About Exercises

What are exercises? Ways to write by indirection. Why not directly? Because it can't be done. For one thing, feeling has no language. To write about your feeling, you have to be indirect about it. No one ever wrote during a heart attack or while making love. We all want to express our feelings directly (except when we're trying to hide them), but that expression is apt to come in the form of a sigh, a facial expression, a scream, a shrug. To write your feelings, you have to translate them into words-words alone-and you have to do most of it after the fact, or as Wordsworth said, recollecting them "in tranquility."

Writing about your feelings in a poem is, then, an indirect maneuver, but it's one that allows you to both recollect your feeling and come to some understanding of it. In addition, over the centuries, poets have increased the degree of indirection (or, if you will, separation) by giving themselves complicated forms in which to write. Do feelings come in 14-line packages? No. But when you have put your feelings into such a package, you have made something out of them. This partly explains why one of the oldest words for poet is "maker." In a poem you hammer away at your feelings to see where they are hard and true and also where they are weak and flabby. Emotional flab occurs when you write about feelings that aren't really or deeply yours, i.e., feelings you'd like to have or feelings that make you look good. One of the best ways to slim down emotionally is to give yourself a second task to do while grappling with your feeling, such as a sonnet or some rhymed quatrains or an elaborate analogy ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?")

Many exercises serve a similar purpose. They give your brainy, mechanical mind something to do or distract it from guarding, i.e., suppressing, your subconscious long enough for the latter to slip a message or an image out from between the bars of its compound. The kind of exercise popular with poetry-writing teachers these days generally avoids the mathematics of traditional form and instead encourages students to play in some way, since it is in play that our inhibitions often drop. Play can be serious business, as with wolf cubs rolling in the grass and biting one another. Whatever else they are doing, they are developing hunting skills. We play when we take things apart to see how they work. Poems are often places where poets take emotions apart to find out what they are and how they work. Play is also an activity where they try doing something a different way because the old way isn't working.

In truth, you should not expect much more from an exercise than the discovery of some surprising new image, rhythm, or tone of voice from which you might then build a poem. They are quite useful when one is stuck.

As a postscript, I should say that I am not advocating the abandonment of traditional forms. I still believe what Ezra Pound said almost a hundred years ago, that poets should have a working knowledge of the meters, even if they turn away from them in their life's work.