The "How" is Easy; the "What" and "Why" are the Hard Parts.

Photo by Thomas Smillie. Courtesy Smithsonian InstitutionThis is the age of the how-to. The Complete Idiot’s Guides and For Dummies franchises are wildly successful for a reason: it seems a lot of folks are under the impression that any task, including building a full-scale replica of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, is a do-it-yourself project as long as they have enough time and the right book

(I think this D.I.Y. mania has something to do with the general powerlessness most of us feel in the face of modernity. . . either that, or it's due to a genetic mistrust of strangers with pipe wrenches). At any rate, it restores a bit of my faith in our species that both Saltwater Aquariums and Schizophrenia for Dummies can be found on the shelves of Harris County Public Library.

Myself, I collect how-to-write books –not out of any conscious effort on my part. It seems my mind just goes blank and the next thing I know I’m handing over a twenty to some guy with imaginative hair at the local bookmart. It’s actually an uncharacteristic optimism in me that keeps me buying the how-to-write books--some kink in the recesses of my brain that tells me maybe, just maybe, this new book is the one that will reveal the secret that makes writing a poem easy. But the fact is, it’s never going to be easy for people like me, and Cover: Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliverthat’s okay; the challenge of creating something literally out of thin air, an aritifact of a moment, “a machine of meaning,” is what keeps me and all of you out there going.

No how-to book is ever going to make it painless to write a poem, but a goodRules for the Dance by Mary Oliver one lets you both learn from the mistakes and dead-ends that others have encountered, and empowers you to forge new and unique mistakes and dead-ends of your own. That’s how we learn. Mary Oliver is a well-respected poet who has written a couple of strong poetry how-tos: A Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance : A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse.  

 Cover: The Practice of PoetryWhenever I'm feeling my self-esteem is getting a bit too high, I take down Turco's Book of Forms, and try to write a villanelle or a gwawdodyn (it's like doing a crossword with no black spaces and no down and across numbers) and my self-worth gradually sinks to its customary place alongside the catfish. This process usually gives me a serious case of writer's block, so I rummage around for The Practice of Poetry, the best book I've found for jump starting a stalled word processor.

If you have any suggestions for future posts, or just want to vent to someone else who is slogging along in obscurity, drop me a line.