epistolary verse

[estimated reading time 7 minutes]

i’m often accused of being anti-tradition. i’m not. i’m just anti-useless-tradition. if we’re going to do something the way it was done in the past, it has to still be relevant for the future. for example, it’s not a useful treatment for the flu to cut open your body and let the blood drain out in the hope the sacrifice will convince a mythical entity to grant you freedom from the torture of the plague visited on your head. sailing is not a sensible way to travel to another continent, as much as you might enjoy the idea of being at the mercy of the wind for the first few hours until you discover just how far away africa is from the east-coast of maine. and phones with physical keyboards are about as useless in the modern age of fullscreen apps as mammillary glands on an aging stallion (or, if you’re from the south, tits on a boar-hog).

but there are many traditions whose effects are still incredibly valid and useful today. as you know if you’ve read many of my articles on the subject, i love handtool woodworking. being one with the tree. often mitigated by a brief excursion to the electron-friendly land of the bandsaw. still, though, using a saw today is no different from how it was wielded a millennium ago — even two, in many cases, though the materials are thankfully a lot better now and i don’t have to forge my own — if you’re a blacksmith, i have immense respect for you and know without a doubt i simply can’t take the heat or the pounding but i’m always happy to watch it done cause it’s fascinating.

as a writing teacher, though, few of these traditions ever show up as useful. traditional english has no place in the modern world. actually, it has no place in any world. if you encounter traditional english, there is only one way to face it and survive — burn it to the ground. eliminate all traces of arcane grammar and vocabulary, inverted structure and performance-formality. decry understatement and vagueness and simplify the language to make it what we know and love today as the useful method of communication that spans an entire world.

but how does that mesh with being a poet? poetry is the language of the ages. and when i tell people my most recent book (actually, my most recent half-dozen) is a collection of contemporary poetry and much of my translation work is actually poetry in translation, they look at me funny. then they ask a simple question — “but isn’t that traditional?”. and the answer is simply no.

poetry is the art of taking beautiful language and divorcing it from its need to tell a story. narrative poetry is definitely a thing but the point of a poetry isn’t that it doesn’t tell a story but that it doesn’t have to. it can simply sound nice. or show beautiful images. snapshots or videos from life that convey something to the reader. poetry is emotion without the need for anything else. it doesn’t have to have a plot or characters or a moral or an explanation or even a reason. it can have some or all of them. but it’s unnecessary.

but here’s one thing it certainly doesn’t have to have — and if you’re intelligent it should absolutely never have. traditional language. this is one of the greatest plagues of modern writing — people trying to imitate the past. and there’s nowhere this is more painfully prevalent than in poetry. you see ridiculous displays of formality and confusion just to make things sound “poetic”. it doesn’t make it sound poetic, people. it makes it sound stupid, stilted and detracts from its beauty. remember, poetry isn’t a walk down the lanes of the past. and it’s not a visual artform. it’s words selected for their beauty and emotional impact. and that’s all. i mean, you can sing them. but that’s no longer poetry. that’s a song. you can turn it into visual art. but that’s not poetry. that’s … well, that’s visual art. poetry is words, purely and simply.

so what’s this about tradition that’s useful in poetry?

well, it’s not a poetic tradition. it’s a tradition of motivation to write it. one of the hardest parts for me about writing poetry is that there’s often a lack of impetus to write it. you really only need to things to write a poem, as opposed to the five things you need to write a novel. the five things?

  • audience
  • plan
  • motivation
  • narrative
  • time

the only two you need for poetry, though, are audience and motivation. poetry is short. it doesn’t need an extended time to write. it doesn’t have to have a narrative (though if you have one, that’s totally ok and some of mine are certainly stories in verse — someday i’ll write a real full-length epic but that’s … a whole other story). and you don’t need a plan. most poetry (with the exception of those truly extended things and that’s not the kind of poetry we’re talking about — 黑暗传? — this is usually translated as “the dark epic” or “the epic of dark history” and similar phrases and is my favorite collection of epic poetry) is relatively short. maybe only a few lines. a couple of pages if you’re really pushing all the envelopes. some of mine span a collection of pages but they simply don’t need all the planning of a novel, which can often be hours or days of contemplation followed by months of gradual refining as you get closer to a finished product.

so how do you create the motivation and audience? well, you have friends, right? and they probably like poetry if you do. cause our friends are often similar. if you don’t have any friends who like poetry, [i have a song recommendation for you]. seriously, though, make some friends who love poetry and writing like you do. i mean, if you don’t love poetry and writing, this whole thing is a bit moot. but if you do and you’re searching for a way to write more of it, here’s a tradition you’ll love.

have you ever read the book that’s often credited with being the first modern novel? i mean, you probably haven’t. but i suspect you’ve heard of it. it’s not a novel. and it’s not modern. but it is definitely one of my favorite pieces of writing and i think everyone should read it, despite it being a little long. if nothing else, it will teach you a lot about performance as a way of life. and i don’t mean performing on stage. i mean acting as a way to get through life. and i bet you do that every day without reading it. the book is, in english, called “the tale of genji” (源氏物語), though a better translation would be “life of a beautiful man” because that’s realistically what it’s about. one thing you quickly realize, though, is that this book (no, it’s not originally in english for two reasons — this is a work that could only possibly have been written in japanese because it’s fundamentally born in that cultural environment and it can’t have been in english because in the eleventh century english was still realistically old german and old french and a bunch of people who didn’t know their tu from their du or their y from their th) is not simply a story told in prose. it’s got hundreds of poems in it.

it’s not a collection of poetry. the poems are actually only a tiny fraction of its thousands of pages. but if you go more than a page or two without a poem it’s an unusual section. there are many places where two, four, even ten poems come in quick succession. are they any good? well, no. most of the poems are academic, stylized excrement. even in the original language. and in english translations they’re often rendered so badly in the target language they make me want to cry. but they tell an incredibly-important story. the story of poetry as a medium of exchange in culture.

when you don’t know what to say, instead of saying anything you convey emotion using a poem. and if you don’t know how to have a conversation, especially if it’s too awkward or stilted, you fall back on poetry as a way to guarantee exchange without any of the problems of actual content or awkward direct statements.

how does this translate to the modern world? quite well.

we live in a culture where smalltalk and meaningless whining are the norm and actual conversation are almost impossible to find between people — especially those in relationships. between friends, conversations are often reduced to nothing more than planning details and general bitching about life mingled with trivial and hurtful gossip. well, there is a way to turn that to your advantage. write your friends letters.

no, not emails or texts. ok, they can be written as emails or texts but i don’t mean “hey, saw this show’s on friday. coming?” or “netflix and baskin robins saturday?”. i mean actual letters. longhand, if possible.

i have discovered, hand-cramps aside ([no, not these]), that i find untold joy in sharing the deeper thoughts i have and lessons i’ve learned and want to share with my friends by actually taking a pen (yes, a brush-pen in my case) or a pencil (get a kuru toga already — they’re not expensive and your writing will thank you unendingly). but you don’t have to create lengthy missives. actually, you don’t have to include any content at all. and this is where the tradition enters the equation.

write a single poem. stick it in an envelope and send it to your friend with a little postit note saying “your turn”. now they write a response to your poem. and — and this is the key to the whole pattern — they write you a completely separate poem. you do the same when you receive it and you gradually develop a collection. the poems may start off being rather rudimentary but, as any serious poet will tell you, practice makes perfect. after your first few poems, you’ll start to get the hang of it. you won’t just be writing twenty lines. you’ll be writing a hundred or more in quick succession. you may well be sending far more poems than just a single one and you’ll quickly have enough to try to refine as an actual manuscript. no, you may never become a published poet. they may never become excellent. but i suspect after a few weeks of doing this regularly you’ll start to be much happier with what you can produce.

anyway, that’s my proposal. i do this. you should try. don’t like it? stop. but give it a shot with at least one friend. what do you have to lose? a half hour of your day (don’t tell me you can’t afford to spend a half hour less in front of the youtube — i don’t believe you and you don’t even believe yourself) and a stamp? invest in your versified future. may the muse be with you. thanks for reading!

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.