Mysteria is right, you know. Especially about reading. You can go the the library and look at copies of poetry magazines, and quarterlies that are publishing the folks who are writing the cutting edge stuff today. Look at those writers and the books they're writing and the reviews that show up in those magazines. There are a few magazines that folks generally think of as biggies. Look at Poetry especially, because it's been around for almost a hundred years and it's still probably the most important American Poetry magazine. The American Poetry Review is interesting. As is The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review , The Nation, The Atlantic, The Partisan Review, The Southern Review, and Ploughshares. There are loads more. There are also smaller magazines that print loads of terrific poems and poets. Every year there's a collection of poems collected from the best of the small magazines in the years volume of The Pushcart Prize Poems. That's worth reading to see who's there and what sort of things they're doing.
The most important thing about all this is to have fun while you're doing it, and to learn to say, "Wow, I wish I'd have been able to do that!" And to ask yourself how the heck did that person pull that effect off, because it's something that's totally amazing and you never would have thought of it in a zillion years. Gradually, as you read and as you keep writing, you learn to keep playing with extending your writing and working on playing with getting your writing chops more and more supple.
It's not only a matter of working hard, because there is a element of working hard to it, but I've always thought that hard work will only get you so far. It's got to be fun, the way some people get off on playing basketball and can do it for hours straight. Some poets can do that too, by the way. It's not unpoetic to love basketball or sports, it's simply not required. Marianne Moore, who was a wonderful poet, used to love baseball games. She was simply nuts about them. Theodore Roethke, who was another wonderful poet, loved to go to football games and had a raccoon coat when he went to college. He was also a tennis sort of guy and used to coach college tennis at one or two of the schools where he first taught. But all of them loved to play with words and the sounds of words.
Elizabeth Bishop, another fabulous poet used to joke with Frank Bidart, a fine poet and a student of Robert Lowell, that Frank Bidart's punctuation was too heavy handed.
Can you imagine that? A bunch of folks who thought after a while that words were so screwy and had such basic funniness to them that they could make jokes about something as dull and potentially stupid as punctuation? I even do it myself sometimes. Miss Bishop, went so far as to spend a while walking along the beach in Provincetown, which is at the very end of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, and picking up funny shaped stones, which she glued to a piece of paper and sent to Frank Bidart. All those stones glued to the paper she'd arranged as big pieces of punctuation. Huge heavy semi-colons and colons, thick half ounce commas. Two ounce exclamation points. It was her way of twitting Frank Bidart for his heavy handed punctuation.
Sometimes I wonder how long it took the man to laugh, and if he ever did. His poems are very good, but are not for the faint-hearted. Hers have a sort of reality about them, at their best, that make the real world look like it's a made up story, and never quite convincing enough to be believed. You should leaf through some of her collected poems sometime. It's quite an experience.
I don't know if this builds enough on Mysteria's fine advice well enough to be worth reading, but I hope it gives you a little something extra because it's from somebody else's point of view, and it tries to build a little bit.
Yours, Bob Kaven