What is Freedom?

Last week I wrote about finding freedom within restricted boundaries. But today I’m going to take a different view – in part because I have spent the last week at the Blue Heron Inn just north of Darien, Georgia, where I took my morning meditation gazing out over vast acres of marshland, watching the antics of red-winged blackbirds and the grace of egrets and herons, and reading Ted Kooser’s book on the art and craft of poetry.

I’m back home now, but it seems fitting to write about freedom in our writing.

The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser, one of our former US poet laureates, starts out on the first page of Chapter One, stating, “Any activity that’s worth lots of money, like professional basketball, comes with rules pinned all over it. In poetry the only rules worth thinking about are the standards of perfection you set for yourself.” Hence the fact that there is no money in poetry – but that is a whole other topic!

In fact, Kooser spends an entire chapter on not worrying about rules and allowing your poems to develop their own form, own rhythm, and own pattern. Kooser says, “Well, there are no should or should nots in writing poetry. You can do whatever you feel like doing, pants on or pants off. Part of the job of writing, or of practicing any art, comes from the freedom to choose.”

Wait a second, he said “freedom to choose.” Choose what? There’s the caveat. He’s not suggesting that absolutely anything can be a poem. I was once at a poetry reading where a guy came in off the street and started reading the hazard notice on back of a plastic oil container. Perhaps with a little work, it might have become a poem, but not the way it was.

What Kooser is saying is that we should learn all the rules and make our own choices about them, but he is also warning us not to be too strict about these rules. We may write a haiku, but we don’t have to make it the perfect 5-7-5 syllable structure it is supposed to be. We may want to play around with iambic pentameter in a sonnet. The point is that the poem, itself, comes first. If you don’t have the language and a perspective in your poem, if you don’t have a good poem to begin with, no structure is going to help it. Only after you write a good poem should you see if there is something more you can do to strengthen it. Write the poem, see if it seems to lean toward being a sestina, then you may want to help it along the way and see if the structure improves it.

When I go to the coast, I feel unshackled from daily life and am ready to throw caution to the wind. I break the rules of my life: staying on my diet, paying attention to e-mail, keeping up with world news. And because of the break from the world, I always find my creative juices flowing – not just for writing, but for living life in general. Once I return home, however, I have to take those ideas and fit them into my “real” life, so they are workable. But the unfettered opportunity to dream about all kinds of possibilities is what allowed the new ideas to surface. That’s what we want to do with our poetry – be free as we create, bring it back to the real world when we edit.

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