The Poetic Mind as a Muscle
As a poet at any given skill level, you might ponder different ways to advance your mastery of the craft. You might spend weeks dissecting famous and not so famous poets. You might read countless articles on poetic technique. You might just plow through any and every collection you can get your hands on, track all of the most well-know journals, follow all of the contemporaries. All of these things add up to a knowledgeable poet. However, does this necessarily make you a better poet?
No. The reason is that most of us equivocate poetic skill with divinely gifted talent. We often think of poetry as a latent ability that we merely possess or do not. This leads to certain diseases within the mind, whether it be the idea that our words are beyond reproach because they are "self expression," or we decide that words come out and that's all there is to it. Other times we are stricken by the undeniable flaws of our work, even to the point of becoming discouraged.
The problem? Most of us in this generation do not see our poetic mind as a muscle. Muscles, of course, benefit from careful and educated training. Lets break the concepts down into tangible processes to build upon our skill and improve.
The poet's workout:
As poets, we need to work our mind as much as bodybuilders need to work their muscle. The first thing we need to understand is that the worlds strongest men did not spontaneously decide that they could pull 18-wheelers and hurl boulders. It was a process of constantly challenging then resting their muscle tissue, forcing their body to repair and grow. The same processes apply to us as the aspiring poet. Most of us to not wake up one day and have a mastery of our favorite techniques without having worked hard to get there.
Athletes use stretching as a way to increase their blood-flow, prevent damage, increase flexibility, and nurture muscle growth. They do this daily as a stand-alone activity, before, after, and during workouts.
In nurturing our inner master-poet, we can't stretch our mind in the same way as we can our body. However, we can certainly stretch our mind by providing it with foreign thought. This can be as simple as reading the morning paper and pondering the implications of what we read, to reading the works of a controversial philosopher, or learning about an new approach to thought.
We want to try to think in new ways about things and continually dispel our preconceived notions. It is in this way that we lay the groundwork for a "superhighway of thought" which produced our own unique patterns. It is only through trying to understand things in new ways that we find the spirit of our own true understanding of things. This will carry over to the statements we produce when writing.
For a bodybuilder, form is essential to producing results. Form ensures the quality of our workouts. A builder must maximize the efficiency of each repetition. Continually increasing our poetic form and technique is crucial to achieving the same result. This is where, yes, we do study our techniques.
We must learn about different techniques, but we must exercise proper form when doing so. It is not proper form to learn of a technique then treat it as though it is a new "all-powerful" weapon. Beyond preference, we should not categorize a technique by its qualifying characteristics. A technique is not a good technique or a bad technique, it merely is. An evaluation one way or another either prevents a technique from being used at the right moment or ensures it's overuse. A technique must be allowed to merely exist. We are what we limit ourselves to being. If we do not limit ourselves, what, then, is there to say that we are not unlimited?
Time to Work
It is not necessarily enough that we learn of a technique's existence. One component of our workout must be the exercise of said techniques. This must not necessarily be aimed at producing a masterpiece or even a full poem, but it must be aimed at pushing one's own limits. Remember, we are building. We must continually stack the bricks higher if we are ever to reach heaven.
Our workouts must be full-bodied. If a bodybuilder would be mocked for having an overdeveloped upper body and disproportionate legs, how much more, then, would a poet who can produce a wonderful line but not a coherent statement or meaning? This is not to say that we do not need more work in one area or another. However, we should maintain and expand all areas of our poetic mind, whether it be our line construction, sentiment, images, metaphors or prosody?
Nutrition and Rest
I recommend for the aspiring poet a steady diet of life and poems. Once we have worked our poetic mind, we must, at all cost, provide it with nourishment and allow it to recover. The brain needs rest as much as the body. Take time. Read a new poet's work. Go out, live life. Ensure a steady supply of emotion and experience for the next time you write. Allow the mind time to build and it will allow you to move more weight the nest time you use it.
And now, the Show
What good does all of this do if we never get to use it? When, and only when, we are stricken with an idea that we feel the need to express, it is time to write. This is not a moment to be forced. We will know when it is time. The true poet will have laid the groundwork to make the most of this moment. Will you?