by Ron Hayes
What does research have to do with poetry and why in the world would a poet ever need to do research?
Ever been asked this question? Ever asked it yourself? When the term “research” crops up in a conversation amongst you and your poet friends, do they look at you funny and dismiss the idea? Or do they get a little excited? (I know people who get excited at the mere mention of the word “research” so believe me when I tell you that those kinds of people are out there.) If you or poets you know are of the dismissive, snort-of-derision persuasion when it comes to using research, I hope that this month’s post will change your mind about the role research can play in your poetry. Especially when that blank page is staring you down and the muse is nowhere to be found.
If you’re like me, the word “research” conjures images of libraries and late nights, books stacked and scattered across every surface while you enter countless combinations of keystrokes into the omniscient algorithms of Google. That’s the beauty and the bane of our existence in the Western World today—we have at our fingertips the whole of human civilization’s recorded knowledge…and far too many of us use it to track down cute cat videos or to see how much weight our former love interest has gained. At our best, however, we use research to make us better, to make ourselves smarter, and to prove our detractors wrong. But what does all this have to do with poetry?
First, I know that engaging in a little harmless research has been known to break me out of a long stretch of writer’s block. Often, when I’ve let my job get in the way of my work for too long and I’m in the second hour of staring down a blank page, I’ll turn to some light research to jump start the creative process. As one who writes reactively to life, I’ll browse headlines for a while or scroll Wikipedia. National Geographic’s site and Stumbleupon are great resources for off-the-wall ideas. You may not have ever thought about it in this way, but for us writers, mindless browsing isn’t always just mindless and you shouldn’t think of it as browsing. You’re researching! No one ever said research had to be active and purposeful, and no one can ever really say how much your subconscious actively influences your creative process.
Another way that research helps me as a poet is by giving me rules. What I mean by that is that, when I’m REALLY stuck and I’m simply not getting lines on the page, another trick I use is to challenge myself to writing a formal poem—a sonnet, a sestina, a villanelle, etc. For me, the strictures of the rules offer me a challenge and somehow my mind forgets all about what to say and instead I focus on how I’m saying it and how well I can adhere to the rules and still create a beautiful, poignant piece. What’s that have to do with research? Well, aside from sonnets and haiku, I simply don’t have all the rules memorized. If I want to take a stab at another sestina, I have to look up the end word rotation. I need reminding of how villanelles work when I want to write one and the same holds true of ghazals, pantoums, and tanka. Moreover, I’m always interested in trying out new forms; this, of course, means I need to research those forms. Researching the rules leads to researching examples which leads to researching poets and movements and so on and so on until I’ve either exhausted myself researching or I’ve exhausted the research. Either way, I’m better off than before I began because now I have a headful of thoughts, ideas, reactions, and observations that I’m confident will end up on the page when it’s time to write. Research is what got me there.
In the past I’ve heard of those artists who are somewhat purist in their process. They want nothing of the outside world to influence their work or they want to channel a specific influence so as to allow their own work to comment on that subject. Fair enough. No research necessary. But I can’t help but realize that we live in a time in history when human beings never had as much knowledge—or the opportunity to learn about so many things—as you and I have the opportunity to read about or experience. Channeling emotion is no doubt a beautiful and effective means of responding to the urge to create. But when the muse is elusive, I believe it’s simply a time when she wants to be pursued. Passive pursuit, if it works for you, is fine. Sit there in your chair and think. But sometimes we have to stretch out and poke our noses around in this great wide world of ours to find that muse. More often than you might think, she’s hunkered down in a place you’d never expect to find her, and the only way of digging her out is through research.
So go! Get out there and read some books or browse some obscure corner of the interwebs you’ve never been. Track her down and find your muse!