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Fraser Sutherland : Writing Philosophy


I began to write poetry about the time of puberty, though I donít think I did it to impress some girl. I did it as an act of imitation or appropriation, like a mynah bird that mimics another birdís song, or a cuckoo that lays its eggs in another birdís nest. I think I still do this unconsciously. So you see that there is no way I can ever be original. However, a mynah bird or a cuckoo is still a bird, and wants to make sounds and lay eggs. Like them, I keep doing it.

I have no style. I have no program. I have no poetics. Or if I do have a style, program, and poetics it is up to you, not me, to say what they are. I donít know what Iím doing. I do hold general beliefs about poetry, but I donít understand how, or even whether, they get transferred to my work.

For what itís worth, here are a few of my beliefs.

Poetry is radically different from prose fiction. Itís true that fiction can have many poetic effects, and poetry can have prose rhythms. Both use the effects of voice and tone. However, poetry uses smaller units Ė usually the word, phrase, clause, or line. Like fiction, it may tell a story but the story is self-contained, whereas a piece of prose fiction in theory could go on forever. We could just go on living with the characters the author creates. From this point of view, Tolstoyís War and Peace is too short. But the world the poet makes, and which the reader briefly inhabits, has a fixed scope and boundary.

Despite what the poet may say, a poem is not a song, except in a narrow sense. True, it has its own musical line but it is not the rhythm of a guitar or an a capella melody. I get very bored when people say that poetry is an oral form. Are they saying that poetry has been in decline ever since pre-literate people chanted it around a camp fire? Or that the poem on the page is inferior to what is shouted, whispered, or sung? I donít believe that either the written or the spoken word is intrinsically superior.

In a poem, form and content should be indivisible. If form is overemphasized, the poem is merely a shell filled with virtually meaningless, even interchangeable, words. If content is overemphasized, the poem might as well be prose. If the poet grows so obsessed with language that the poem has no referents to anything beyond itself, it resembles masturbation. If the poet only thinks of referents in the world beyond the poem, it resembles promiscuity.

How important is content? I know that if a poem emerges from a social crisis, war, or revolution, it can be a call to join a cause or battle, or be a powerful act of witness or testimony. When poems address such focal human issues as life, death, and survival they are plainly "about" something, just as they would be if they emerged from the joys, sorrows, and conflicts of a personís life. But I also donít think we should be compelled to adore a love poem because it is about love, or to applaud an "anti-war" poem because it opposes a particular war, or war in general. I believe that a great poem has a form that, transcending the accidents of what is being said, becomes itself the supreme content.

I also believe that poetry ought to be closer to sacred than to secular modes. I think that a poem should be closer to a prayer, hymn, or sermon than to a commercial message, an instruction manual, or a political speech.

I donít like Shakespeare very much. I find that heís faking most of the time. But heís certainly quotable. So I will quote Hamlet talking to himself. He says, "Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered." Now suppose that itís not Hamlet but the poet who is speaking and that he is begging forgiveness, not from Ophelia, but from the Muse. Perhaps he is telling her to remember his artistic sins.

Fraser Sutherland's works copyright © to the author.


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