Daily Archives: 01/02/2009

Voices, Borders and Border Crossers

Writing poetry is a very personal act.  Each poet struggles in his own way to seek what is poetic, to capture it despite the frailty of words.  Failure is more frequent than resounding success.  But one tries again and again.  One learns from those who had previously taken the journey of writing poetry by listening to their words, like following  the echoes of voices and footsteps in the half-dark.

Certainty and predictability are not often the traits of poetry.   There is something like a dance when one engages in the pursuit of poetry.  Or it could be compared to the hunt for an elusive magical creature that always manages to escape one’s grasp.  And as in the writing, the reading of poetry is a personal act.  With just a few words a voice not your own enters your being and may lay an unsettling silence.


When I was starting to write, a teacher told me that breaking up sentences into shorter lines on a page does not automatically convert the piece into poetry.  There has to be more than that.  Even if one attempts to use specific forms of poetry – those with “structures” such as set rhyme and/or rhythm, syllable counts, etc – the piece may remain prose and not really poetry.  Or something worse:  neither.

Poetry has something that prose doesn’t often possess in quite the same way.  Metaphors, the common tool of poets, take on a different life as they are conjured in the mind of the reader.  Something familiar and at the same time quite alien and unknown.

There is an immediacy in experiencing poetry.  With so few words you are instantly struck by something.  Made to stop in your tracks.  You may not know what it is straightaway, but there is something that you sense you should at least pause for and not just walk away from.

Prose on the other hand tends to be more direct.  It tries to mean what it says right there on the page.  The words are like rails for a train.  They take you to a destination.  Whether it is the end of a story or the various points for an argument, the words in prose are easy to navigate.  There is little room for failure to comprehend, unless it is a terribly written piece of prose.

Years ago an African author, Ben Okri, won the Booker Prize for his novel The Famished Road.   He later on released a book of poetry called An African Elegy.  I’m a slow reader, but I managed to read both.  A rare feat for me.  Then something struck me when I noticed what he did with one poem.  It came straight out of a page of his novel, just broken into shorter lines.  I was devastated right there and then.  I hated him for recycling his own work.  I gave up on him.

The late Raymond Carver, acclaimed short story writer and dubbed the American Chekhov, came to my life after I saw the film “Short Cuts.”  Director Robert Altman took poetry and prose by Carver and turned it into an intriguing film, with multiple stories running into each other.  It led me to a search of Carver’s fiction, and then his poetry.  I felt something unnerving in his words:  lines that captured in such clarity the lives of people on an intimate journey, the moments of their turning into someone else.  A light somewhere despite the gathering darkness.

I prefer his poetry to his fiction.  His posthumously released last book of poetry, A New Path to the Waterfall,  was introduced by his widow, the poet Tess Gallagher.  She wrote about how Carver discovered poetry in Anton Chekhov’s fiction.  He broke up some sentences from a story and found lines of poetry,  not unlike the type of poetry that he himself had been writing.

After that I knew I had to give Ben Okri another chance.  I saw that I was wrong in judging him so hastily.  He is one of those rare writers who can conjure magic on the page, whether it is poetry or fiction.  His prose is highly poetic, and some in fact are sheer poetry.

Recently I discovered Okri’s book of essays, A Way of Being Free.  A slim book, it is nonetheless a wonderful source of enlightenment for those seeking to capture or at least get a glimpse of what is poetic.  He reaffirms the power of words to move us into seeing deeper into our own lives and, in a mysterious way, enables us to break down the prisons of time and history.  A must read for anyone who wants to understand the importance of the creative spirit in a world that is often darkened by politics and destruction.

Borderline cases of poetry/prose do exist.  But they are rare.  Beginning writers are bound to fail as they navigate into the realm of poetry, crashing into prose or into something no one can comprehend.

In poetry, it has been said, each poet has a unique voice.  It is partly what the reader might hear in their heads as they read a poem.  But how does a beginning writer find that particular voice inside?

The first thing to do is to seek what others have done before.  Listen to their voices that reveal their intimate worlds.  Perhaps look for poems written originally from another language for they often come out more powerful as they rely greatly on the images of the world from which they came:  alien and familiar at the same time.

Then forget about them when you seek your own.


An early version of this piece first appeared on Helium.