Apr 26

Silence as a Tool in Poetry

Missouri Writers' Guild annual conference was last weekend in Chesterfield, well-organized with very good speakers and fantastic attendance including writers from neighboring states as far away as Arizona who came to talk to the editors and agents. I volunteered to "shepherd" speaker Walter Bargen, first poet laureate of Missouri (2008-2010), author of 14 poetry books, and attended both his seminars including the fascinating "Silence in Poetry," a topic I'd never considered in any depth. Here are some of his valuable insights into silence in poetry, each worth a ponder:
  • The difference between poetry and prose is silence.
  • Every poem is written on a backdrop of silence.
  • The poem is packaged in silence.
  • Rap is poetry that is afraid of silence.
  • Silence is not monolithic; there are different kinds.
  • Between every written word there is silence.
  • Learning how to break lines is learning how to handle silence.

Jun 27

After Walter Bargen's Critique

Walter Bargen’s critique of a poem I brought to the St. Louis Poetry Center Workshop shifted my philosophy of revision. He said, You use too many words. Get it going with the first line. Make sure that in every line something happens. Shorten your sentences. Cut every word and phrase not absolutely needed. With these in mind I revised and think I improved the poem. Its first two stanzas will illustrate. See what you think:

Before:

Seekers and pilgrims leave rosaries and coins
at each of the seven grottoes engineered
like sand castles, frenzied
in conception and scale,

each begetting another, life-sized, more sensual:
a stone tent for the slumbering plaster disciples;
for the satiny skins of the plaster Pietá
a stone canopy inlaid with bottle glass and scallop shells;

After:

Seekers and pilgrims leave rosaries, coins.
The seven grottoes engineered
like sand castles, frenzied
in conception and scale,

shelter strangely sensual scenes.
Plaster disciples slumber
beneath a canopy of masonry
chased with beach glass and scallop shells,

May 08

The Poet Laureate of Missouri Said

Walter Bargen is the Poet Laureate of Missouri, the first one ever appointed. Notes taken during his talk to the St. Louis Writers Guild preserved some of the intriguing things he said:
  • "The role of the writer in society is to keep us awake."
  • "Poetry is like music; talking about it is not experiencing it."
  • "Each first line [of a poem] is an argument for the poem's existence." (For example: "About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters. . ."; "You don't remember the hanging, but you do. . ."; "Each lover has a theory of his own . . .")
  • "It's rhythm that marches your reader through the poem."
  • "You know you're really writing well when you're surprising yourself."
Also in my notes, not a direct quotation, maybe an on-the-spot inspiration: "IDEA: Read poetry to stones, birds, and trees." Read a post-seminar interview with Walter Bargen here.