road is and even if they are not always precise or are not experienced in instruction, they can inspire and instruct by gesture in ways that are difficult for someone who already went that way long ago and only runs along that road by observing other people’s minds can. I only say sometimes, not always.
I have observed that most times the best teachers for most people are not those who master the thing easily. Those who did not struggle with math, for example, are bad at explaining and sympathizing enough to be useful instructors to the average person who does. Not always, but usually. But I don’t want to make this point so much as I want to flip the notion around to talk about the learning of a thing.
I don’t know how common the notion is that perfection ought to be achieved in stages and that while it is the goal for which all things must aim, it has to be achieved in its own time. It is a lesson I’ve been learning over the past few years. Some take that lesson to mean that perfection ought not to be the aim of anything we do. That is a capitulation and the result is mediocrity at best. But some think that admitting any great distance of time between the present and the achievement of the goal is to loose sight of the goal. And this also is wrong. This is part of what TS Eliot was saying about growing the grass and raising the sheep, etc. The goal is not growing grass or raising sheep, but you have to take the time to do those things if you want to achieve the distant goal. The better the thing you aim at, the more distant it is likely to be.
Anything worthwhile has to be this way. It has to involve a long road toward the achievement of the goal. You can’t read the biographies of composers or writers or artists without getting the idea. Even when you have a genius you understand that such a person is a genius precisely because he comes such a long way in such a short time. It does not mean the distance has decreased, it means that person can go at a really quick rate.
If this is true of anything worthwhile, then it is true of writing poetry. We fail to appreciate this when we clamor after the usable finished product in anybody who starts out. We fail to appreciate this when we present as finished products the things we produce when we are starting out—unless we are making the claim to be a genius. What this implies is that while you may have a clear idea of what it is you want to produce finally, you aim at it by first learning to master the little parts that are necessary, then growing of the grass, then raising of the sheep.
What Alana has written might or might not be useful as a finished and polished work—that is something for a better judge to say. There is a way in which a person doesn’t even aim at that when they make something that is; she probably was not aiming at that but simply trying to express something for herself and see how well it turned out; and whatever she was aiming at does not matter here. What she has written is rather free and spontaneous. It is metrical but irregularly so. It has rhymes occasional and bright, but not a rhyme scheme. It has no pattern for the stanzas or much in the way of formal constraint.
One of the problems that I have had and I notice people have who try to start out very formally with all the meter and traditional poetic form etc., is that the result ends up lacking any feeling, any warmth of emotion. The constraint stultifies the real poetry the thing might have if there was any to begin with. That just goes to show how hard it is to discipline feeling by the proper ordering of form. It may also show how little knowledge of the way in which form orders and disciplines feeling the person writing has. I think it is actually both mingled that accounts for the productions we produce.
One of the great things about being spontaneous is that the feeling takes the lead and has a better chance of expression. Naturally one of the disadvantages is the lack of discipline or coherence you get. One of the reasons TS Eliot writes t The Wasteland the way he does is that he wants to suggest the incoherence of disintegration.
I am not of the school (if it is a school) that believes that poetry must all be formal any more than is Mr TS Eliot. I am of the school that believes there ought to be a clarity to the feeling expressed and that form, when it is properly used, clarifies things: that feeling must be ordered. But poetry is more than the dogged arranging of your words into a consistent meter and rhyme. It has to have a clarity of mood and a depth of feeling. The meter and rhyme have to serve a discernible purpose in the telling of your poetry or they are simply a formal dress that you put on for no apparent formal purpose like dressing up to take out the trash or go to the gym to work out.
I say that because when I commend Alana’s poem here, I can hear people complaining about the lack of form. What I want you to notice is that her minimal formal constraint has allowed her a depth of expression and feeling that she might not have discovered otherwise. If you go the way she has in this poem, you are more likely to stumble upon apt wordings, you can change the meter to something you feel better corresponds to the words and feeling of what you are saying. All this explores, and it is by means of this exploring that you can learn to move toward something more disciplined if you want, or discover that what you have to say is better said in this way.
Revision, after all, can be endless.
Revision, unfortunately, can be endless.
You notice that Alana gives us warning of her dissatisfaction in the title. There is an uncertainty about the whole thing even in the uncertainty of what exactly the tittle applies to. I took it to mean she was experimenting with this. I might be wrong. I also took it to mean she wanted suggestions and I turned out to be right. I have experimented in this way myself and I found that what I achieved surprised me in the brightness of the expression and disappointed me in the coherency of its meaning. But in her case she has a coherent meaning. (If you look at her comments, though, she still has doubts—I would say she just needs to get away from the poem for a while and come back to it later.)
I think the mood of it, of expression over formal order, comes through right away in these two happy lines:
in wordless prayers I pray
toward formless forms and heatless burnings
There isn’t a symmetrical arrangement of the three things. Not wordless words to match the formless forms, but wordless prayers which pray, then formless forms, which is similar but not identical in structure, and then another variation in which the similarity, while pretty obvious, is a bit more subtle: heartless burnings. The reader has to supply the idea that a heart naturally burns. Poetry, it seems to me, is most effective when the most effort can be drawn out of the reader. This is risky because one can assume too much of readers, or fail to express oneself in ways sufficiently common. But when it works, it is one of the most satisfying things and a large part of the pleasure of understanding poetry.
These lines are also instructive for what the poem as a whole achieves, why it might be formless but yearning toward form. If you think this way, then when you come to those last two words, ‘heartless burnings,’ you are flipped around a bit. There is a recognition of the passionlessness that results from the disorder of anarchy. There is a paradox buried away in this, in the expression of the poem itself, and toward which Alana is gesturing all throughout; and paradox, as Cleanth Brooks would have us know, is what the language of poetry is.
If you’ve been reading previous versions (she has been updating the thing at least twice since it originally went up and there is no telling if it will not happen again), you will see that she is not too sure about things because she has to feel her way into it and mistrusts her feeling—at least, that’s the way I read it. That is good. What is also good is being bold enough to try and still put it up for public view. What I said starting out about going in stages toward the goal was not intended to label Alana a mediocrity. (I think this poem is very good, better than anything I’ve done, though that’s not saying much, and better than a lot of the contemporary stuff I’ve been reading.) But it was intended to point out that even though this work might have no place in any venue we or she can think of (a book of poetry or a magazine that includes poetry would be a good venue for it, though), or perhaps, better, because it was not written with a final place of public display in mind but rather as an attempt at something, it is not therefore something to be dismissed.
Even if she is dissatisfied with the ending and after putting it away and getting it out again still has no final satisfaction in how it turns out, it is an achievement. One of the things we all need to do, even if it is only for the sake of appreciating poetry better, is to write a bunch of poems we will never show to anybody else. Another of the things we ought to do, if we want to write poetry for public use, is to put the poetry about which we might be doubtful and which achieves only a secondary, modest goal into a place where it is vulnerable to critical inspection. A third thing that ought to be done, is to experiment and study things we might have to give up on eventually, or at least postpone till later. If Alana looks at this poem (and really any poem) as a step along the way, then she has already got a lot out of it even if it is never finished to hers or anybody else’s satisfaction.
The important thing is not to reach the goal soon, and perhaps never in this life to reach the goal, but to move in that direction. After all, we Christians have more time to work with than just this life. If we are to bring glory to the Lord forever, these things we are learning we are not really learning for this life. Even if we leave behind one worthwhile hymn for the saints to use in worship to God for as long as this world remains, it is nothing compared to the time any of our works in that eternal state shall have (besides which there is the glaringly obvious and often ignored fact that we already have more good hymns than we can or do use and really don’t need more). And I wonder if anything we have presently will come through there, at least not without some transformation. Believe me, when you have a sanctified critical capacity to appreciate poetry, you may not want to see anything you have ever written coming through.
Having cultivated a little our abilities here, there they can be used with all the consequence and weight of glory and with a satisfying fulness of sanctification there. But cultivate here. Be unambitiously ambitious, be unpretentious but clear sighted. Look at the clarity of feeling that Alana’s untitled poem has and work toward clear expressions (contained and extravagant) of the heart such as this:
Your mother shall be mine;
I’ll listen at her knee.
I’ll taste your bread and wine.
Oh plant me as a willow tree,
And in your temple make me sprout:
And I shall never more go out.
And call it a very poor effort . . . if you must.