Despite the political time we’re living in now, we can’t let Habit and Lack of Imagination win. Habit thinks, “Brown skin shouldn’t have a place here,” and Lack of Imagination doesn’t ask, “Why not?” Habit takes immigrants’ kids away since, after all, it threatened to, and Lack of Imagination doesn’t ask, “What then? And isn’t that excessive for a misdemeanor?” It puts on a tie or a skirt suit and tries to shift the blame. It lies about lying. In other words, it falls back on habit, and ’round and ’round.
You’re damn right it’s a vicious circle.
So what can a poem do about it? Call it out. Talk back. Be the opposite, I guess. Remind us In the beginning was the Word, then try to use the best ones. That’s what King David was up to, I think, not knowing he’d be quoted for 3,000 years. Saint Paul didn’t know he’d be a saint and that his letters would last for two millennia. And Walt Whitman? When Whitman spoke to the future, he was speaking to Hope. It wasn’t a given that we’d hear him; it was just a belief. All of them: writers.
So what’s the best way?
How should I know? You should see the tumbleweed scribble I produce just looking for some sort of forward direction. Still, I do believe—if I had to pick some basics—that writing well comes down to these four things:
First, poems should be more than ornamental; they should try to be useful. Others have said it a bit differently—the Utah poet Ken Brewer, for instance, said that poems should “offer a name for something in the shadows of our lives”—but they mean the same thing: Poems have jobs. They use the five senses to get at the essential.
Second, we need new myths, fables, and origin stories. These old forms were magnetic and primal and still are. People might think they’ve heard them all before, and yeah yeah, I know, but they haven’t heard ours. To ours, they’ll listen. They’ll recognize the old form but not the new information, and they’ll let themselves be taken up for a minute or two to learn the ending. Here’s what I mean:
Sometimes It Isn’t the Same Old Story
You could understand him misunderstanding, digging such careful holes with his shovel, sifting in spoonfuls of birdseed— an honest mistake. And you could half-understand how he stubbornly finished, how he aimed his back at everyone laughing and patted the dirt down gently with his hands. But to greet each day with his watering can, to go on as if he were a gardener, as if he believed… someone finally stomped all the green in his yard, and that should’ve been the end of that. Certainty feels like a flag when you fly it. It snaps in the wind and makes the sound of your own good name, of your own high opinion. It’s the opposite of birds. And it was birds that he was growing, after all: cardinals, robins, chickadees, starlings. His seedlings stood up again, unfurled their branches, all of them loaded not with blossoms but with song. That was the season people relearned amazement, followed by the autumn when they relearned amazement again: One morning he went ’round his yard on a ladder, he paid no attention to everyone clapping, just picked each bird and released it into the sky.
On Mars as It Is in Heaven
The penguin wants to be an astronaut. She wants to trade her tuxedo for a space suit, sushi for reconstituting cubes, and navigate the stars like she navigates the sea. Try and stop her, try and talk some sense; you’ll see her squeeze her flippers into fists. It wouldn’t be the first time. She’s adapted to circumstance before, quit flying, for instance, stopped sailing the air to be a submarine. Now you’re saying a girl can’t change her mind? She’s been listening to the radio, heard the news on the BBC— who’s better suited for Mars’ arctic climate, her or some man? You’re darn-tootin’. You can’t shut progress in the closet; let her go. Let her be the first to taste Mars’ frozen water, to blast off with bourbon and an ice pick, to smoke a cigar on the surface. Or just brilliantly crash and burn.
Third, it isn’t just myths that help us to know the unknowable. Other kinds of poems can do that too. The key is to ground them in concrete details we can care about or argue with. I heard Marvin Bell say once, “I like poems whose ideas have their feet in the dirt.” Me too.
And fourth, poems should create a vivid moment. And the secret to doing that is action. Meaning, verbs rather than adjectives; meaning, put most of your adjectives in the interrogation chair and ask, “What do you think you’re doing here?” Besides, verbs are more descriptive anyway. They zing, sob, groan, ricochet, stagger, steam, and zip. Verbs can pogo, while an adjective just has a big happy smile while it jumps.
And that’s that—four things for your tool box. Put them together with your guts and heart to build the world a better vision. Writers always have.