Writers on Writing #64: Paul Hostovsky
Poetry and Sex
I went through a phase once where I only wrote sestinas. I was in love with the form, under the spell of the repetition. There is much pleasure to be had in repetition. But doing something over and over, as good as it may feel, can also be bad for you, not to mention bad for your poem. Paul Fussell says in his book, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, that the trouble with sestinas is they tend to "give more pleasure to the contriver of the form than to its apprehender." Having written many sestinas myself, having gotten much pleasure out of all of them, and having gotten none of them published, I would agree with Fussell.
Repetition is many things: rhetorical, humorous, incantatory, sexual. Rub-a-dub-dub. And just as there is a time and a place for sex, there is also a time and a place for repetition. That being said, some people like to have sex in odd places and at odd times. And some people like to have sex all the time. And some people just don’t like sex at all, and don’t see what all the fuss is about. Fussell says nothing about the fuss over sex in his book on poetic meter and poetic form, but I think he would agree that sex and meter are inextricably related. For example, intercourse is often delightfully trochaic. However, rereading this paragraph now, I notice that I’ve used the word sex at least 8 times. That’s a bit excessive, don’t you think? A good English teacher would surely say that using sex 8 times in the same paragraph is a bit excessive. S/he would probably tell me to revise.
When I revise—and I revise constantly—I often struggle with the repetition question. When I’m in the first draft of a poem, when I’m under its spell, the use of repetition can propel me forward, can feel central to the poem’s movement and invention, its argument and rhythm. But sometimes when I return to the same poem later on, the repetition has lost its magic, lost its fire, and it feels like returning to a bunch of empty beer cans and used condoms at a campsite, evidence that somebody had some fun here at some point in time recently, but there’s no fun now and in fact there’s a lot of cleaning up that needs to be done.
I know I’m repeating myself here, but getting back to the sex analogy, one could argue that both the sexual impulse and the repetition impulse partake of the same subtle brand of insanity. And one could also argue that in the making of great poems there is a certain amount of, well, teetering on the edge, and flirting with madness, through the sleeve of the imagination. You have to be a little crazy, after all, to make poems. And the repetition can get you in the mood, it can get you going, it can make you crazy enough to fall in love with the words. Which is what a good poem is, after all: an act of love. And it’s hard to go back and revise something as irrational as an act of love.
Paul Hostovsky is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Naming Names (Main Street Rag2013). His poems have won a Pushcart Prize and two Best of the Net awards. He has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Writer's Almanac, and was a featured poet on the 2013 Goergia Poetry Circuit. Visit him at www.paulhostovsky.com.