Writing Poetry: Inspiration vs. Craft (pt. 1 — prompts)

I’ve been writing poetry this summer. Well, I’ve been writing poetry since I was around eight years old, but this summer has been different: I enrolled myself in a poetry workshop via Coursera, hosted by the poet Douglas Kearney out of CalArts. The course is a MOOC — Massive Online Open Course — open to anyone with an internet connection, and so it’s something one does for personal enrichment rather than any sort of academic credit. Every week we watch some short video lectures, take a comprehension quiz, and then are given an assignment, which consists of two poetry prompts. Every few weeks we submit a drafted poem for peer critique, and have the opportunity to critique our classmates’ work as well. Overall, I have enjoyed the experience.

The process of workshopping isn’t totally new to me. Two cities ago, I belonged to a small group of writer-friends who would meet every month or two to drink wine and scotch, talk about nerdy literary stuff, and share our writings (mostly poetry, with a few short stories thrown in). It was great fun, and I miss that group terribly — both as individuals, and as members of a lovely and congenial space for sharpening our writing. Halcyon days indeed.

The major difference with the Sharpened Visions workshop — besides the fact that none of us are interacting in person — is the process of working off of set prompts. When I’ve written poetry before, it’s usually been 100% at inspiration’s beck and call: I would write when the fancy struck me or when a poem started rattling around in my head asking to be born. But I don’t think I’ve ever before regularly sat down and said to myself, “Now I will write a poem about X,” or “now I will write a poem in the form Y,” or “Now I will use rhyme-scheme Z.” A poem, of course, may have ended up with a certain structure or rhyme scheme or what have you, as it came about. Historically, however, when I’ve sat down and tried to craft a certain type of poem it has tended to derail halfway through, as in this terrible (though aptly named) sonnet from a few years ago:

Unfocussed Sonnet

The passing moments take me by surprise:
Each second comes and suddenly is gone,
Then comes and goes the next, and time flows on,
And every minute flees before my eyes.

Here in this passing we are too soon spent.
Each passing hour touches eternity,
And never will return again — but we
Become subsumed in how to pay the rent.

The sonnet form is harder than you think!
When halfway through without a conclusion
The poet’s thoughts all turn to confusion
(Though she may take some solace in pink ink).

The last couplet is the grand finale:
In theory, it is a hot tamale!

“In theory, it is a hot tamale.” Oy.

Writing poems from Sharpened Visions’ weekly prompts has been a very stretching experience — but a good one. I have been learning to lean less on inspiration as the main driver behind what I’m writing, and to pay more attention to the technical specs of whatever form I’m using. Generally I only pick one of the two prompts each week to focus on, but after the class ends I will likely go back and try the rest, because I have found them to be such useful exercises. Overall, I’ve come to a better understanding that there really is no “vs.” in between inspiration and craft (despite the title of this post); they are partners, each contributing something important to the creation of a poem.

I’ve started trying my hand at sonnets again; I wrote one, for a friend, and the realised that it wanted to be something more, so I am expanding it into a sonnet redoublé. This is a group of fifteen sonnets in which the last line of the first fourteen sonnets becomes the first line of the next — with the first line of the first sonnet taken from the last line of the fourteenth — and the fifteenth sonnet  (the “Mastersonnet”) is made up of the fourteen linking lines from the first fourteen sonnets. So my initial sonnet has become a Mastersonnet, and I am slowly filling in the rest.

It’s difficult and slow going; I think I have been working on this for two or three weeks now, at a rate of one sonnet every couple of days, and have now finished nine of the fifteen. This is, without a doubt, the most technically challenging poem I have ever attempted — and it has given me numerous occasions to kick myself for choosing certain rhymes in the Mastersonnet which are just a pain to have to deal with over and over again. But I have been relishing the challenge. Inspiration provided the initial sonnet and the desire to expand it into something greater; craft is what’s moving me, slowly but surely, toward the finish line. I would never have attempted something like this before Sharpened Visions, and that alone is reason enough to make me glad that I enrolled.

Explore more: Sharpened Visions: A Poetry Workshop | Douglas Kearney | CalArts