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Discipline & Poetry

Dear Intrepid Souls,

Hello from a spot on a rise in south central Montana. I am here, filming poems for the Adrian Brinkerhoff Poetry Foundation, at a beautiful outdoor art center called Tippet Rise. It is not quite daylight yet, and as I arrived at night, able to see only what was before my headlights, I am eager to see the aspen I could smell and the stream below my cabin that kept me company in sound all evening. And I cannot wait to share all of it with you.

It seems odd to start a poetry conversation with discipline, doesn't it? Poetry, especially when we think about free verse and the imagination, seems to be that thing free of discipline, a word (perhaps even an act) that seems to arrive on the page and in the mind with some negative connotation, but the art of poetry (and yes, it is an art) cannot thrive without discipline. As many of you know, I read and listen to a wide range of books. Yesterday, on the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the airport, it was M Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled. I was reminded of it by bell hooks in her book all about love: new visions, which I read last week. Though she refers to the book's definition of love (which, by the way, claims that it has nothing to do with that aching need for another), I became very interested in what Peck was saying about discipline.

Discipline is one of the four words that frame my life. The other three are Integrity, Perseverance, and Love. I try to exist within that frame, knowing that I cannot feel true joy and happiness if I am living outside those boundaries---which, as I look at it, is an act of both discipline and self-love and integrity...but I digress. Peck writes, "Discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life's problems. Without discipline, we can solve nothing. With only some discipline we can solve only some problems. With total discipline, we can solve all problems.” We are all familiar with self-discipline in life. Forgoing another drink, going to bed early when we know we must rise early the next day, choosing to go to the gym instead of sleeping in, saying no to friends when there is homework or writing to be done---but what does it mean to poetry?

For me, it means showing up. It means that despite everything else I can find to do during the day, I make the time to go to the page and write. And it goes beyond the habit or ritual of writing or creation, but also of revision. When I think of poetry problems, like not conveying what I hoped the poem would convey or not having the right title, I know that it requires discipline to not abandon the poem. To pick up another book of poems and read, to study craft. And sometimes to make my own rules for the poem. If I apply the same discipline to my practice as I do to the poem, something beautiful arises---and oddly, it is freedom.

Wait, what? But discipline seems the opposite of freedom! Yes, even Aristotle said it, "Through discipline comes freedom." There is the freedom that discipline creates in art. If you have the self-discipline to wake early, to set aside all other things for15 minutes to an hour, and write, you have given yourself the freedom to create. If you practice the self-discipline it takes to say no to binge-watching the new season of Stranger Things in order to read a book of poems or study craft, you have given yourself the freedom to choose by seeing and learning possibilities. And sometimes, when you are given a prompt or create one on your own, the discipline of the prompt gives you a great deal of freedom to put whatever you want in the form. Poetry, as we know, does not do well with definition, but we know a poem when we see it. And we know it because the poet used all the tools of craft and imagination, took the time and attention, and put aside all other things to create it. There may be no bad poems, but there are excellent ones, and they did not arise without discipline.

Discipline is not punishment; boundaries create freedom. What boundaries will you set for your discipline of poetry? What freedom will you give yourself with your art?

Ya, there are some days when I think, "I'd rather just curl up on the chaise lounge and watch six episodes of Sanditon." And once in a blue moon, I do.

But now I look outside at the first sun touching the bark of the aspen. I think about the day ahead, filming poems in the Beartooth Front Country, the people I will meet today, the connections my poems will make... and I am glad I chose to get up early and write, to study the craft of poetry, to discipline myself to art.

Poem on.



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