from NYPL Digital Collections, by William Blake
Do you ever think about how poems look on the page? I confess I’m obsessed with this aspect of writing—how does it look? Are the lines relatively even? Or if the lines are irregular, are they regular in their irregularity? (For instance, stairstep poems, with specific, deliberate indentions?) If the poem is all over the page, why does it do that? What stylistically is being communicated?
Sometimes (call it a personal failing), if words are sprinkled over a page like pepperoni on a pizza, it annoys TF out of me, because it feels like, to me, the poet’s arbitrariness serves no aesthetic purpose (that I can tell…please, understand that there are about 1000 qualifiers, and I am speaking only for myself). (This anathema towards all-over-the-page poems has expanded the longer I’m Man. Ed. of AR—mainly because it’s so damn hard to typeset those poems…so I may be slightly biased for that reason.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about poems on the typed page compared to poems written in longhand. Yesterday, here at Rockvale, another poet and I were discussing this very topic—Kelly is a big believer in longhand. (She returned from the grocery with a pack of three yellow tablets too—which I know she’s going to fill probably just this week.) Other poets I know are Team Longhand as well—and it works for them. (Sharon Olds also writes her poems in longhand—Katie Farris does too, so really, why have I been so hardheaded?) As I mentioned the other day, I’ve been “getting messy” and only after I get a draft done longhand do I go back and type it into the computer. I save these “transcriptions” as “[Poem Title]: raw from notebook” and it has really surprised me.
Far from the regularity that I pride myself on the poem written on the computer, my poem lines written longhand are a variety of lengths (once they’re typed). It’s embarrassing how irregular the lines are. Sometimes, of course, this has to do because my handwriting is big and I run out of space on the line, so I carry it down to the next one…which makes one transcribed line huge, and the next one might be half as long. And it makes me realize that in typing a poem on the computer, I am constraining how the poem visually looks because of some arbitrary decision I have about how my poems should look. (God help a typed line that goes beyond 3.5”—I will butcher that bitch down to make sure I don’t pass that margin.)
To put it bluntly—my poems are constipated. They are uptight, overly controlled, and kind of anal. Typing, of course, I do for convenience’s sake—because I can type quickly, it’s not messy, and I can see what it will look like on the page. Immediately. But writing in longhand this week has really freed me. Now, not gonna lie, as soon as I type up the second draft (the one after the transcription, where I begin to tinker with the language, music, and lines), I do come up against that 3.5” margin issue again. I think I really just like poems to look like little blocks of regular text. (Sidenote, wombats poop in little square pellets—make of that what you will. And yes, you needed to know this fact.)
In fairness, I have to ask myself the same question: What stylistically is being communicated? Why do poems have to look this certain way for me? What is it about the uniformity that appeals to me? Am I trying to demonstrate that I’m an uptight person? Why would I want to do that? (To be honest, anyone who knows me, probably thinks that about me already—so I don’t really need to advertise that fact!)
But I really wonder, where did I learn that my poems need to look this certain way? And how can I break through this rigid form I’ve imposed on myself? Definitely writing longhand has shown me that when I’m not using the medium of the computer, my lines are more organic, more varied, more free-flowy. I don’t think anyone ever taught me to make little blocky poems—I must have just picked that up over the years and codified that into what a JC poem looks like.
Or maybe it’s all kind of psychological—maybe I’ve gravitated to that kind of shape because most of my life has been chaotic and at least if I’m consistent on form in my writing I can establish some control. Not sure where I’m going with this…kind of thinking out loud. But it’s definitely worthwhile to limber myself up and try different approaches to writing poems.
It’s ok to be expressive, even playful, in the visual aesthetic of a poem. That’s part of creativity too. I just need to remember that being open-minded about a poem’s shape can actually provide an unexpected path. And that can be exciting.