(n.) a stupid or careless mistake;
(v.) 1. make a blunder 2. move clumsily or as if unable to see (ding!ding!ding! we have a winner!)
Happy Friday, Reader. Can we talk about blundering? Because I’ve not been much of a poet this week, but I’ve been a submitter, a reader and note-taker, a writing-files-organizer, a pumpkin carver, a pie maker, a candy hander-outer, a birthday cupcake maker (BTW, may I recommend you never have a baby two days after Halloween?), and an errand runner. This week for me, poetry has been a speck here and a speck there. But that’s perfect because I want to talk more about Kay Ryan’s Specks, which I linked to last week, and which I finally finished reading.
And so, yes, we need to talk about blundering — the kind of blundering where one moves clumsily or as if unable to see.
<rural interlude> Where I grew up in rural Michigan, all the kids learn what to do if you ever get lost in a cornfield: you pick a row and walk all the way to the end of it, then try to figure out where you are. You may trip, stumble and fall. You may feel you’re getting more lost, not less lost. You may look up at the sky for clues and there are no clues, just a wide open sky. You may move clumsily or as if unable to see (all those cornstalks slapping your face and arms, all the dirt, the bugs). But you keep going in that one row until you find your way out. </rural interlude>
This is basically the story of my life in poetry, and it’s also one of the specks Kay Ryan writes about. Kay Ryan says:
Blundering doesn’t work, except it does.
It can’t lead you there, except it’s the only way to get there.
To which I say, YES! YES! YES!
In no area of my life have I learned so much exclusively by doing than I have in poetry. You read it all the time: to learn how to write poetry, write poetry. To learn how to read it, read it. Which is supremely unhelpful advice, because: duh. But it’s also the best advice, the only advice.
What the advice-givers usually leave out, however, is the blundering.
We blunder for years writing mostly bad poems and not knowing if they’re just regular bad or really bad. But we keep writing them anyway. Then one day we start to understand the one line that might be working in draft number 1,047. We go on from there.
We blunder through revisions. Actually, first we blunder through what we think are revisions but are really small edits and/or lipstick on a pig. But we keep putting that lipstick on the pig anyway. Then one day we see what we might be able to do with line 7 of draft number 1,147. We carry on.
We blunder through the poems we read. We LOVE IT but we can’t say why. We know it works, but we don’t know how it’s working. We even read the whole collection, but we’re not sure why all these poems are between two covers of the same book. Then one day we pick up that collection after we’ve read 147 intervening collections and we read it again. We LOVE IT even more, and now we can say why. We can say why each poem is working. We totally get why all these poems go together. We even think the poem on page 33 should’ve ended two lines earlier than it did. Onward.
We we wait through many years of blundering, and then we blunder through submissions. We do not understand how to put stout little piles of poems that play well together in stacks on our floor. We aren’t sure if this journal’s aesthetic matches that of our work. In fact, we’re not sure what this journal’s aesthetic is. Then one day, we wake up and pick up a large stack of poems. We do a zombie walk and follow our intuition about which poems should go in each pile. Afterwards, we look through the stout little piles and we can actually articulate why they go together. We keep reading journals and start to get a sense of which ones might be open to the kind of poems we write. Sure, we still sometimes make mistakes, but we carry on.
It’s not only alchemy, but it has alchemy in it. It’s not that we can’t learn about specific craft elements, practice certain techniques, apply a particular revision strategy. It’s that we can’t rush the overall process of developing poetic proficiency.
We can’t get to the end of the row of corn before the end of the row of corn.
In the meantime, we need to be gentle with ourselves. We need to shrug our shoulders, say, Everyone blunders. And, It’s all the work. And we need to understand that there will always be another cornfield that we get lost in, but we know what to do to find our way again.
Kay Ryan says:
I will go so far as to hazard that blundering might be generative, meaning that rooting around in a haystack long and fruitlessly enough could conceivably breed a needle.
Can I get an “Amen!”? And can we agree that this is good stuff to think about vis-a-vis poetry, and also vis-a-vis being human?
I wish you many, many needles bred from all your blunders. Ever onward.