I was really taken by something I read in an interview with the American short-story writer George Saunders in The Guardian on Saturday, as it chimes with an intuition I've often felt about my own poetry-writing but haven't able to articulate before:
"...my whole schtick is, doing short fiction is like trying to suspend your conceptual understanding of the story for as long as possible...Donald Barthelme has this great essay called 'Not Knowing' where he says that your job as a fiction writer is to keep yourself confused for as long as you can. And the text will actually start talking to you. If you can keep your own designs a little quiet."
The short story is a form I'm increasingly drawn to, whose guiding principles of concision and ultimate indeterminacy - that sense of being left equivocally hanging after the briefest glimpse into a rapidly-sketched fictional world we encounter in all the seminal practitioners from Chekhov and the Joyce of Dubliners to Helen Simpson and Lorrie Moore - seem to overlap beguilingly with those of poetry.The recent spin-off "flash-fiction" or short short stories are indeed often hard to tell apart from prose-poems: at their best fragmentary, skewed narratives that thwart their own progress.
Although I wouldn't extrapolate generally-applicable rules from it, my experience of approaching the poem I'm trying to write is precisely akin to Saunders' sense of willed ignorance in the face of the story, a struggle to suspend my conceptual understanding of the lineage and parameters of "the poem" - never a given, always something to be rediscovered in the very process of writing. (Two Robert Frost insights spring to mind: " I write to find out what I didn't know I knew" and "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader").
Somehow, out of a paradoxical double-think, I have to get myself into the condition of not knowing how to write a poem before I can write one. Of trying to sidestep all the rational directives I might have made the other day about writing more like So-and-So or avoiding closed forms or "using the page" more (though these might eventually emerge). It's almost the feeling of beginning afresh each time the inceptual word-cluster for a poem suggests itself and - having wrong-footed my conscious mind with a menial task or a distracted reverie while, say, listening to music or staring out of the window on a train - what I call the formal imperative for the poem tentatively starts to take shape. Chance - another element beyond my conscious control - operates in tandem with patience, therefore, to mediate this rare, crucial entry-point into the poem.
If I approach the writing in a more thought-out, head-on way, it feels like I'm merely repeating myself and writing the same poem again and again (which of course many poets seem happy to do) or liable merely to write in the predictable manner I've gleaned from a mishmash of all the other recent poets I've been reading. But as I say this is less a conscious strategy than the only way I seem to know how: it's partly, I think, a ceding of a good deal of the compositional process to the unconscious, an acceptance that rational control will only take you so far when you are working with such a rich complex of internal and external materials as a poem worthy of the name arises from. But on the other hand it's certainly not automatic writing: perhaps you can only loosen the reins in this way if you've read and reflected and worked at the craft of poetry for years.
And this is only the way-in to the poem: now the real work, the drafting and deleting and redrafting until you stumble upon something that finally satisfies that initial blindly-groping instinct, can begin.