Saturday, February 5, 2011

Negotiating the Poem

Leslie Ullman is a woman whose creative writing/teaching career flowered in the 1960's and 70's. A perfect time to embark on creative enterprise. There was a laxness about conventions, both literarily (think the Beat poets) and culturally. There was little of the constraining need to be "politically correct, which Ullman says imposes itself on many would-be serious writers now, in the first decade of the new millennium. She wishes we could get back to that time, when there were fewer boundaries placed around creative work and art. I certainly feel her on this one. It does sometimes seem as though we're obsessed with formal, reined-in, narrative poetry. We can't seem to shake a certain preoccupation with controlling our texts, monitoring our usages for conventionality. If  conventions work, then fine. But if they don't work, we find ourselves constrained, hampered, looking for other ways to express our thoughts/feeling, ways that are more "artistic" according to the publishing houses and literary critics.

We think to ourselves--

I can't say that. That's not how people write poetry." 
or-- Nobody will publish this."
or--  It doesn't fit the postmodern aesthetic."

Or something along these lines. At one time or another, I've said all of these things to myself when sweating drops of blood over a poem in the works.

The solution to this insecurity is simply, according to Leslie Ullman, writerly intention.

Sometimes, all it takes to break free of the restraints on our writing, is to have a clear intention for the work in question. This lends firmness, a sense of purpose to the piece. Knowing where you want to end up, can guide you around the roadblocks that might otherwise be "the demands of the craft" Rescue your creative writing from formalities, from a tone of tentativeness, caution. Don't be gingerly about the words, the phrases that are the vehicles to what you want to say. Give them the appropriate volume, urgency. Or communicate what you want to communicate through silence. Sometime the power of poetry is in what it doesn't say.

I interpret Leslie Ullman's thoughts on intentionality as an appeal to be human as we're engaging in language and creative expression. We can't let the conventions shape inspiration.We shouldn't feel the need to mediate between what our muses have whispered in our ears and political, cultural qualifiers.

"Whether we are readers, teachers, poets, or as is often the case, all three, our alertness and a sense of adventure can be dampened by a preoccupation with performance or acceptance, or with proscribed kinds of clarity, in such a way as to pull a poem and its audience into an unconscious contest of wills." --Leslie Ullman

Leslie Ullman is a professor for the Vermont College of Fine Arts M.F.A program in Creative Writing since 1981. She is the author of the books Dreams by No One's Daughter, Natural Histories, and Slow Work Through Sand. She is also a recipient of the Yale Younger Poet's Prize and the Iowa Poetry Prize, and has been awarded two National Endorsement for the Arts fellowships.


  1. Hi Laura,

    I can totally relate to this subject. I am one of those people who refrain from writing poetry due to the fear of structure. I don't like free verse but I end up writing them because I feel fairly "safe" to not make idiotic mistakes.I think you are right that we can't let conventions shape our creativity, yet a part of me still strives to please the public.


  2. I feel you, Abbi. I have a great book you should check out, regarding poetic form. It outlines all the major poetic styles, and how their constructed. It gives workshops on how to write the sonnet, the haiku, the sestina--as well as some more obscure ones, like the Pantoun, and Villanelle. The book is called "Poetry as Spiritual Practice." I reproduced some of the instructional aspects in a previous post:

    Happy Writing!

  3. Thanks Laura, I will check it out for sure.




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