Not the kind you wear; the kind that cause something to happen. I guess like the kind you wear.

I'm asking myself lately what causes a poem.

A lot of poems seem based on events, or, when you go to poetry readings, you hear things like, "I wrote this while my cat was dying of cancer," or "I wrote this for my wife on her birthday." A lot of times, poems seem to have real causes in the world. A spur. Something happens, and then a poem begins.

Lately I have been trying to write poems that are not happenings.

Or, should I say, poems that are less about happenings and more about chance.

For example, this morning I was up with the sun (ugh), reading blogs, when I came upon the word "housewife" (or "housewives," can't remember which) on Kelli's blog, and I thought, yes. So I wrote the poem I later posted.

One day, looking through the google searches that bring folks here, I saw "lyric tattoo." That begged to be a poem. I wrote "Tattoo."

Rebecca sent me a poem called "Aperture," so I wrote a poem called "Aperture."

Do these poems matter? Is a poem made better by being more closely tied to the poet's life, or can a poet just riff? And if these are riffs, will anyone listen or will it seem like the noise before the opening act before the band you paid your $50 to see? I joke with my dad that the kind of jazz he likes sounds like the band is warming up to play the kind of jazz I like.

Are these warm-ups, or might they be real?

What about you all—do you riff, or are you spurred by reality?


  1. I riff on the spurs of reality, which is mostly illusion -- and I riff on being lonely, which is not, I'm afraid, an illusion.

    So, basically, I write about being lonely and slightly psychotic.

  2. Charles: "I joke with my dad that the kind of jazz he likes sounds like the band is warming up to play the kind of jazz I like." That is brilliant. Or at the very least really insightful.

    I riff and I spur, I guess. And the results are different kinds of poems, that I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to connect. Both in my mind, and in the book that I have in mind.

  3. Charlie, I think these days I need to be about riffs. The two most successful poems I've written lately were, for goodness' sake, about a Diet Coke ad and the Greta Garbo prose poem your Dietrich one sent me to.

    Partly I think, well, you know...I'm 30. I live with my 43-yr-old partner in suburban DE. I've got my chapbook repository of all-things-child and early adult-hood. This will sound bad--it isn't--but nothing's happening here. [grin] I think one reason I haven't been writing for years is because I was waiting for things to happen so I could write about them. Awful. And LAZY. And I think of, I think it was, Stephen Dunn's line in a poem about his mother's death--how he cursed himself that his first reaction was "Now I'll have a mother's death poem."

    Of course, your reality, your position, your identity in the world, is going to inform these riffs. They will not be without "message," I think.

    But I get the questioning. Riffs are a 100% new thing for me (at least writing them down is). Funny, I had a reading last weekend and one of the listeners asked, "So, were those poems about things that happened to you?" Oh, I hemmed and hawed for about 2 seconds. I said "I don't think I'm supposed to tell you that." [grin] Because they're supposed to be able to stand without knowing that they "really happened"--it felt like violating some poets' creed to admit to being the "I" there. Of course, at second 3 I said "Yes."

    Sorry for rambling. Or riffing. [grin] Good question.

  4. I would offer this slightly-tangential riff:

    The contemporary poetry community seems to be obsessed with product, above all else. I feel that, whatever the nature and/or quality of your work, there is nothing wrong with considering that work as constituted of 'exercises'.

    This is not to say that your prose poems, for example, are not quality poems. They certainly are. Rather, this is to speak of an orientation.

    To consider yourself a poet (as Frost spoke of) is a dangerous thing, in many ways; I think the most dangerous aspect of said consideration is that, in doing so, you are then regarding yourself as a 'master' of your fine art. (Rimshot!)

    But perhaps the orientation of the poet should be that of the apprentice -- working on the craft, with no eye toward 'product', or toward 'selling' or 'exhibiting'.

    It is no accident that the word cliche, for example, derives from the French word 'clicher', meaning "to click".

    The etymology of the word cliche is a historical poem of sorts: it derives from late 19th century French metalworkers, who began using it as it is now used to mimic the sound of a mould being dropped into metal, to make a stereotype. The meaning of the word is thus twofold:

    1.) Something which is unoriginal, etc.

    2.) Something which is WORTH REPRODUCING.

    These may seem to be contradictory, but they are not. Cliches are beautiful things, and things which were once original; when one stumbles upon a cliche in writing, then, the process is just as important as the result. Did you come to the cliche on your own? If yes, then take pride in it! Perhaps you did so in an original and interesting way -- young mathematicians often build their reputations upon this very thing.

    Too, the lack of originality means that the thing must often be thrown back into the metal -- hence the clicking -- and the worker must move on. (Watch me sound Zen:) One is only a master of a craft when one has reached the point of original production. To do so requires a great deal of exercise.

    Again: this is not to say that your new work is, in fact, an exercise, or that the poems don't matter. This is merely to assert that the product doesn't HAVE to matter.

    My opinion, though, is that they do. I'm enjoying them a great deal.

  5. Spurs:


  6. A lot of times I'll start riffing on one thing (a word, a phrase, a sound, a construction I want to play with) and when I put the pen down a while later I think, "gee, I didn't know I wanted to write about *that*!" (And sometimes I don't know what the "that" is until much later, when I'm reading the poem for the 85 billionth time and I realize, doh! that poem is about my father!)

    Other times I know *what* I want to write about, and the trick is to figure out how.

    I think that whatever brings you to a poem is valid, and the important thing is just to write, and let something -- whether it's the words, or the "cause in the world," or whatever -- surprise you along the way. I don't know -- it just doesn't seem productive to me to make rules about where poems should or shouldn't come from.

    (It does, however, seem productive to become aware of where your poems often come from, so you can put yourself in that situation more often. If that makes sense.)

  7. Reality spurs me, but not in the way you mean. I don't really write occasion poems. Often an image or a big abstract concept that I'm trying to work out is what sparks a poem and then I'll riff on it. Sometimes though I riff for fun and end up pleasantly surprised. Great post, Charlie.

  8. Another way of looking at this for me is not being spurred but being, sometimes, in it. Being inside poetry. When I'm in it then anything that passes me, that comes to my attention, everything, can be turned into poetry because it's how I'm seeing the world. This is when it's best, for me.

  9. Rebecca, I love that.

  10. Oh god, Rebecca, yes, exactly. I remember the first time I was vividly aware of being inside poetry and how the world looked as I walked through it that day, but I never put it into quite those words. But you nailed it, exactly.

  11. I think when I was younger (i.e. in my 20's) specific spurs, as you call them, would inspire me and I frequently would be overcome with the urge to write about and from them.... like many I fell prey to dry periods when I became dependent on those kinds of involuntary urges to get me going and nothing else seemed a legitimate way to go about it. As I have gotten older, hate to say, a certain "seen it/done it" syndrome has reduced the frequency of those inspiring provocations. With accumulated experience, tho, I have found that riffing has definitely gotten richer -- that is, I can more consistently tap into surprising depths by simply playing with language itself. Good question, one that I still think about quite a bit. I guess I miss my once frequent rides on those mind-blowing brainwaves kicked up by groundswells of experience...

  12. Being *inside* poetry seems like being in the flow that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about in his book.

    I'm a riffer. I used to write more about my life and that got dull, and I'd sometimes be addicted to facts instead of what made the art work.