back to basics

I’m currently listening to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E Flat major, Op. 73 “Emperor”: I. Allegro as conducted by Alfred Brendel with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Bernard Haitink. It just seemed appropriate after what just transpired only a few minutes ago as I’m typing this.


It’s a Monday afternoon but I’m not shirking work to read. This is work!

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I wanted to improve and become better as a writer and, most especially, as a poet. So I began rifling through my books and reading some great poets and looking at the way they structure their ideas and how they use imagery and metaphors. Then I saw my copy of Laurence Perrine’s Sound and Sense, a book that serves as an introduction to poetry. It was one of our required readings back in my college days when I was taking up Literature and Creative Writing.

I thought to myself, “I should go back to the basics.” Instead of adding more and more information and knowledge to what I think I already know, thus just adding more elements to juggle around, I thought that I should just work on a clean slate. In a sense, to go back to the very beginning, back to the foundation of my practice. In a sense, since I didn’t like where my poetry stood at the moment, I wanted to just unlearn everything I knew and start all over again.

I’m older now and I have a better understanding of the craft and of the world and of myself and to treat my practice as if I was a beginning would mean that I can now better integrate what I will re-learn into my art. If I came into this process holding on to whatever I thought I already knew, I’d be resistant to certain lessons.

So I started reading the book from the very first page and after just reading the first ten pages, I realised there were so many things about poetry that I had forgotten. I appropriated what I wanted and needed, and also what I got out of the act of writing poems, into the art form. I was veering away from the soul and the core of poetry to use it merely for my purposes.

Something as simple as this, found on page 8, of Sound and Sense:

Its [poetry] primary concern is not with beauty, not with philosophical truth, nor with persuasion, but with experience. Beauty and philosophical truth are aspects of experience, and the poet is often engaged with them.

— Laurence Perrine

My mind cracked open. This is what is essentially wrong or flawed in my writing of poetry. I’m focused on the truth, which should be a by-product of the poem and not its reason for existing. I always tend to editorialise and summarise and explain myself, especially at the ending, and that’s where my poems become weaker and lose strength.

The best poems never do that. I was always careful not to do it but after the drafts and even in on some of my more refined works still have that tendency. They are structured that way. My head is structured that way.


My intention is not to communicate experiences. I’m always trying to communicate my philosophical truth. Worse, I try to beautify it. From the very beginning, my approach was wrong and that’s where I’ve been getting wrong.

I do think that I get it right sometimes. Some poems manage to just remain as presenting an experience and settles comfortably in the outskirts of poetry. Now I see that those were accidents.

I have to learn to pull back now. As I begin all over again in the practice of this, I have to come in with the proper approach.

Literature, then, exists to communicate significant experience — significant because concentrated and organised. Its function is not to tell us about experience but to allow us to imaginatively to participate in it.

— Laurence Perrine

Show, don’t tell. It’s a rule I always use when giving criticisms to friends who make art or when I’m asked to give workshops. It means so much more to me now then it ever did before. It’s quite simple, really, and it’s something I’ve always known and understood. But with this added context, as I rediscover my foundations and return to the definitions of poetry, that I see new layers to this little phrase. Show, don’t tell. As one engaged in the craft of poetry, I feel like I know so much more now than ever about my writing.

And that’s just the first ten pages.

Now you understand why I had to talk about listening to Beethoven.

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