I can understand why people are hesitant to write poems.
Poetry can be uncomfortable. You pry yourself open, you scoop out what you find, and you dump it onto a blank page. You do all of this just so you can read it; so you can potentially understand the stuff that’s been festering in the back of your mind—in the deepest reaches of your gut. Sometimes you even let other people read the stuff, which is just plain terrifying.
Poetry is discouraging. It’s disheartening when the right words won’t come. Especially when poets like Frost, Whitman, Collins, Pound, and Stevens (the list goes on) make the whole poetry thing seem so effortless, so natural. It makes your efforts feel useless, makes you feel inept, and makes the whole ordeal seem like nothing but a grand waste of time.
Most of all, poetry can be embarrassing. It’s personal. It’s a verbal manifestation of all the crude, coarse, natural, and organic roughness that we’re not sure we’re supposed to verbalize at all. And when your poem is finally done and you re-read it from start to finish, you can wind up gagging on your own sentimentality, nauseated by your own nostalgia, or disgusted by your self-indulgence. Really, how audacious to think that you or something that happened to you is worthy of becoming a poem?
The key is to let all of this go. Just write the thing.
A passage from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest comes to mind. He describes being human as being “unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.” So the point here is to put all of that aside. Just try it. You’ll be surprised what you’ll find as you write your poem.
You’ll get to know yourself better. We think at an incredibly rapid rate. We process borderline unquantifiable amounts of information on a daily basis. We have a thought, we move on, we forget it. When you write a poem, you’re forced to slow way, way down. You’ll ask more questions about yourself, about your experience living in this world. You’ll ask things like, “is there a better word I can use here?” or “how can I really capture what I’m feeling.” If you’re writing of memories, you’ll have no choice but to wrack your brain, stroke your chin, and knit your brow to bring yourself back to the precise moment you’re writing about—be it two weeks ago or two decades. You’ll be shocked at the things you’ve had catalogued back there. And you’ll be amazed at how much more vivid they become when you try to express them.
You’ll properly deal with the things that consume you. Lawrence Durrell wrote of women,
“There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.” I find the third option applies to all things. All suffering, all happiness, any emotion can be turned into literature. Of anguish, write until you’ve nothing left to say, and more often than not, you’ll have conquered your anguish. Of happiness, write until you’ve nothing left to say, and you’ll have preserved your happiness to look back on fondly when memory alone is no longer sufficient. Only poetry can remind you of the way a cool sea breeze blew through your hair on a September evening, how the sting of salt stung your eyes.
To end on a somewhat sentimentally and cheesy note (but remember, we’re all “unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic”), poetry will create for you a portal to the places you’ve been. You’ll read your old poems and be reminded—in the most visceral ways—where you were, what you felt, and how far you’ve come since then.