TOWARD A METHOD OF COMPOSITION
There’s a vast difference between creation and composition. Creation gets it down on the page while composition is a long process. Composition has many stages—first creation, then editing and peer review, which alternate until a poem finds its form.
The poet Marvin Bell offers a key to the creation of poetry: to begin we must give ourselves permission to move a pen over paper and let the ink run where it will. Leave it in the notebook. Tear it out if you must. But write. And in the act of writing, momentum builds from which the prima materia of poetry will emerge. Creation is the first step.
Next comes editing—the long process of boiling down, refining and condensation. The art of editing is like the distillation of a rare spirit. It’s the discipline of showing up in the morning for your shift at the condensery.
Give yourself permission to create now and edit later. Write the good the bad and the shitty. Nothing’s permanent. Go back later to edit, to compose, to polish. Attempting to create poetry while mentally editing does little more than cause writer’s block. We all have felt boredom accumulating under our seats while the clock ticks thunder behind a blank stare. Frustration smoldering. Behold the gaping nada happening on the page. Ecco! Get that hand moving—something much easier to do when out from under the crippling expectation that a gem ought to materialize fully formed. Most of your best poetry will not emerge for another ten revisions. Composition is a long process. Mind extends out into the tip of a pen and moves. Conflating creation with composition is the quickest way to halt this miracle of motion before it has a chance to begin.
To creation and editing I would add criticism, thus making a trinity of composition. Peer review strengthens a text through opposition. Many minds pounding away at a piece can only make what remains more robust. Pound said, “If the stone isn’t hard enough to maintain the form, it has to go out.” We work so long, with so little reward that the temptation to flatter and take our strokes where we may sometimes overwhelms our purpose. Ego rots. But the work remains. Misplacing our focus, attention goes from the work to the writer. In a sort of reverse ad hominem, we gush. We fail our office to create vibrant, healthy language by withholding criticism and allowing literature to decay. Living language becomes a husk—next stop, abattoir [read: the evening news]. Is it any wonder that Everyman ignores poetry, leaving us to our own inbred audience?
The hotter the flames purge, the brighter our phoenix. Like uncle Ez said—If the rock can’t hold the form, it must go out with the rest.
Jean Cocteau on opposition—
Fighting stimulates us, whereas a kindly disposed public sends us to sleep.
We continually need a wall, as in a game of ‘pelota’, in order to carry out our game, either alone, or with or against others. It is this that brings down on us the reproach, now of arrogance if the wall we have selected is a masterpiece universally respected—now maliciousness if our wall is a ‘master’.
But in no case is either masterpiece or master a target. The wall in the game of ‘pelota’ is not the target. We are not playing with arrows that stick in, but with balls that bounce off. No one in the Basque country ever feels sorry for the wall. It is precisely in order not to have to feel sorry for the wall, or spoil it, or make holes in it, or split it, that we choose strong ones, upon which even the hardest balls leave no mark.
Let me run and jump about and take my exercise.
Professional Secrets, COCTEAU’S WORLD, p. 380