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Lecture: "The Paradox of Craft"
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February 12, 2004
Speech for "It's About Time Writers Reading Series"
Ravenna Third Place Books, Seattle, WA

"The Paradox of Craft"

" indirection find direction out" Hamlet

It's old news at this point in our history as readers and writers, the notion that our news comes to us in weasel words. We're so used to being manipulated that when, fewer than 24 hours after the twin towers came down on 9/11 and the major news networks assaulted us with headlines screaming "America at War," we didn't protest this twisting of our perceptions that a great crime had been committed against us. We didn't shout, "You've redefined a monumental crime as a war. You've launched us, without our deliberations, without our consideration, on the road to a military confrontation rather than a judicial solution. And you've done it before we even have a clue who committed these murders."

Many of us protested the war. Few of us protested that swift corruption of language. Or perhaps I'm being too harsh. Perhaps we protested but our voices never reached the public's ears, dominated as they were by a struggle over the one choice held up for public scrutiny: the choice to fight or to refrain.

This degradation of the public use of language presents us as writers with the terrible problem that the very language we seek to use has been made so malleable it now feels flabby in our hands. If language lies to us constantly, how can we hope to use it truly? If the music of rhyme sells war and soap and the new lime cola, how can we reclaim it for our own visions?

But that's the paradox of rhyme, of rhythm, and of the full panoply of writerly technique. And that's the paradox I want to address in this craft lecture: the paradox of approaching by indirection the center of what we want and mean to say. I want to discuss, in Hamlet's words, how craft helps us "by indirection find direction out"

For me, this collapse of confidence that makes me feel my words have gone all flat and flabby begins with the familiar specter of the editor who whispers behind my ear that I'm only saying what has been said and said and said before. Beside her stand fear of self-revelation, shame, timidity, embarrassment, and even fear of my own potential power. In a class once I actually constructed a collage of her;this fierce bear who glared at me from a tangle of emotional vines;I constructed her and then ceremonially burned her. All of us found the ceremony of burning our editors wonderfully inspiriting. Once the fire dies down, however, we still have to write.

And the real problem with writing is this: How do we break through restraint and fear to accuracy? It's not the confessional I seek when I urge us to tell the truth, nor the polemic. Our words may finally be confessions or political, but our obligation, especially in this time when so much language creates only manipulative codes, is to tell it true and that means to tell it with as much accuracy as our eyes and our sense of words can create. Accuracy, then--seeing as clearly as we can and choosing the words that help our reader see.

How, then, can we break through to accuracy? That's the paradox of craft. Craft can push us past constructed meaning to genuine discovery, and that discovery is the accurate revelation we seek. Let me give you some examples from my experience as a writer and a teacher. Teaching high schoolers the sonnet, for example, if I wanted interesting poems from them, poems that went deeper than "moon" and "June"and "dove&" and "love," I showed them the sonnet as a chessboard of rhythm and rhyme scheme. I made them list their line ends, rhymed properly for the sonnet's pattern, and then asked them to fill in the iambic pentameter lines which would end with the words they had chosen. Because their rhymes were chosen for sound rather than meaning, their apparently random choices led them to thoughts they might not otherwise have brought to consciousness. With similar success, in poetry workshops, I ask participants to choose words from a variety of word caches, list them vertically in an order that seemed to them "right," and then write a poem around that "spine" of words. In both exercises, the results were pieces that surprised and delighted the writers and their readers. People who never wrote found they could make words say interesting things they'd never thought to articulate for themselves before they played this silly game I'd asked them to fool around with.

In other words, playing with the structure of the poem in some way allowed their pens to discover what they didn&'t know they could say. If you read my journals, you'll see instances of poems emerging for me by the same indirection: a page of nonsense rhymes followed by a real first line of a poem, followed by the full draft of a poem later polished and published. One of my students later told me he was able in this exercise to write this first poem, because "if it was a stupid poem it was because you gave us these stupid rules, and it was your fault, not mine, if I didn't like it." (He did like it.)

More accomplished poets than I and my students play similar games with words. Ibn Gabirol, an amazingly skilled medieval poet, used Hebrew acrostics for his mystical poems. I imagine him writing: as each poem spanned the alefbet, it spanned for Ibn Gabirol the foundational elements of God's universe. I imagine him immersed in the problem of making his acrostics work, like mathematical puzzles, like clicking the edges of boxes into place. I imagine him, plunging himself into this problem he'd set, creating in himself the sense of the mystical he celebrated in his complex lines.

Attention to craft helps us revise, to see again, this time more clearly, what we're straining to see. You know some of these techniques: eliminate repeated words; look at the flow of metaphoric language; write it short; write it long; write in two-line chunks, or four or six; write it backwards from the bottom up--I could go on. But perhaps an example will be useful.

One of my journals contains five versions of a poem about Paul Celan, each a revision based on one of these strategies, none quite finished yet. Here's the first draft, written from a photo in the biography of Celan I was reading at the time. You'll recognize the title half-borrowed from Ezra Pound.

One Petal on a Black Bough

--Paul Celan in Czernowitz, 1937

Glance turned back over his left shoulder,

hands shoved into heavy wool pockets

against February's chill, his eyebrow

cocked under his leather cap's raked brim,

this boy caught on the street of strangers

by a stranger's camera, could break hearts

with his aloof face.

Instead, his heart

will constrict, pressed by history into such

distortions they will press him to his death,

though he has years and years more

to live a struggle to cleanse his dearest love

of vicious usurpations. His dearest love:

not the mother who loved him, but the language

she taught him to love in her stillness and warmth,

her shaping of each syllable with her loving life's breath.

Next, I wrote it backwards. I started with the last line and worked up until I had to begin to change the sentence to create its sense, at which point the poem changed materially. I wrote beside it at the time: &"interesting--now it's her poem more than his. it gets somewhere different.&" Here's a draft of this second version.

Two Petals

"the silence is no silence" Paul Celan, 1959

With her loving life's breath,

her warm shaping of syllables

she taught him to love, in its stillness,

not this mother who taught,

but her language,

their dearest love,

dearest, to be cleansed

as he lived on, years, years, pressed

under history, his heart constricting so

the blood hardly flowed through the temples

assaulted by wave after wave

of terrible power erasing



the shapes

of words

but never

this void


by crackling


All the revisions that followed brought me closer to the understanding of Celan, his journey through the pain of the Holocaust, and his poems, understanding that I had been seeking when I chose to read the book. Craft brought me closer to understanding. And trying yet another strategy--write it short--shaped the poem in shorter lines, more elusive language in this last version, and it became a memorial poem, a "yiskor" or "memorial prayer"--nearer completion though not quite ready to leave the drafting table.


"the silence is no silence" Paul Celan, 1959

With her breath's

warm shape of syllables

she taught him to love

in its stillness

the mother/ her



dearest to be scoured

pure as he lived



heart constricting so

blood hardly flowed

through the temples


wave after


erasing memory


the shapes of words

but never

this void

edged by


smoke. *

Whether I'm closer to the poem I'm trying to write or not, I felt with each revision closer to understanding this difficult poet I've been struggling to know. How did my attention to craft as a prompt for revision work to bring me closer? Craft gives us pleasure that distracts us productively from the need to be "right" and "important." Craft enters the picture whether we use strict form, like Ibn Gabirol or Richard Wilbur, or looser, freer verse. I remember writing a piece in free verse, a very political poem, about the war in El Salvador; what powered that poem to completion, even more than my revulsion at the war itself, was fascination with placing the line breaks so that the poem would read exactly as my mind's ear heard it. Why line breaks? Because I'd just been in a workshop with Denise Levertov in which she laid out her theory about how line breaks instruct the reader to use the voice. The pleasure intensified when I gave the poem to a friend who is a professional actor and he read it just as I heard it in my head, guided only by the marks on the page. (He liked the politics too.)

Craft, then, lets us keep our eye on the problem, not on the fact that we are "writing a poem&" nor on the poem's idea. Craft keeps our focus on potential rather than intended meaning. It can move us past intent to discovery. But craft can only do this if we remember one more rule, the rule I keep secret from my students until they've really wrestled to the point of frustration with the strictures of craft. (The freest of my students discover the secret rule on their own.) Shakespeare remembers this secret every time the true rhythm of his sonnet moves against its strict iambics. The secret rule: "Break the rules and make the poem."

I began this talk with an indictment of manipulated language, language used to make us conform as citizens. Such language cares nothing about truth but a great deal about concealment. In contrast, craft's adherence to form makes us look at ideas "slant," as Emily Dickinson wrote, helps us move past inhibition to insight, and, if we break its rules to make the poem, moves us closer to truth.

~ all about writing ~