by Jared Harél, TWC Poetry Instructor
“The craft of poetry is not easy. It is better than easy. It is joyously difficult.” – John Ciardi
As a kid, I was lazy. Really lazy. It wasn’t a decision so much as a fundamental disposition—something innate and imprinted in my bones. I despised cleaning my room, or doing homework, or sweating. There’s an old photo of my younger brother and me that really drives this point home: I’m five years old. My brother is two. It’s a sunny day, and there’s a stroller on the sidewalk. My brother stands stubbornly outside the stroller, while I sit, reclined and grinning, delighted to be the one carried along. It wasn’t until I got into basketball in junior high that I began to see the benefits of actually exerting myself. The more I practiced, the better I played. The harder I worked, the more fun basketball became.
So what does any of this have to do with writing poems?
There’s a pervading thought amid some novice writers – poem writers especially – that while life experiences are hard-earned, the writing itself should come fairly easily, like water gushing from a spout. It’s all right there. It just needs to be released! Of course, it doesn’t work that way. Not exactly. It’s like that friend we all have who is a nice person, but a terrible storyteller. The problem isn’t that their life is not interesting. The issue is craft. Our friend has no ear for rhythm or concision, for hooking an audience and deepening tension.
For these early writers, a great deal of frustration generally ensues. Afterwards, if they haven’t smashed their laptops against the wall and snapped all their #2 pencils, the real work begins: that of reading, crafting, and revising poems. It was while working with just these sort of students, years ago, that I came upon John Ciardi’s excellent essay collection, Ciardi Himself: Fifteen Essays in the Reading, Writing and Teaching of Poetry.
John Ciardi was an accomplished poet and beloved educator. The son of Italian immigrants and a longtime resident of Metuchen, New Jersey, he spent decades teaching English Literature and Poetry at Rutgers University. I was reading through his essays when I encountered the lines in the epigraph above. I have since typed those words atop many Poetry Workshop syllabi, scrawled it across whiteboards, and commenced semesters with that very quote.
“Joyously difficult.” The phrase hit upon something I had known for years, but hadn’t quite spelled out for myself; how the most rewarding things in life are not worthwhile despite being difficult, but because they are difficult. Yes, I can hear my childhood self audibly groaning about now! Yet writing poems has become that perfect mixture of work and play. Pleasure and pain. It engages the best and most exacting parts of myself, while also the strangest and stubbornly carefree.
Making a good poem is a “joyously difficult” task, but as a creative writing teacher and workshop leader, I aim to extend this possibility to others; to share in my reward. Of course, it need not be poetry, or even writing that scratches this itch. For some, that “joyously difficult” thing may be playing the violin, or skateboarding, or gut-renovating your kitchen, or whatever. The point is to find it. Ciardi again: “If there is no play, nothing happens. There is no seriousness without play.”
Life is tough, and simple comforts absolutely have their place. So by all means, binge-watch The Great British Bake Off. Take an afternoon nap. Five-year-old me understood this better than anyone. But in the end, what truly electrifies your days will be the difficult stuff. Running that marathon, finishing your novel, being a good parent. None of these things are remotely easy. They are far, far better. What a joy!