After almost 20 years of writing poetry, I find it’s becoming ever more difficult to find the necessary language that appropriately encapsulates my notions of its what and its how. By this, I mean what poetry is supposed to be about and how I’m supposed to approach it.
Gone are the certainties of my MFA years, when I got into rows with teachers who tried in vain to help me understand that there are infinite entry points to the poetic landscape and that the more approaches I come to understand, the more planes of metaphor I might have at my disposal to give shape to the vibrations of my own imagination. But in my bull-headedness, I was convinced that the only poetry worthwhile had to be accessible and representational.
Back then, poems were self-contained constructs with palpable terminal points, and they often had little to do with each other. Each poem had a reason and a lengthy treatise rehearsed and defended at the slight drop of a hat. I was always working on poems ABC for reasons XYZ. Moreover, I preferred to hear myself talk about the ideas than to actually be in my study quietly writing the poems.
And when one big poem was done, I would return to my “Book of Certainties,” pull out another big subject and set about justifying it and finding words for it. On the surface, I was pronounced and sure. But when I was by myself, outside the lights of performing for friends, I had this nagging idea that my poems, the beginnings, middles and endings of which I knew (and could articulate) before even writing them, were overly determined and, to be honest, boring.
Besides, I came to find the notion of arguing each reader into accepting the validity of my work a tiring proposition. How long was I to do this? And to how many people? How could I be sure that what I was writing was precisely what each person needed? I grew weary of my own bombast. And while there are many poets in whose hands certainty of how each poem should be and what each poem should be about (before they start writing said poem) is a worthwhile tool, I’ve come to realize it is not for me.
The more I’ve read and pushed further into the poetic landscape, the lower I have brought those standards – with their loud and colorful positions – with which I adorned myself when I first started. Now, I willingly reach for the same books I denied and find myself teaching poets I railed against to my own students, who, in a few cases, have reacted with the same sure vehemence as I once did. And my pleas of “don’t be like I was” have, in a case or two, fallen on deaf ears.
Since certainty (with a big “c”) is no longer a compass I use in navigating that wild and engaging frontier of poem making, I find myself more open to possibilities. I’m eager to re-learn and re-see. And I’ve come to have a particular faith in the creative impulse that sometimes leaves me awake at night and has me reading authors with whom I’m enamored without guilt and others I might have rejected based on borrowed poetics. Most times, I don’t even know where I’m going before I begin writing. In the best way possible, this approach leaves me riven. It’s a beautiful thing to feel the knowing with which my old poetry was informed brought into near stillness and, essentially, silenced.
This way, I am better able to feel each hue and undulation of my imagination come together and take on words, phrases and paragraphs that fill pages and, in time, take on tone, affect emotion and arouse mood. At its best, this approach has allowed me to grow in ways I couldn’t have conceived almost 20 years ago. Poems are no longer clearly defined constructs with precise terminal points for me. Instead, they’ve become, if I may, a long conversation, an expansive dialogic, that stretches from my contemporaries all the way back to Adam and Eve.
Now when I sit down to write, it’s not with set homilies and locked brows, but with a childlike wonder that allows me to see beyond myself and the little I think I know. I wish I could explain it. I wish I could provide some neat language for it. But something inside of me becomes more generous and humane when I approach poetry this way. When I’m done, I find myself with a surprised understanding of whatever subject I gently engage. Within this understanding, I experience a renewal of sorts that often lifts me beyond the drudgery of the everyday.
Abayomi Animashaun, who was born in Nigeria, has an MFA from the International Writing Program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas. His poems have appeared in Diode, The Cortland Review, African American Review, Passages North and The Adirondack Review. He is the author of two poetry collections and the editor of an anthology of essays, Others Will Enter the Gates: Immigrant Poets on Poetry, Influences, and Writing in America. He teaches writing and literature at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.