On the End Table: The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt

All poetry students have been taught how meter, through the pacing of accented syllables and syllabic count, can control the rhythm and music of a poem. But Ellen Bryant Voigt, in her compact yet insightful book The Art of Syntax, shows us how the structure of the sentence can be used to pace the music of the words and the thought, much in the same way of musical phrasing, with which she draws an elegant analogy.

Perhaps, it’s easy to overlook the work that syntax is doing when verse offers us the traditional structure of, say, a sonnet. But when line lengths vary widely, Voigt tells us, “pattern must derive from syntax.” Throughout the book, Voigt gives several example poems, showing us how in each one, syntax is in a careful balance with stanza line and meter, in a musical dance that reveals pattern, crafts dramatic action and tension, and develops and discovers ideas.

It’s a beautiful book worth the read by anyone interested in deepening the texture in their poems.

Constrict to Expand: Tips for Young Poetry Writers

When writing poetry, ultimately we are strive to provide something of value, something of interest, something that causes the mind to work in new ways and open up the world (whether the internal one or its external counterpart). I’ve increasingly found that setting parameters on your prosody can bring about that new angle, that happy accident, that magic. So writers of poems, I encourage you to discover new ways to shape and constrict your poems.

I think the best thing first is to just get down the first draft, knowing that this is not where you will end up. It’s quite easy to self-censor yourself in the beginning so that you often cut off the ideas that have been percolating in your subconscious before they have a chance to form. But after the first draft, it’s time to dive in and mine what’s valuable. At this stage, I like to be rather vicious with my culling. Young writers can often treat everything they write as a sort of sacred cow. It’s here that you should not only be carving away but often adding anew. It can and often should be a messy process.

After we start to see the real flesh of the poem emerge though, consider giving yourself some kind of restriction. See where it leads you. Of course, more traditional ways of doing this are meter and rhyme. The meter you impose should follow the needs of the poem, whether that be syllabic , syllabic-accentual or merely accentual. You could experiment with any of a myriad of traditional forms. Sonnets and haikus seem to be the old standbys. But there’s a whole world of forms to experiment with – from rondeau to sestina, from ghazal to the skinny.

But the restrictions you try need not be so orthodox. Perhaps, you want to place your poem in the voice of a narrator who is somehow distinctly different from you, the author. Perhaps you want to create a particular aural effect by finding words with certain qualities that emphasize your meaning. Or you might experiment with a more visual effect by playing with your line breaks and seeking out meaningful and surprising enjambment or pacing. These are just a few examples. I’m certain that you will discover many more – hopefully some that are particular to you and the poems that only you were meant to write.

On John Lee Clark’s Essay “Tactile Art”

In the October 2019 issue of Poetry Magazine, essayist John Lee Clark rights about the nature of tactile art from the blind perspective. It was an illuminating piece that had me thinking long after I’d put down the journal. Essentially, he writes about what’s important in a tactile art piece to a blind person and what elements are unnecessary (but often included because our culture thinks as sighted beings). For example, he talks about the importance of heft. Imagine a plastic toy tank. For sighted persons, the visual experience is enough to convey the ominous, dangerous menace a tank represents. But for a blind person, the weight of that light plastic toy is more important and conveys none of the same menace. If you get a chance to read Clark’s poignant essay, I recommend it.

Writing and Community

For years, I’ve done all of my creative writing in isolation. None of my close friends have been writers. I’ve rarely bounced ideas off of other creative writers. I’ve certainly never collaborated with anyone. On a few occasions, I’ve found myself in a fiction writing critique group, but these have never lasted for some reason (and I haven’t always got the benefit out of them that I had expected to get). It has been like working in a vacuum.

But this year, I have made more of an effort to attend a poetry workshop group in the area. The poets in this group range in expertise, and there are certainly some good minds that challenge me and my writing. But I’ve also begun to reap the benefit of just being around fellow writers who are living many of the same challenges, struggles and joys as I do.

I’ve gained insight into the kinds of journals these poets are getting published in, how they are getting their books published, and which conferences they go to and the benefits they reap from those experiences. Although many of these elements seem small, they add up to a lot, in my estimation.

Whatever your passion might be, I’ve come to realize that being around others with your same passion is a healthy, important and possibly even a vital experience if you can get it.

creative writing and anxiety

Creative Writing and Anxiety

A few years ago, I was speaking with a friend about the intense anxieties I get at night over the safety of my family. He said, “Yeah, that’s the curse of the artist, your active imagination.”

And after making thousands of connections in my creative writing, I finally made this one with my own life. What do we do in creative writing if not make surprising and unlikely connections (especially writing science fiction and poetry)? And the more I exercise the connection-making beast, the more easily it goes to work on my own life, especially at night when all the other noises of the day die down.

To be fair, imagination can bring you positive vision as well as anxiety. Yes, I worry over the worst possible scenarios, and believe me, imagination can create some nearly ridiculous and impossible scenarios. I also have grand (sometimes impossible) dreams of the future. And after a few years, neither of these will please your spouse.

Anxiety can be difficult to live with, but I’ve come to believe that someone has to be the worrier. Someone has to stay up at night thinking through these possibilities, so you’re not blind to the evil of the world. But it’s also good to have a partner or friend who can help you balance these fears with reality.

And as much as I believe in the capacity for evil among us, I believe in the possibility that our better natures will prevail too.