Friday, August 15, 2014

Why Write Poetry?

Since publishing Declaration, several have asked why I decided to write and publish a chapbook in the first place. The question feels simple, but none of the quips or pithy responses I’ve given in the moment quite manage to cover it. Certainly the dream of making dozens of dollars while not quitting my day job falls a bit short of justifying the effort. Just as certainly, expressing some organized idea fails to explain it completely. Poetry as a medium achieves some of its beauty in reaching different people in different ways, and on different levels; if I have a single idea or concept, its expression necessarily diffuses even among the small audience a newly-published poet might reach.

Indeed, the reasons that anyone writes, or at least publishes, vary among people and even within a person. My reasons for writing on this blog are different from others’ reasons for writing blogs, and very different from my own reasons for writing a poem or a novel, and the reasons for creating a poetry collection diverged from the reasons for any individual poem. Some write, and sometimes I write, to explain, to teach, to announce, to explore, to advertise, to tell a story, to present an image, or to achieve any number of other purposes, with varying levels of success.

Describing a Complex World

For me, the panorama of purposes falls in line with the reasons I write. We live in a complex world, one no writer could ever boil down into one poem, story, or book. We move by natural impulses to break it into component parts, to create heuristics by which we can simplify that world around us in the hope of understanding it. For the same reasons that a musician subdivides beats to make the music flow while maintaining rhythm, we subdivide a complicated world in the hope that it will make sense to us.

Of course, trying to boil a world down too far can remove the nuance that makes life fun. We each hold within us truths that feel incongruous. As Whitman famously declared in “Song of Myself”:

            Do I contradict myself?
            Very well then I contradict myself,
            (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
A poetry collection allows different, even seemingly competing facets of the world and the self to emerge. A single poem might focus on a single element: music, joy, pain, curiosity, anger, innocence, experience, petty annoyance, or other emotions or thoughts as multivariate as the human experience itself.

Solitude and Community

Perhaps none of the internal contradictions we hold strike as near to a writer’s heart as the needs for solitary contemplation and connection to others. Someone who writes does so from within, trying to access and recreate in words something that resonates deeper. Poetry starts after or outside that experience and attempts to work back inside.

At the same time, though, writing to share means working simultaneously back out, much like Whitman’s noiseless, patient spider seeking spheres to connect. A poet, or indeed any writer, vacillates between the within and the without, dancing back and forth, struggling to access his or her core and then create a path from the inner recesses to the outer audience.

The Writer’s Asymptote

This struggle cannot succeed fully. Explaining a person completely requires more than any volume of texts, map of a genome, or philosophical treatise can hope to accomplish. To use language to connect completely the experiences and ideas of that complex being to those of another, much less to a broad expanse of readers, falls outside the possible.

Still, this challenge drives me and many other writers. How closely can language approximate our experiences, or how clearly lay them out for others to explore, discover, or—dare to dream—feel? We approach the goal, moving closer but never quite touching, riding that asymptote as far and as close as we can.

To me, this represents the thrill and frustration of writing: pushing ever closer to a connection we can at best partially achieve, by shrinking the space between in hope that writer and reader can see each other better, and that maybe, in the process, my examined life can become something I may begin myself to fathom. And I continue to write because I have a long way to go.