A friend recently posted a blog entry about poetry. Is it a learned skill or a gift with which some of us are just innately blessed? she asked. I started responding to her entry as a comment and realized that, instead of taking up space in her comments section, I would write a more in-depth response here.
I think it’s a great question, because so many times as artists, people tell us how “lucky” we are to have such a talent. Art oftentimes seems like a mystery. But even if, through personality, our natural inclinations, strengths, environment, we seem to just possess a skill, it needs to be cultivated. So, in short, I do believe that we learn to be artists (this term for me encompasses any number of fields, from writing to painting, sculpting, music, theater, etc.). I think all writing is a learned skill.
Sometimes we think that that being a poet is a natural talent because some people start reading and writing poetry when they’re young, then write poetry in college or grad school, continuing into adulthood. So they make it look effortless. But they’ve just been practicing and learning for a long time.
In my first college creative writing class, our professor wrote on the syllabus that 3 percent of our grade would be based on “natural genius.” It was a joke. (We didn’t get it.) He was both taking us down a notch and reassuring us. To the artsy creative types in the class: It’s not a god-given skill. You’ve got to work for it. You’re not as good as you think you are. To those who felt nervous or in over their heads: Relax. This is a class, just like any other one. You’re here to learn a new skill, or polish one you’ve already begun developing.
I think that the secret to all art is listening. We listen closely to the world around us, we look closely, “we listen to the breathing beneath our breathing” (to borrow a phrase from poet Joy Harjo). So writing poetry is learning to listen to the world and to our own souls.
My friend asks, “If a person can learn, how do you recommend they start? Is there any ‘secret’ to it other than writing bad poems until you get better?” So, from a more practical standpoint, I suggest reading poetry. I find reading both silently and aloud allows me to more deeply experience a poem. We might read a poem a hundred times and just start digging beneath the surface. The slowness of poetry is what makes it so enjoyable.
Secondly, write often, knowing that a lot of what you write won’t make it into your final poems. But you might write a hundred poems just to get to the one you’ve been searching for. I don’t know if you write “bad” poems until you get better. I suspect even great poets write bad poems. They’ve just developed an ear for what works and what doesn’t, which makes weeding out the good images, lines, stanzas, and poems easier as they go.
And share those poems with poets. Poets see things others don’t, and they know how to explain those strengths and weaknesses. It’s like asking someone, “Why is my car making that sound?” A friend might say, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s the transmission?” Or, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Your car sounds fine.” But a mechanic can look inside, tinker around, and will understand the complexity of how the machine works and what’s going wrong.
I wish I could say that writing poems isn’t so different from writing prose. But it really is, just like sculpting and painting are different skills. Poems are image-based; they capture moments and moods. Their metaphors give face to the abstract. When T.S. Eliot writes, “the burnt-out ends of smoky days,” we get it on a deeper level before our intellectual self grasps it. On a foggy night in the city, with steam wafting up from the grates, on a late evening full of grit, I feel the truth of it. I see it, I hear it, and I feel it. Eliot listened carefully, and he wrote. It’s that simple. And that complicated.
So poets and fiction writers alike: What do you think? Is it a natural talent or a learned skill? Or is it both, a natural talent that needs to be polished? And how do we go about doing that? How do you train yourself to “listen?”