Monday, May 10, 2010


[image: Miriam Brysk, "In Bloom"]

Rick Bursky teaches a poetry workshop at UCLA extension. Here is some of what he's collected for his students.


You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. Forget inspiration. Being a writer/poet is a decision. You decide, then you do the work. ~ Rick Bursky

Fiction is the art of the story, poetry is the art of language.

“Narrative is like an almond in a chocolate bar, nice but not necessary.”
~ Charles Wright.

If not narrative, what? Imagery ~ Rick Bursky

“Poetic language … can be defined first as language in which the sound of the words is raised to an importance equal to that of their meaning, and also equal to the importance of grammar and syntax.” ~ Kenneth Koch

“The novel relates; the poem tries to leave as much unsaid as possible.” ~ Charles Simic

“There’s no preparation for poetry. Four years of grave digging with a nice volume of poetry or a book of philosophy in one’s pocket would serve as well as any university.” ~ Charles Simic


I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war

don't lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you're older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity

just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice

he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally

it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop

he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry

he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention

I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't

you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write
~ W.S. Merwin


Is becoming a poet a conscious decision? Has this been anyone's experience? I tend to agree with Cecilia Woloch: We don't choose whether or not we write, and we don't choose what we write about.

I think our central themes, our obsessions, are not a matter of choice. No matter what the workshop prompt, I soon find myself writing about one or more of my central themes. There seems to be no escape.

But we can decide to become better poets. To accomplish this, we need to read more poetry -- and to re-read and re-read those poets who delight us most. Don't worry about a conscious acquisition of craft. When you read slowly and in depth, going over the text many times, you acquire a model, a matrix that will later serve your own writing.

If you've attended my Magee workshop at the Carlsbad Library, you already know that I strongly disagree with the anti-narrative school of poetry. The statement by Charles Wright, however, was enlightening in a different way: I finally understand why his work, beyond the first volume, is so boring. His skill with imagery is wonderful, but without a narrative thread, however slight, the image just don't stay in the reader's mind.

Imagery is limitless: it can go on and on. An imagery-based poem can start anywhere and end anywhere -- without at least some ghost of a story, it doesn't matter. Story, like structure, is a limiting factor. Limiting factors help us grasp meaning.

True, a story in a poem is (or should be) different from a story as told in fiction. Generally, in a poem you go for a NARROW SLICE, a close-up, a single small incident. Don't enumerate everything that happened at Uncle Tony's funeral; choose one memorable moment, then go in depth.

I agree about the importance of the unsaid, though I am not sure that the line between poetry and fiction is quite so firm. A good prose writer also leaves quite a bit unsaid.

What Simic says about grave digging sounds very cute, but it evades the issue of the poet's need for a rich mentality. To have a rich mentality, you generally need both reading and interesting experiences. Still, there is no predicting which experience will haunt you enough to make you write a poem. But that's the adventure of poetry. That's why writing poetry is more of a high than writing prose: it's unpredictable, a gift. As Lynn Luria said to me, "When you write a poem, you rise to the ceiling. When you write a short story, you can also rise to the ceiling, but holding all the furniture."

I invite your feedback.

Each time I read a rule or axiom regarding poetry, I say yes, that's it, that's the truth. Then I stumble upon a quote, or another poet's thought, and it is the polar opposite. Not a contradiction. Just a different p.o.v. I say, now that's what I mean, that's the truth. In poetry, we make up rules and we break them. We make statements of profundity and believe them. Then something else rears its head and that too is true. I guess what I'm saying is, that poetry is forever in motion, making itself up time and time again, variations on so many themes.

I do love the "narrative braiding" of B.H. Fairchild. That's his term for what he accomplishes with his stories: the weaving of narrative and lyric. How the two may begin separately and join up down the course of the poem, then making a fabric of story and sound. Dorianne Laux does this as well; Ellen Bass; Linda Pastan; Gerald Stern. I love the idea of the braiding, and I agree with you, Oriana, that a poem should have a narrative thread. But then again, I've written and read poems which have mood, and music, and provoke strong emotion without the backstory. See? I contradict myself. That's poetry!

Yes, it seems that everything we say about poetry resembles what we say about other huge realms (love, life, America) -- it's both true and false.

I use the term "interweave" rather than "braiding," but I think Fairchild and I mean the same thing. The word TEXT is related to TEXTILE. It means "something woven." You need the warp and the woof. You can't have a satisfying poem that's composed only of the limitless elements (music, imagery, imagination in the sense of a mental realm), or only of the limiting elements (story and structure -- such a poem would be prosy and pedestrian). Poetry is "something woven" from the limiting and limitless elements.

Poems without some narrative, however slight, do not appeal to me -- I can't think of an exception. Poems with too few verbs in them are usually static, lacking movement, much less that kind of velocity that makes a poem seem inevitable, flowing by itself.

This goes against the current trend toward clever, emotionally aloof, meaningless poems, poems that appear to throw unusual images together for no special reason, in no particular order. There may be momentary pleasure in reading such work, a brilliant phrase here and there. But there is no emotional power. Even the occasional brilliant phrase will be forgotten because the brain seeks pattern, seeks meaning.

A bit of narrative goes a long way toward being that thread of meaning on which to slip the beads of relevant images. The irrelevant ones drop away. Instead of a confusing complexity, we have a marvelous simplicity. In great art, we can even speak of a radical simplicity. That kind of simplicity contains an infinities.

But I hasten to add that there are wonderful poems where a non-narrative element is dominant. Hirsch's early poems show a dominance of imagery and music, mood and mystery. And yet these are hardly poems in which nothing happens. There is coherence and closure. Still, must admit it's the imagery and music that hypnotize me into a kind of trance by which I recognize true poetry.

Nevertheless, I think his best book is Lay Back the Darkness. That volume has luminous clarity, in contrast to the dark, clotted density that tends to plague poems built primarily on imagery. The imagery is still rich -- Hirsch is obviously a master of the lyrical image. But the imagery is wonderfully integrated with the narrative. The poems are transparent, and yet they still have that hypnotic effect on me. 

Charles Wright's statement explains a lot about his poetry. I've loved his language (the images and sounds) but couldn't understand the poems.

"No trace of a story line" is a line from "The Southern Cross." A trace can be found here and there, but not enough to stay in memory. This is the problem that came with assuming that poetry consisted of imagery. No matter how exquisite the images, you have to slip them onto a narrative thread and discernible structure.

I especially like the concept of the "unsaid." As you know people always ask for more in my work, but I say fill in the spaces as the reader chooses. And I agree with "why point out a thing twice." Reminds me of Basho --"why tell everything" -- I like white space in paintings and consider what's left out in poetry as our white space. There is great importance to the unsaid.

Passion is what makes poetry. No matter how well crafted a poem is, if it lacks passion it's lifeless on the page. Needs mouth to mouth and even then cannot be resuscitated. I especially like it when someone says my poetry has "heart" by that I hope they mean passion. Got an email this morning – someone said my poem "Matthew" haunts them.

You know how I feel about imagery, that's what I look for in poetry as much as language. Following the imagery is the adventure of poetry at least for me as the writer.

And how right you are about "there is no escape" from our central themes, they pursue us all of our lives and whatever a prompt is and I usually use my own I still revert to my original obsessions.


Imagery is definitely not enough for me. I have to have a bit of narrative on which the imagery is draped. So many poems have good imagery but such scant and/or uninteresting narrative that pretty soon I don't remember anything about the poem. Compared to poems that I remember forever, the purely "imagistic" poems haven't created enough meaning; they haven't delivered enough discovery and surprise.  

1 comment:

  1. Here's a link to Rick Bursky's fine chapbook: