Bad Poet still makes me smile when I read it. More than that, the feelings behind it have really marked a change in my relationship to writing poetry. I’ve written several more serious poems since then, and not worried much about good or bad. They please me, and that’s enough.
What I didn’t expect is that writing poems is really different from writing prose. Now that I am doing it, I seem to have unlocked a need to do it. When I go a while without creating one, things just feel wrong. Often, I’m not consciously aware of the feeling until the next poem happens and I feel relief. It’s kind of like when you haven’t masturbated for a while–you get started and your body informs you that hey, this isn’t going to take long and by the way, where have you been?
Writing prose can have these qualities, of course, and I’m hardly the first writer to compare writing to masturbation. Heinlein said it best in the words of Lazarus Long: “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of–just do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.” The connotation being that writing is personal, self-involved, and potentially not something anyone else cares to see.
After meditating on what’s special about writing in “poet mode” for me, I’ve concluded the following: Poet mode turns down the dial on my intellect and lets more of my emotions through. Poet mode allows me to write things without trying to explain them too much. Poet mode pleases the artist in me because I get to play with lines and structure.
But for me, the most powerful thing about writing poetry is that poetry feels useless.
Now, you know I don’t mean that. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without poetry, and I agree with the poet Hafiz, who said “religions are the ships; poets the lifeboats.” What I mean by saying that poetry feels useless is that I can’t weasel my way into thinking that I am writing a poem to serve any immediate, practical purpose. With prose I can do that: I needed to do that in order to start Not This Song. As personal as some of the stories get, I convince myself that they are helping someone.
I’m not saying that a poem I write won’t ever inspire anyone or help anyone feel less alone. I see that there’s no real reason to assume my poetry is any more useless than my prose. I see that my psyche isn’t making a logical distinction here, but it exists. Perhaps it’s because of the emotions vs. the intellect; I’ve spent a good part of my life thinking that my only, or main, value lay in being smart.
I think this illogical feeling about uselessness or impracticality is part of what makes writing a poem so satisfying for me. You see, every word I write is already a rebellion against the critical, shaming voices trying to convince me not to write. Writing a poem is a sharper rebellion, a rebellion more overt because it’s not trying to explain or justify itself. If I dig deep, I see that part of my satisfaction of finishing a poem comes from the gleeful relief of being able to yell “Fuck you” at that inner judge (and all those who taught it to be that way.)
You see this? I wrote this. Why? Because I fucking felt like it, that’s why. No, nobody’s paying for it. Do people think it’s good? I have no idea. What am I going to do with it? None of your damn business. Don’t like it? Nobody asked you. Fuck off.
Don’t flee in terror, poetry community–I promise I would never speak to an external, human critic that way. This is only about my internal process, and once a draft of a poem exists I have no problem with constructive criticism. I hope to learn more about polishing and revising my work, and I find myself salivating at descriptions of poetry classes and workshops. I’m making an effort to read more new, modern poetry and not just my old favorites.
Whatever continues to come out of this poetic Pandora’s box, I hope to keep the spirit of Bad Poet firmly in mind. Its permission to be a neophyte, to be imperfect. Having the humor–and the humility–to see and accept the immature but endearing antics of my developing self.