Little Craft Manifesto.
Craft, in the broadest sense, is a kind of pressure that the poet
puts on his material in order to see what it can bear. Its primary aim
is paradoxical--to exclude and accommodate. It wants to make room, for
example, for odd companions, like an etherized patient and a sky. But
it's an assassin to the extra word, or any failure of precision.
Ear and eye do its work, if they've been properly trained. Logic
and emotional intelligence are among its adjudicators, if for no other
reason than they have experience with breaking down. A good mind helps,
if it contains at least a small library and is not in love with itself.
Craft is an act of
, as much a disciplining of, discoveries and excitements as it can be a
permission for wildness to be wild, subtlety to be subtle. In fact, it
usually involves many acts, and is evidence--draft by draft--of the poet
finding his way. Craft is an orchestration of words and desired effects.
Essentially, its job is to reveal content. It's in the business of
heightening, subordinating, pacing. It controls rates of disclosure,
degrees of importance; it manages tone. Like a compass, it's what
you need when you're lost, but it is not sufficient.
It will not help the uninteresting, the cowardly, or anyone wishing
to save the world. Craft is most kind to those who've spent long
hours worrying about it--the problem solvers, those who are suspicious
of the satisfactory. It is especially fond of poets who understand that
a good poem is not only difficult to write, but unlikely, as well as
poets who've written enough to know some of its secrets--one of
which is that passion and aesthetic distance can be compatible, that one
without the other often results in noise or mere scaffolding. Craft has
a curious integrity; it doesn't want only to be itself.
If you're a serious poet, every poem you write is part of a long
unspoken dialog with the poets who preceded you. Craft is part of that
dialog, also preferably unspoken. As you write, you need not be
conscious of your forebears and their work, but the poem should in some
way reflect that you've been standing on the shoulders of those
giants. The image has a history, as does narrative; free verse once was
radical; the new always owes a debt to the old. If the conceit intrigues
you, best that you know some of its good ghosts, perhaps starting with
Donne, and have acquainted yourself with its difficulties. When it comes
to making metaphors, there's a very thin line between virtuosity
and where it trips over into indulgence.
One of the common errors of the fledgling poet, in fact, is a
reflexive love of the extended metaphor. Metaphors shouldn't be
cranked up. They should arise out of necessity. They should be reached
for when something crucial can't be said straight out, when only
analog will do. Extended metaphor, in the wrong hands, is faux poetry.
Much can happen, though, when you realize you've boxed yourself in,
that your extended metaphor is more of a prison than an opportunity to
be ingenious. How liberating then to abandon it, or to relax it, to let
the poem find its own limits. To have a sense of such things is an
aspect of craft.
I once defined form this way: "Building a corral as you invent
the horse." I added, "Craft is what nails the gate, helps
formalize the space, and keeps the horseshit out of the picture. It
leaves us with the necessary." I'm glad I stopped there. I was
getting close to the silly. Metaphor, pushed too far, is always on the
verge of the silly. That's why the exquisite metaphor pleases us
so. It goes to the precipice, dangles, survives.
Craft, of course, needs something substantive to work with, and the
poet's hardest work may come once his "subject" has been
intuited or arrived at, and he has a sense of what his principle of
selection is. This can happen at any stage of composition, but when it
does the poet is at a dangerous juncture. How not to become too
purposeful? How to keep composing with the same verve as when you were
in aimless flight, one detail finding the next? Here's what I try
to remember when I've reached that moment of consciousness: Once
you arrive at your subject, you no longer need to be committed to it. In
fact, you should resist those details that readily come to mind. If, for
example, you discover that you're writing about the horrors of war,
you'll want to avoid words like "carnage" or
"bloody," any language that easily attaches itself to the
subject. Or you'll want to use those very words and redeem them.
Subject matter is best thought of as an occasion you've provided
yourself with so that you might be interesting. If you're not
startled by your own claims or phrasing, no one else will be. Re-think
them. This is how you might free yourself from the banalities of the
known, the long yawn of the easy. Charles Olson's dictum is useful
here--"One perception must immediately lead to another
perception." Properly understood, it should help get you to where
you haven't been. But then it will be useful to veer away from its
wisdom, or at least doubt it as an absolute, else your poem become
frenetic. Craft always has something to do with modulation.
And yet it can accommodate the exotic, shape a place for the
loose-ended. Craft is nothing if not an agent of the possible.
Sloppiness is its main nemesis. Certainly the carpenter who poorly
frames a door doesn't go around saying how well it shuts.
Sloppiness embarrasses him. But who hasn't heard poets defending
the equivalent of a poorly made door? And doesn't the
carpenter's apprentice know he's an apprentice and, therefore,
tend to be keenly aware of what he has yet to master? Beginning poets
take note: the artisan never believes that how he feels is more
important than how he executes.
And yet your goal is to reach the stage where craft is a non-issue,
where all of the above is so much a part of your wherewithal that you
don't have to think about it.
This will take years. In the meantime, craft will seem like making
the right decision at the crossroads. You'll feel that to go one
way, or to go the other way, is important, and it is. But really what
matters is how interesting you can make either journey. There's no
right decision. In one direction, let's say there's a party.
In the other, a descent into despair. Yet there's always at least a
third choice, that road duller than the others, devoid of scenery and
despair's strange glamour. And it might be your best choice, so in
need will it be of imagination. You won't know for sure until you
get to the end of it. And actually the decision need not be high drama.
This isn't life we're talking about. In poetry, there's
no reason why all of these roads can't be traveled.
STEPHEN DUNN is the author of fourteen collections of poetry,
including the recent Everything Else in the World (Norton), which was
awarded the Paterson Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement. His
Different Hours won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. A book of his essays and
memoirs, Walking Light, is available from BOA. He divides his time
between Frostburg, Maryland, and southern New Jersey, where he is
Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Richard Stockton College.