Touch: The Journal of Healing


Poet in Residence Essay Series


Copyright © 2012

Touch: The Journal of Healing

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Evolution Into Insight

Experience. Intent. Craft.

If a stranger walked up to me on the street and asked—“How do you write a poem?” — these are the three things I would say are crucial.  I can play with words and scratch out a passable facsimile of verse with one or two, but it would be a poor imitation of art.  Something would be missing, that necessary spark that illuminates the work and distinguishes it from abandoned grocery lists tossed into the trash.

Experience is the backbone of a poem.  If I’m going to write, I should write about something true, something worth reading.  I don’t want to waste the time I’ve spent living.  The years I’ve walked in my skin are a treasure I can plunder at will.

Intent is critical.  You can have all the experience in the world but if you don’t make yourself sit down and work though the mess of it, picking and choosing exactly what you want to convey, you will create nothing worthwhile.  For ten years I wrote nothing.  Once I returned to writing, I had to force myself to write every day for years until the poem I had was equal to the poem I truly wanted.

Craft is the last bastion of the poetic art, and unfortunately, it is the most disparaged.  Without purposeful attention to the words I end up spinning my wheels and so does the reader.  Adjectives multiply like rabbits.  Prepositions have a tendency to dash off like greyhounds on a racetrack.  Rhyme is pointless without purpose.  A poem can be terribly impenetrable without the focus that careful attention to technique can give to words.  Only the poet will ever understand it and the race will keep going, leaving readers in the dust.

For me, the first words I write in a poem mark the moment when the urge to record what’s in my heart becomes more than an impulse.  It is the birth of an idea, when the upwelling of life experience, intent, and critical thought converge into a fragment of art.  This is just the beginning, of course.  One line, one metaphor, even one rhyme does not make a good poem.  Even so, the act of creating validates my mind’s obsession and is intimately married to trauma or survival with an understanding that pain eventually leads to acceptance.  Today, more contemporary poetry is written about difficulty than anything else.

My younger son was born with a congenital heart defect in 1997.  Through the years I’ve attempted to transcribe, through poetry, my feelings of this event.  Some of those poems are utter drivel.  Some contain words and images so luminous that rereading them catapults me back to the moment the poem was born.  In all, I have six poems written about this particular trauma, words picked over from 1997 through 2009.  This desperation to record, to explicate, to communicate the indescribable drives much of modern poetry.  The best of it takes the reader on a journey that begins with a single truth and evolves into insight.  The worst of these poems are nothing more than melodramatic journaling.

Several years ago I read a poem on the side of a barn that was printed on a giant poster.  It was written by a woman who described how she felt to receive a call from her soldier son, in Iraq, but I didn’t feel her pain and joy.  It was an exercise in comprehension instead of an emotional stab to the gut.  Poetry that touches on things like death, illness, and fear can be tremendously difficult to craft.  While I couldn’t argue with her sentiment, I knew the poem could benefit from attention to craft.  I would have liked to discuss metaphor and imagery with her, but I didn’t want to invalidate her pain.  I grieved the lost intimacy of what could have been a fantastic poem if only she had considered her words more carefully.

When writing this kind of poem it feels like you’ve opened up a vein and let the blood fall onto the paper, and the hardest thing to do is write another one. It’s difficult to recognize the utter banality of it.  Never be satisfied with the first attempt.  Put your words away for a year and write another different poem.  When you return to the difficult poem you will find that your perspective has changed.  You will realize that you have managed to open your heart and let the spirit of your experience speak with all the original sentiment.  The pain will still be there, but so to will everything else: the moving on, the acceptance, and the strength.  It is an evolution from trauma into insight that even the most critical thinker will experience in the gut as well as the mind.  You will have learned about the craft of poetry as an art because you will have passed through the three stages of it: life experience, the intent, and the craft.  It takes all three to make a good poem, the kind that resonates with a reader.  The kind of poem to which readers will return again and again.

Christine Klocek-Lim, Poet in Residence

© 2012  Christine Klocek-Lim

Christine Klocek-Lim received the 2009 Ellen La Forge Memorial Prize in poetry. Her poetry was featured as the Editor’s Choice in the September 2011 issue of Touch: The Journal of Healing. She has four chapbooks: How to photograph the heart (The Lives You Touch Publications), The book of small treasures (Seven Kitchens Press), Cloud Studies - a sonnet sequence (Whale Sound Audio Chapbooks), and Ballroom — a love story (Flutter Press). She is editor of Autumn Sky Poetry and her website is november sky.