Crank Out A Few, Please: Observations On Poetic Composition

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school, I attended a seminar on Vergil’s Eclogues. These are the lovely bucolic verses that Vergil modeled on the earlier Greek pastoral poets who were prestigious in his day: Bion, Moschus, and Theocritus. The seminar was run by a world-famous scholar, well known for his work in Vergilian studies.

The Eclogues are wonderful: they are limpid Latin hexameters celebrating an idyllic world of shepherds, flocks, and rural song. But the world-famous scholar was a pain. Rather than just helping us read the text intelligently, he kept harping on some bizarre theory about the “process of composition” that Vergil went through in writing the Eclogues. We seminar students had humbler goals—we wanted to parse the Latin sentences, understand the syntax, scan the meter, and enjoy the beauty of Vergil’s poetry. He, on the other hand, was obsessed with nebulous postmodernist notions about “authorship” and “subversive readings” and “challenges to received tradition”—all the blithering jargon that substitutes for real scholarship in academia nowadays. On several occasions during the term we had to call his attention back to the Latin text, which he had left far behind in his enthusiasm for vapid theorizing.

It’s a curious fact of life in colleges today that students are sometimes the voices of sanity and substance, while professors are in the grip of a corrupting, cant-filled betrayal of their subject. In any case, one afternoon in class this professor was droning on, ad nauseam, about the complexity and nuanced convolutions of Vergil’s motives as a writer. It was all speculative and hypothetical at best, but he hammered away at us. What was Vergil’s agenda? What relationship did he have with his literary predecessors? What were his authorial intentions? On and on it went—pointless questions to which there were no definitive answers.

Suddenly I decided that I had had enough. I raised my hand to be recognized. The professor acknowledged me. I cleared my throat and said the following: “Look—isn’t it just possible that Vergil merely decided, after reading all the various models of pastoral eclogue available in his day, to try his hand at cranking out a few of them himself? Maybe it was as simple as that.”

You should have seen the professor’s face. Shock, pain, consternation, and rage fluttered all over it in various hues, like the ionization effect in a mushroom cloud. For several seconds he couldn’t speak. Then he sputtered this reply: “Great poets like Vergil don’t crank out verses! It’s never like that!” He was infuriated by my suggestion that there need not be any abstruse rationale behind Vergil’s Eclogues—or worse, that they might have been produced as a mere exercise.

The professor, of course, was quite wrong. Competent poets can and do crank out poetry all the time. And if they are really good poets, the stuff they crank out will very likely be good as well. Does anyone imagine that Shakespeare, who had a family to feed in Stratford, sat around waiting for sublime inspiration in order to write a play? No—he grabbed his Plutarch or Holinshed, found a promising subject, and cranked out drama on deadline for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. And those cranked-out works are now as precious and canonical to us as the plays of Sophocles were to the Greeks. Samuel Johnson cranked out Rasselas in one week to pay for his mother’s funeral. Byron’s only problem with Don Juan was that he couldn’t crank out the cantos fast enough to meet popular demand.

All of which directly relates to the problems of poetic composition today. I’m impatient with young poets who come to me and complain about “lack of inspiration.” This is pure Romantic twaddle. If you can’t write without inspiration, then you are a bumbling amateur. Professional writers do their work on command, because the skills requisite for writing are at their immediate disposal. In short, professionals can crank stuff out. Let me give an example.

Just recently, an old friend and teacher of mine named John Collins died. John Collins (we called him “Jack”) was the most learned man I ever had the honor of knowing. His knowledge of Latin and Greek was phenomenal; there wasn’t an ancient text he hadn’t read, or a thing he couldn’t translate. His understanding of classical Greek was so profound that the Pontifical Institute of Biblical Studies in Rome consulted him on corrections to the Greek Scriptures. He wrote the definitive textbook on ecclesiastical Latin, and he edited Erasmus. I should also mention that, since Jack was a white male and a devout Roman Catholic, he was never even considered for full-time employment by any university.

Jack Collins could compose Latin and Greek verse on a moment’s notice, and on any subject. You just had to ask him, and he’d crank out fifty perfect elegiac couplets or dactylic hexameters on anything. If you requested Greek verse, he’d ask “Which dialect—Attic, Ionic, Doric, Cyprian, Aeolic, or Homeric?” And Jack would have the verses (damned good ones, too) done in an hour at most. He died in late middle age—burned out, perhaps, by the sheer incandescent power of his intellect.

The same practice is possible for those of us who write formalist poetry. Poetic composition should be like any other skill: if you know how to do it, then just do it. If you don’t know how to do it, then learn. It’s easy enough to grasp the basics of English meter, and with steady reading of the pre-Whitmanesque masters you’ll pick up the standard tricks of the trade fairly quickly. There’s no reason why writing reams of good iambic pentameter should be any more difficult than learning to play the piano. It’s true that while many people can play the piano adequately, very few persons actually play it superbly. But no one plays it superbly who didn’t start out by playing it adequately.

Consider Esther Cameron, who once edited the journal Neovictorian Cochlea. Her long epic poem The Consciousness of Earth (serially reprinted in Bellowing Ark a few years ago) is totally in iambic pentameter. Cameron is now so fluent in this meter that she has come to prefer it to prose. Her letters are frequently in pure iambic fives, even when dealing with complex subjects. She encourages her correspondents to use iambic pentameter in reply to her missives. Such fluency would be more common if we all just began cranking out iambic fives in bulk.

Another good example of my point is Ben Jonson. His preferred method of composition was to write out the gist of a proposed poem in prose first, and then “versify,” or translate it into metrical units. Anyone who dared to suggest that to a workshop of poets today would be excoriated for insensitivity and philistinism. And yet Ben Jonson’s poetry is excellent—certainly a lot better than the spontaneous drivel that emerges from modern workshops. Do I recommend Jonson’s method? No, not necessarily. But it does go to show that good poetry—even great poetry—can be cranked out in a mundane, workaday manner.

Look at Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s hardly likely that he was in rapture on Mount Helicon (or Sinai) when composing every single line of the thing. Much of the epic was just cranked out, as was the case with Vergil’s Aeneid, and Homer’s Iliad, and probably the Epic of Gilgamesh as well. It’s simple logic: people don’t do their best creative work while they’re having a seizure. They do it when they are in conscious control of their faculties.

Anyway, in addition to my exhortation to young poets to start cranking out verse, I offer below some negative rules concerning poetic composition. I’ve formulated these rules after listening to innumerable narcissistic poetasters whine about their difficulties. These rules, if followed, should help to develop a poet’s fluency—that is, the ability to crank out stuff. Here goes:

1. Don’t mystify poetry. Poetry is an art like any other, with rules, procedures, and traditions. Its rudiments are available to anyone who makes the effort to study them. If you take the attitude that poetic composition is like some secret initiation into a gnostic mystery cult, you’re only creating difficulties for yourself. You’re also just a poseur.

2. Don’t talk so damned much about your poetry. One of the curses of modern life is its endless, pointless chatter. Talking about your poetry is like talking about your sex life—something is very wrong if you have to gab about it incessantly. As we say in Brooklyn, skip the chin-music.

3. Don’t get hung up on abstract theories. I’m always baffled when young poets respond to a specific suggestion of mine by saying “Yes—that did occur to me as the best solution, but I thought there was this idea that…” (and here they will mention a prissy little stricture they picked up in a workshop). Don’t let some damned idea kill your poetry while it is aborning. Remember that great poetry was being written long before any prating theorist came along.

4. Don’t join a workshop unless you are a complete novice, and get out of it as soon as possible. Workshops are horrible, counter-creative places. They are conformist little cells where groupthink and consensual response and stereotypical poses dominate. Remember that, in the ultimate analysis, no one is going to write your poems except you. Workshops are not interested in helping you to write poems. They are much more interested in stopping you from writing the sort of poems that the workshop director dislikes.

5. In general, don’t ask other poets for advice. Nothing will cripple you more than the habit of taking to your contemporaries. Talk with the dead, via reading. The dead have no vested interest in hurting you. Many of your contemporaries do.

6. Don’t ever say that you can’t write on a certain subject. In the old British public schools, if you dared to tell the Latin master that you couldn’t compose verses on some subject, you’d get a good hiding with a birch rod until you did compose them. Show the pluck of a British schoolboy. Crank out those verses!

If you catch the general drift of these rules, you’ll see that they are really about freedom—the freedom to write your poetry without hesitation, stalling, fear, or worry about what other people think. Poetic fluency, like fluency in a foreign language, only comes when you are not inhibited.

Today, one of the biggest problems among poets is precisely such inhibition. Despite all the formulaic cant about freedom and aleatory structures and multicultural openness and avant-garde daring, the plain fact is that most beginning poets are severely repressed. Just look at their website chatrooms and on-line workshops. They are frequented by timorous little lemmings desperate to be accepted, successful, and mainstream. They don’t want to offend anyone. They don’t want to be laughed at. They don’t want to be idiosyncratic. They don’t want to be caught in any impropriety. They don’t want to make enemies. They don’t want to lose potential friends. They don’t want to get into arguments, or even criticize each other too harshly. Make no mistake: a pile-up of concerns like this has a numbing effect on fluency of composition. How can you crank out fifty lines if you’re constantly networking, and looking over your shoulder?

The loudest objection to the idea of cranking out verses comes from the “fine frenzy” types—the ones who believe that some sort of divine madness seizes a poet and drives him to produce works of genius. It’s a pretty little narrative, but at this point in history it’s somewhat shopworn. Plato was its most famous exponent, and we all know what he thought about poets. No—the “fine frenzy” myth is itself a poetic fiction, useful and interesting as a metaphor of poetic composition, but hardly significant as a clinical description of how poets operate most of the time. For every one instance where a poet is blessed by the Muse’s favor, there are ninety-nine other occasions when he simply has his way with her by force. Or to paraphrase Edison, genius is mostly perspiration, not inspiration.

I’ll end with a personal anecdote. A few months ago a friend of mine retired after thirty-four years of teaching. I was invited to his retirement party, and was asked by his wife to compose some verses appropriate to the occasion. I agreed, but a series of obligations intervened, and when I awoke on the morning of the party date I suddenly realized that I had not composed a single line. The party was at noon, and I had a scant three hours in which to shave, shower, dress, and make the long trip to my friend’s home.

I made some hot coffee. I lit up a good cigar. I sat down before a legal pad and picked up a ballpoint pen. In half an hour I had composed fifty iambic tetrameter rhymed couplets (one hundred lines in all) on my friend’s life, job, and retirement. They were comic-satirical, and when I read them that afternoon at the party everyone enjoyed them immensely.

Afterwards one of the guests approached me and said “Those lines were so appropriate, and really funny! How do you manage to write stuff like that?”

“It was nothing,” I replied. “I just cranked them out.”

Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize.