Saturday, May 5, 2012

Brilliance, Brick by Brick

In the latest issue of The Writer's Chronicle, while discussing with interviewer Heather Sappenfield the difficulty of recording her thoughts on the fly, Bonnie Jo Campbell comments, "Generally, though, I've trained my body and mind to bring me insights in the morning, when I'm sitting down and writing, seven days a week. Other people, poets especially, get brilliant ideas continually, and they write them into their lovely little Moleskines. Maybe that's the difference between poets and fiction writers. Maybe a lot of us fiction writers have our creative lives more regimented. Of course that's a gross generalization, and I disapprove of such a broad claim, even as I stand by it."

First and foremost, how wonderful to think of myself as receiving "brilliant ideas continually"—a truer statement there never was!

I say this in jest, of course. Certainly poets and fiction writers alike—arguably all people—receive brilliant ideas only to have them fall by the wayside. This occurs for folks while in the shower, perhaps, or on the treadmill, or while gazing longingly at the mountains while on their way to work at seven a.m. The mind is a terrible mishmash of thought, and for every million quotidian ideas passing through, there must be at least one cerebral stroke of brilliance. Maybe I'm an optimist. I don't know. As a poet, and per Ms. Campbell's comment, I'm probably biased.

Really what I find notable about her comment is the notion (and why one would arrive it) that poets are struck by brilliant ideas more easily than are fiction writers, who, as Campbell suggests, may live their "creative lives more regimented." I must say I'm a poet, and my creative life is intensely regimented. My routine follows Campbell's pretty much to a T: up at 3:45 a.m., on the Mac by 4-ish, write until I either have to get ready for work or the kids are awake requiring their daddy, and attempt to do this seven days a week until I feel the breaking point coming on...then I chill out for a couple days or thereabouts and play on the Xbox. I'm a slave to that process and work it diligently. If I don't, then the writing just doesn't get done, and those brilliant ideas—should they ever grace me—are lost forever.

I think the key to this idea of brilliance has less to do with the quality of the idea itself and more with the nature of the genres aforementioned. Poetry is built sort of brick by brick. Even though the poem itself may exist in a larger context—as a brick does within its wall—the working of the poem is done in the microcosm of the line or passage, somewhat removed from the larger piece—I think, anyway—then, it's grouted in accordingly. After all the bricks are set, after all the lines are in place, the poem turns out to be more than the sum of its parts--that's the magic in a good poem—yet, we can't often turn to a single word-brick and say that's it! Even when numerous strokes of brilliance are present, we can't viably do this.

We can, however, point out said brilliant strokes, perhaps creating the illusion that poets come by them more frequently than fiction writers. We can find the stellar image, sound, line, passage of a piece. This is due to a poem's brick-by-brickiness, which allows the brilliance to be more visible than it would be in a piece of prose wherein it's lost in a larger box of paragraphs, which don't force attention back on the (brilliant) language the way a line of poetry does.

And, quite frankly, I think many poets including myself begin a poem by latching onto just such a brilliant brick--once again creating the illusion that we come by one more frequently than fiction writers. But this is a consequence of a poet's attention to language and a fiction writer's attention to story. Because poems are inseparable from their language—I argue a poem is its language—all a poet needs to begin is a word. That's it. As God decreed, clearly with poets in mind, "In the beginning was the word." And that's it. Just that one thing.

Fiction, though, that's another matter. Fiction uses language, but as far as I can tell it's rooted to its story line, not its words. I mean let's face it—a story can be rehashed numerous ways and still be the same story with the same plot, characters, and so on. A writer's use of language will affect the quality of the piece, but not necessarily the quality of the story itself. This is why novels like Twilight can be such a hit. Clearly, language is not a concern there. This is why we can have abridged versions of any longer fiction, low-level reading versions of Moby Dick for grade-schoolers. You won't find the equivalent for "Song of Myself." It can't be done. You change the language, you change the poem. You've got something else now.

It's for this reason, too, that a story can be quasi-summarized within a sentence or two and certainly very adequately within a paragraph. It's nearly impossible to summarize a poem in such a short space—even maybe in a longer space. You can discuss a poem, sure. But it may be impossible to summarize. You just have to read/experience the damn thing.

So, do brilliant ideas come to us poets more readily than they do to fiction writers? Probably. But there's a reason for it, and though it pains me to say this--it's not because poets are more brilliant than fiction writers (alas) but because poetry is more brilliant than fiction (hooray!).

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