My writing tends toward condensation. When I write poems, I never trickle onto the second page. When I write stories, they almost never exceed a thousand words — and they’re often just a single paragraph. This interest in the tiny and the compact has a practical foundation. I lead a busy life — and I doubt I have the concentration and stamina to pull off writing something like War and Peace. Generally speaking, this interest in the miniature and the distilled extends to my reading life as well. Couldn’t Chapter 8 of Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading be understood if he gave us just this sentence: “Incompetence will show in the use of too many words.” And when we want to refresh our memory of, say, T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” doesn’t a review of our own underscorings get us just as far as a rereading the whole thing?
I certainly don’t want to argue against the beauty and the necessity of long works. But there’s much that can be appreciated without them. It’s in this spirit that I offer up the following maxims and observations — it’s an effort to avoid my having to write 30 essays explaining my positions, and an effort to keep you from having to read those essays:
- Don’t regard any maxim too highly. Its opposite is equally true. If you haven’t heard it yet, that’s because no one has stated it cleverly enough. Consider this an assignment.
- Every good poem has form. To say otherwise is like saying some water doesn’t have temperature.
- On setbacks: You can’t sing with a broken jaw, but you can learn to play the piano.
- The impulse that begins a poem is almost never strong enough to finish it. You must be willing to let go of what ceases to be useful—like laying down your walking stick when the crags turn into plains.
- Some poems fail because of just one word — as troubling as a hornet on the railing of a crib.
- One vase lets you see the scum and filmy water that power the bouquet of goldenrod. Another one doesn’t. Which is better? Beauty or the beauty that tells us where it comes from?
- When compiling a book, it is best to start with a large pile of poems—the survivors will need something to rise above.
- To have successful poems over the long haul, you must be the kind of person who dusts the furniture when there is no hope of visitors.
- Poets collect themselves into schools for the same reasons as fish: safety in numbers, a flash in the shallows.
- On lacking inspiration: The pearl diver comes up with nothing almost every time. And still he goes down hugging a boulder, his prybar at the ready.
- On publication: A first book is like gristle coughed onto your plate. Getting it out lets you keep breathing, but nobody wants to pick it up.
- On rejection: It is the favor for which we never think to ask. It is the chance to make things better.
- To complain that poetry is too accessible is to complain that the streets are too efficiently plowed after a sudden and devastating February snow. A good poem tells us the way.
- A purist is someone incapable of progress.
- We must continue to write even when the poems are shitty. Stabbing at dirt will polish a knife.
- Every pearl began as irritation.
- She recited the prayer by rote, making him think her soul had a bar code.
- The predictable occurrence of stressed and unstressed syllables becomes more pleasing when the pattern is violated, here and there. We prefer a bouquet with a few broken petals for the same reason. We don’t guess for a moment it might be fake.
- The thing that is most accessible is not always the best material for a poem. There’s a reason the pyramids were not constructed of sand.
- On listening to poetry that I know is not: The wind can howl in the midnight pines but morning will find them standing.
- Details should be chosen as carefully as if you were covering up a murder. A poem is a lie you must make the world believe.
- There is a difference between the predictable and the probable, between the vague and the mysterious, between deviation and variation. The poet must learn when each is acceptable. Reading widely helps.
- Exclamation points are too often a cry of wolf. I prefer people to scream when they are actually on fire.
- Some poems end like surgery—the problem solved, the pain a memory, the stitching so tight that nothing leaks. Other poems end like a diagnosis.
- We respond to clichés the way we respond to form letters and junk mail — something the writer didn’t bother to craft, a kind of boilerplate for the soul.
- Having too strict a meter can be like having the bass up so high on your stereo that you can’t make out the harpsichord. Too loose a meter can be like static.
- There are no five-leggers. Nature prefers symmetry.
- Of course, poetry should strive to substantiate truth in particulars, but it is possible to be too particular. Think of the person who gives crowded directions. He risks our safe arrival by making us read through the intersections.
- About sestinas: In all but the best, the uninitiated finds them vaguely repetitive, the expert finds them predictable.
- Too many poets still use “heart” to mean the seat of love and desire and passion. This is archaic. A heart should show up in a poem only as something that beats beside a surgeon’s blade. When we hear the word misused, it’s like watching a man put on a hat so long out of style it’s laughable. We turn away.
Charles Rafferty’s new short story collection, Saturday Night at Magellan’s, is available here: http://fomitepress.com/FOMITE/Magellans.html.
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