ANNIE FINCH

Annie Finch was born in New Rochelle, New York in 1956. She majored in English at Yale University and later enrolled in the creative writing program at the University of Houston, where she studied poetry and drama with Ntozake Shange. She earned a Ph.D at Stanford University in 1990 and began teaching in 1992, first at New College of California and then at the University of Northern Iowa. In 1996, she began teaching at Miami University where she is currently Associate Professor and member of the creative writing graduate faculty.

Her first book of poetry, Eve (1997) was a finalist for both the National Poetry Series and the Yale Younger Poets Award. Calendars (2003) was also a finalist for the National Poetry Series and was short listed for the Foreword Poetry Book of the Year Award. Her early book length performance poem, The Encyclopedia of Scotland was republished by Salt Publishing in 2004 and her translation of the Complete Poems of Louise Labe is forthcoming in the Early Modern Women Writers Series from University of Chicago Press. Her work is featured in The Norton Anthology of World Poetry (2002), The Penguin Book of The Sonnet (2003), and many other anthologies.

Long a collaborator with composers and musicians, she has written two opera librettos, the first of which, Marina, premiered in 2003 from American Opera Projects in New York, sung by Lauren Flanagan. Her many other collaborations include The Furious Sun in Her Mane, premiered by Robert Ivey Dance Company in 2001, the cantata Poems for a Daughter, sung by the Women's Choir of New York in 2002, and songs commissioned for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, California State University, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Lawrence Conservatory, and other venues.

She has also written, edited, or co edited seven books about poetry and poetics, most recently An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, edited with Kathrine Varnes. She is Director of the Stone coast low-residency MFA in Creative Writing and lives with her husband and two children in Portland, Maine.
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Technology and Inspiration: Introduction to A Poet's Craft


No other art besides poetry has had such a mythology attached to its sources of inspiration. Painters have no myth of Helicon, the sacred spring whose water brings inspiration. Dancers have no Pegasus to ride, composers no Mount Parnassus to climb. Everyone knows that "the Muse" is a poet's companion. Why do poetry and poetic inspiration hold such a special place among the arts?
Poetry offers balance between the logical, verbal left side of the brain and the musical, spatial right side of the brain, combining meaning and rhythm as no other art can do. Poetry uses the same words we all use every day, and so it transmutes the intimate chatter of our lives into something more powerful. Maybe that is why the word "poetic" is used so widely in our culture; I've heard it used in popular journalism to describe a film sequence, the movements of a dancer, a work of architecture, an especially sublime landscape, and a delicious dessert.
Anthropologist Julian Jaynes writes about a special connection between poetry and the unconscious: in pre-literate cultures, deities always talked in poetry, and some poets still "hear" their poems spoken by an internal voice. His idea explains the age-old association of poetry with religious ritual and magical incantation: poetry transports us in a way that no other art can do, because it brings the conscious and unconscious mind into a new relation. No wonder poetic inspiration is considered so precious.
While exciting, such widespread stereotypes about "poetic inspiration" can be something of a burden for a poet. On the one hand, if "poetry" or "poetic" can apply to just about anything lyrical or graceful, that implies in turn that just about anything lyrical or graceful can be poetry. Many of the students I have taught start by defining poetry as nothing more than "self-expression" or "intense language." On the other hand, inflated stereotypes about poetic inspiration can make poetry seem capricious and impossible for a mere mortal to control. Some beginning poets are afraid to read poems by anyone else, fearing to damage the purity of their inspiration. Others are hesitant to revise and improve their poems, because they feel that only their first drafts have been sanctified by direct contact with the Muse.
Taken to its extreme, the fetishization of poetic inspiration can lead to a romantic machismo of self-destructive behavior, ranging from Rimbaud's "systematic derangement of the senses" to the suicidal madness of Berryman, Crane and Lowell described in Eileen Simpson 's memoir Poets in Their Youth. Such a life is not many contemporary poets' lifestyle of choice, and it doesn't increase the odds of writing good poetry. Yet the students who are afraid to damage their inspiration are sometimes those who treasure poetry the most, recognizing in it a precious art that does have the power to render language transformative.
How can such attitudes be reconciled? How can we acknowledge and treasure the special, unique power of poetry, and at the same time bring the process of writing poetry into our lives in a balanced way? A Poet's Craft is built around a personal solution to this dilemma, arrived at through decades of my own service to the Muses. My solution to the problem of how to write poetry amid such contradictory stereotypes is a paradoxical one, based in the root kinship between the word "grammar" and the word "glamour," the link between the technical and the transformative aspects of poetry.
Poetry uses a basic raw material of human daily life, language, in a unique way. It abstracts certain physical aspects of language—rhythmic pattern, word-sound, phrase—and shapes them, molds them, transforms them, through one simple technique: repetition. Such use of repetition is one of the very oldest and most universal cultural strategies on the planet. The tools of poetic repetition developed in every tribal society as a way to allow poets to memorize traditional stories and chants, preserving for the living the voices of long-dead ancestors. It takes several days for 75-year-0ld Jussi Huovinen, the last living singer of the Finnish epic poem "The Kalevala," to recite the entire poem that was handed down to him by previous poets, using certain repeating phrases as a base, in a meter based on the hypnotic motion of rowing. To listen to Huovinen recite "The Kalevala" is to understand how such rhythmic epics have served for centuries as the core of entire cultural identities. Variations on the basic tool of repetition in non-literate cultures give superhuman power to words that are used to heal, to invoke, to bless, and to remember ancestors and events.
All kinds of literature use connotation, imagery, metaphor, diction, consonant and vowel sound, grammatical structure, and rhythm to render language expressive and memorable. A poem, however, makes use of an entirely different aspect of language as well. Any poem, whether a sonnet, a nursery rhyme, a rap poem, a language experiment, or Paradise Lost, works by abstracting particular elements from the language as building blocks for a poem. Just as a painter abstracts color and line and a dancer abstracts human movement and gesture, a poet abstracts certain qualities of language to work with, to render poetic language palpable, shaped, opaque; more powerful than its meanings alone, powerful in a different way than the most expressive, literary, well-written prose. The difference, the three-dimensional force at work to sculpt a text into a poem, is the structuring power of repetition. Repetition is at work in contemporary poetry, just as it was in the poems of the oldest non-literate cultures.

Song for Bringing a Child Into the World

You day-sun, circling around,
You daylight, circling around,
You night-sun, circling around,
You poor body, circling around,
You spotted with gray, circling around,
You wrinkled skin, circling around.
-Anonymous, Seminole, trans. Frances Densmore

Along with other elements of good poetry such as imagery, diction, and voice, a main purpose of this book is to teach the skills associated with poetic repetition: meter, rhyme, refrain, free-verse linebreak, and various poetic forms. To pactice such skills is the equivalent of doing finger-exercises for a pianist. Ezra Pound, for example, trained his famous rhythmic ear by writing one sonnet a day for an entire year. To learn such tools can be extraordinarily empowering, since they remove poetry from the realm of the Ineffable and bring it into the daily life of a working writer. This is the "grammar" of poetry.
But from the word "grammar" comes another word: "glamour," meaning mystery, sacred magic, power. At the same time that repetition makes it possible to learn something concrete about how to write poetry, it also makes it possible to tap into the power of the ancient technology. Repetition does not only make a poem easy to remember; it can lull the logical part of the brain, hypnotize a listener, transport a reader into a new state of mind, speak directly to the physical, irrational part of our brains. Like the drumbeat of a shaman, poetic repetition can move language far out of its normal realm. That is the paradox of poetic technology: it is at once replicable and ineffable, mundane and transformative. To work with poetic craft in a skilled and attentive way brings us full circle back out of the realm of craft and into the realm of inspiration.

 

                 
 


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