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May 9, 2004

To wound the autumnal Henley. Jim Henley answers a correspondent who asks “What suggestions would you have for someone who would want to try his hand at poetry? (And whose previous attempts were awkward teenaged belchings?)”
What would I recommend as far as “trying your hand?” Start by slavishly imitating poets you admire. This is the opposite of the standard advice that you need to concentrate on “finding your own voice.” Don’t take this wrong, but fuck your own voice. Your own voice will take care of itself as your craft matures. Your own voice will, if you’re going to have one, insist on emerging.
Or, in the words of TNH, “Style is what you can’t help doing.”

Is Jim’s advice applicable beyond poetry? Did two Brooklyn-based professional fiction editors and sometime workshop instructors break out in spontaneous applause and expressions of joy? You be the judge:

In the meantime, learn the craft. Learn the vocabulary and practice of meter. Learn rhyme schemes. Learn the ways that free verse gets written that yet contains music. Reread poets you admire, read about them and then read the poets they get compared to. Take a class, particularly a class in prosody. Pick an approach to poetry writing that you dislike and take a class in that too. Put every poem you write away for six months and then pull it out and look at it again. (Fun fact: I only settled on the word “gutters” in the last line of Friday’s poem when I opened it Friday morning. Before that it was “rises.” “Gutters” is so much better I can hardly believe I ever accepted the earlier choice, but six years gives you the time to think of this stuff.) When your completed poem drafts have sat around long enough that you have some distance on them, show them to people whose taste you trust. Not before. We’ll just piss you off.

Read Samuel R. Delany’s novel, Dhalgren, which has two poets in it, and contains the absolute best advice I know about how to handle other people’s opinions of your work. And it is without a doubt the finest novel about a crazy guy caught in a time loop who fucks a tree that I have ever read.

Above all, don’t worry about whether you “are” a poet. Just worry about poems. They’re what matters.

Excuse me, I need a cigarette. [10:33 PM]
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Comments on To wound the autumnal Henley.:

Calimac ::: (view all by) ::: May 09, 2004, 11:24 PM:

Good advice indeed.

Read the early works of the great poets, especially the great modern poets. Most of them began by imitating the poets they most admired. Their own individual styles grew out of the mixture of of poets they chose to imitate, and their increasing technical mastery developed through learning to imitate well.

It's harder to do this with prose writers, since fewer of them kept their juvenalia. But Tolkien's Book of Lost Tales, for instance, reads like Victorian fairy stories as written by William Morris.

The same is true in music. Even Mozart had to learn how to compose, and he did it by copying out his teachers' works by hand, and then writing more in the same style. Early Beethoven sounds like a rough-hewn Mozart. Early Stravinsky sounds like his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. And so on.

Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2004, 05:15 AM:

Somewhere on SFF Net I encountered an interesting bit of advice that's proven useful for some folks I know: take passages you like from good writers and transcribe them. This shows you what it feels like when you write that way, the physical act of typing, the look of things on screen, and so on.

adamsj ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2004, 06:47 AM:

If you want a book on poetry, the one to get is Sound and Sense, by Lawrence Perrine. That was used in undergrad poetry surveys and workshops where I went to school, and I recommend it.

The advice to write poetry by others down by hand is great advice. So is memorizing poetry.

Chuck Nolan ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2004, 08:26 AM:

I got that same advice regarding jazz improvization on the guitar. Begin by copying lines you admire from people you respect. Just keep adding them to your repertoire. Your own style will gradually emerge as your skills improve.

Alos, spend time on the basic skills, scales and modes, etc.

Daryl McCullough ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2004, 09:57 AM:

There was an essay in Analog Science Fiction magazine years ago by somebody---maybe Spider Robinson, maybe Tom Easton, I don't remember---about this very subject. He said something along the lines of there being two types of (good) novelists(he was talking about science fiction writers, but it probably applies more generally). The first kind is like a shooting star---he comes out of nowhere, light up the entire sky with his brilliance, and then vanishes. His first novel is typically his best, and the rest of his life is pretty much an anticlimax.

The second kind of novelist starts off slow and picks up steam. He starts off completely derivative; he's just imitating the authors he liked reading. His first few novels are utter dreck, barely worth the paper they are printed on. But gradually, over the course of many years, he gets better. Pretty soon, he isn't copying anybody---young writers are copying him.

I wish I could remember the details, like who wrote it and what writers he put into what category. I think he considered the old-timers like Fred Pohl and Jack Williamson to be in this latter category.

I think the same sort of division works in popular music, as well. There are the people who seemingly create something completely new, and then there are those (including some of the best: the Beatles, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones) who just start out imitating the musicians they liked when they were kids (Elvis, BB King, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, etc.)

Greg Turner ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2004, 10:01 AM:

Some of the best advice on writing, or any endeavor really, I've ever gotten is a quote from Debbie Harry, delivered by a fiction teacher I had as an undergrad: "Learn to play your instruments; then get sexy."

Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2004, 10:42 AM:

It's true in Dhalgren too about being able to remember fiddling with the thing you wrote but not writing it. It could have been in the notebook all along. I frequently think "Where did that come from?" in just that way.

AKMA ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2004, 11:46 AM:

Works for preachers, too, although so many practice bad public preaching that it can be hard to persuade students what arduous work the craft demands.

Thanks for pointing this out!

Robert Sloan ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2004, 01:53 PM:

That works for any art. I remembered seeing art students copying paintings in museums, then years later when learning fan art, copied the styles of the fan artists I admired. In about a year, people were asking me about the tricks and I was passing on the lessons.

It was true for my writing too. The best story I did as a kid was a sequel to a dark fantasy from someone in the Lovecraft Circle who'd just gone out of copyright. I forget which ancient elegant author I imitated, but it was a pastiche. So I tried to use every technique he did, mention every detail of his backstory in the same ways he did -- and that taught me that less is more. The story that I thought had a thousand details had only a few well placed resonant ones.

I almost sold it -- if I had that rejection slip from anyone today I'd be making a sale on the next submission. The pro editor had a checklist rejection slip and none of the beginners' mistakes were checked off. He devoted a page and a half of encouraging comments, telling me that while he loved the story and was a fan of the original antique author, he couldn't publish something that wasn't in a contemporary style. He suggested writing something in a more modern style.

In drawing portraits, I didn't have a style till I'd gotten all the tricks from imitating other portrait artists. (Most of my fan art was in-character portraits of media SF actors.) After that, I couldn't not have a style. I wound up noodling over eyes with nitpicking detail, always surprised and happy that when I got done it would look like a living eye. The good things happen when I'm not paying attention to trying to do them, and my fan art portraits were known for eye characterization.

I have no idea what my style is in writing, because I think it's invisible to me. I can't write other people's books. I can only get ideas from those moments when I'm reading and think "Oh no, it should've been..." and take off and write something on the same theme. My prose seems as familiar as my nose. If I get self conscious, eventually thinking about it I will recognize that I'm just embarrassed about being who I am -- something anyone might feel.

The practice is getting me somewhere, because I've made a few sales. :)

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2004, 02:22 PM:

This is a great segment. I can't tell you how often recently I've been getting letters from editors now about the need to "find your voice." Of course, they can't definite what it is when you ask them.

Makes you realize that at times you wouldn't mind if they sent back a letter with just two words: not interested. (It's okay--you don't need to come up with a new way to say no thank you...)

As for me, my favorite undergrad writing course was one on the satiric poets. Rather than have us write papers about the poems we studied, our prof had us imitate the authors (Pope, Swift, etc) which was a better way to study them--and a lot more fun.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2004, 06:10 PM:

Sometimes a poem is a struggle, sometimes I just write it down. Sometimes a great notion takes me to jump into the river and drown.

Aggghhhh! Start again.

Sometimes a poem (or a song lyric, with tune attached) just drops into my head, fully formed and on its horse. (Well, not on its horse.) I just have to write it down before I forget it. I've written some of my best stuff that way -- and some of my worst. The middle is the "today I shall write a sonnet" stuff.

Poetry is one area where the ADD brain-wiring is a huge advantage. To write a half-decent poem you have to be thinking about the meter, the rhyme, the sounds of all the words, as well as the content, all at once. If you try to do them one at a time, you'll fail. IME; YMMV. Deedle-de-dee.

MD▓ ::: (view all by) ::: May 10, 2004, 06:41 PM:

Mmmmm... where did I read that exact same advice ? It's in a japanese text manual from the Genroku era, or emulating it at least, but I can't remember wich one... Probably the Kyora´sh˘ or the Sanz˘shi.

A very good advice, not easy, nor pleasant. But good.

Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: May 11, 2004, 07:23 AM:

Xopher & many others: So many times you hear people say that, usually about writing or music. Something appears fully formed in their consciousness and they have to write it down, just trying to get it as it flows. You can understand how the idea of inspiring muses or gods has come about.

Only the tiniest touches have ever brushed me; the last one was a drawing - I heard a certain sentence and saw a 'vision' of it. It was almost irresistable, the need to try and get it down from where it was stuck behind my eyes, and now it's been stuck up above my desk for the last couple of years.

JoXn Costello ::: (view all by) ::: May 23, 2004, 03:35 PM:

I can't write creatively, but I can learn to speak foreign languages, and one of the most useful tricks in my toolbox is to memorize poetry. Lots and lots of it. It gives you a bunch of language templates to carry around in your head -- and they're templates by the very best writers a language has to offer.

Also, it impresses the hell out of native speakers when you can rattle off 50 lines of Goethe without stuttering.