How I Fail and What I Strive For

Definition is always a good place to start, so I waited sixty years. This is my definition, so if you don’t like it, spend sixty years developing your own.

In my General Theory of Poetry, that vast, magnificent, unscribbled opus, I wrote, “Poetry is the attempt to say something significant clearly to our fellow humans in accurate, accessible, authentic, beautiful, and elegant language.”

“Say” means to speak aloud. Inspired by Lew Welch, I know a poem is the ring of lines sounded with a voice. I write with the tongue, revise with the ear, and edit with the days. Poems must be read aloud.

“Significant” means anything from important to essential to humanity and planet. To pass along insights and ideas that matter, I look, read, and think to discover what’s worthy to pass along.

“Clearly” means direct and effective transmission of understanding with as little interference as possible from the language itself. Clarity is job one for a writer. If readers can’t follow your sentences, nobody gets anywhere, and nothing is communicated.

“Accurate” means empirically and scientifically accepted and verifiable. Nothing drives me from writing faster than writers who don’t know the facts. The sun and moon are not the same size and a bat is not a bird.

“Accessible” means using only required and familiar words. Big, fancy, antique words are generally inadmissible and applied only when absolutely necessary. Sharing today’s language with contemporaries is my goal.

“Authentic” means precisely relevant to the experience of writer and reader. Poetry is fiction, so the events need not have “really happened,” but readers must accept the fiction as relevant and resonant to contemporary lives. Lines must convince.

“Beautiful” means looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels gorgeous, inside and out. The sound of the lines is essential, however. If a poem doesn’t sound good, it’s not.

“Elegant” means fits exactly, artfully, and only the purpose for which the poem was created. More is always less in a poem.

If definition means drawing lines to distinguish one from another, then when readers speak my poems, counting the many ways I contradict myself is easy. My using my own definition simply means that I know exactly what I’m attempting, and you can count the many ways I fail.

Eric Shaffer