Bell's palsy, er, maxims -- he says about writing poetry but they seem to be about poets:

1. Every poet is an experimentalist.

Hardly. But what does it mean to be an experimentalist? I for one think about the idea of the writing of poetry as a test for preconceived notions as the heart of "experiment." However, by turning toward critical theory and whatnot, I think it is a poet's responsibility to know / intend / (be able to) interpret / be able to read or float a decent reading of her own poetry. I'm not saying that poetry isn't "making it new," I'm saying that poetry -- even very open poetry -- is beyond experiment, is not just a test.

2. Learning to write is a simple process.

Learning to write is not a difficult process, but it is not process with an end (other than writings) or a unitary process, but many, many processes.

3. There is no one way to write and no right way to write.

4. The good stuff and the bad stuff are all part of the stuff. No good stuff without bad stuff.

Well, there is taking a risk, and there is the poet's responsibility to be able to tell the worst from the rest and the best from the rest in her own work, and there is the stuff and I would say only the best stuff is actually poetry.

5. Learn the rules, break the rules, make up new rules, break the new rules.

Why this focus on rules? Isn't the pleasure of poetry one beyond rules? Isn't only the beginning of learning to write poetry rule-bound? What is meant by "rules" here?

6. You do not learn from work like yours as much as you learn from work unlike yours.

You learn from your own work and you learn from the work of others, but you learn more if you try to learn, and that includes reading carefully, with understanding, and recognising the tasks of writing the other writings are putting before themselves.

7. Originality is a new amalgam of influences.

Well, actually, origin is about beginnings. While DNA is inescapable, it is possible to be original without reference to "positive" influence, but rather with negative capability or negative influence, i.e., I set out to write what hadn't been read by me before, or to be unlike x, etc.

8. Try to write poems at least one person in the room will hate.

Try to write poems without reference to people or rooms. Since most writing is performed in solitude, try not to hate your own writing or yourself too too much. You'll drive yourself nuts.

9. The I in the poem is not you but someone who knows a lot about you.

Uh. what???

10. Autobiography rots.

Uh. what???

11. A poem listens to itself as it goes.

It is true -- this is a big reason not to always write poems from the "top down" or "left to right."

12. It's not what one begins with that matters; it's the quality of attention paid to it thereafter.

Well, it is good if you start with something.

13. Language is subjective and relative, but it also overlaps; get on with it.


14. Every free verse writer must reinvent free verse.

15. Prose is prose because of what it includes; poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.

What does poetry leave out? Poetry includes more than prose.

16. A short poem need not be small.

17. Rhyme and meter, too, can be experimental.

In what way? Can iambic pentameter in service of a narrative in plain syntax be experimental? Nope.

18. Poetry has content but is not strictly about its contents. A poem containing a tree may not be about a tree.

19. You need nothing more to write poems than bits of string and thread and some dust from under the bed.

Wow, and some lame masculine rhymes like "bed" and "thread." You need knowledge, practice, and awareness to write decent poems. Writing poems by happy accident take a lot of work -- to place yourself in the way of happenstance is not easy.

20. At heart, poetic beauty is tautological: it defines its terms and exhausts them.

21. The penalty for education is self-consciousness.

Why is consciousness a penalty? That seems very freudian to me.

22. What they say "there are no words for"--that's what poetry is for. Poetry uses words to go beyond words.

23. One does not learn by having a teacher do the work.

How does this reflect on Bell's ideas of influence earlier? I'm confused. Is he only talking about writing poetry in a workshop or in the "ghost of a workshop"?

24. The dictionary is beautiful; for some poets, it's enough.

Enough for -- what? Beautiful enough? Who are these poets?

25. Writing poetry is its own reward and needs no certification. Poetry, like water, seeks its own level.

This to me is two different ideas. "Writing poetry is its own reward" is an idea independent of quality. I think of older Americans not educated in writing, not having pursued a long term literary writing and reading practice, who write poems about their memories and thoughts for themselves and their families. Write poems in semi-isolation, and perhaps your family will appreciate them; they will certainly say they do. It is like making your "famous pot roast." Maybe your family is sort of sick of it, and it is kind of greasy, but they don't want to hurt your feelings. Maybe, being raised on your pot roast, they like it because it reminds them of something, but no one else would, and even your family might -- as food qua food -- prefer something else. Maybe your "famous pot roast" like your poems, are a lie. Or maybe you are an undiscovered "outsider" chef.

Poetry, like other stuff, does not seek anything. People seek things, like "levels" in a hierarchical view.

Also, the cream doesn't rise to the top if it is hydrogenized.

26. A finished poem is also the draft of a later poem.

No, but you can write the same poem over and over, and you can learn from old poems -- the poems themselves -- although it is more likely you learn from the act of writing them.

27. A poet sees the differences between his or her poems but a reader sees the similarities.

28. Poetry is a manifestation of more important things. On the one hand, it's poetry! On the other, it's just poetry.

29. Viewed in perspective, Parnassus is a very short mountain.

30. A good workshop continually signals that we are all in this together, teacher too.

Again, just pointing out that this isn't about writing poetry, but academic workshop poetry and what I like to call crap" but many would call more politely "the ghost of workshop poetry," "open mike poetry," "nonacademic workshop poetry," or "exercise poetry."

31. This Depression Era jingle could be about writing poetry: Use it up / wear it out / make it do / or do without.

32. Art is a way of life, not a career.


Chris Vitiello said…
Hey Catherine, where do these maxims come from?
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