Practice and Repetition: Rilke and Erasmus

One thing that a poet probably knows by instinct but still hates hearing is that his poetry will never improve without practice. Well, let me pull the band-aid off with full force: you must practice. What is more, you must practice often.
When Ranier Maria Rilke began his correspondence with Franz Kappus (Letters to a Young Poet), he told the young poet:
You ask whether your verses are an y good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity...
The point is: poetry is your choice, but once you choose you must be willing to do the work to make it good. Practice is essential to your progress, so once you choose to write you cannot choose to practice - you simply must. Rilke held back no punches. If you are going to be a poet, you should put in the time.

But let's say you are having what we call "writer's block" - and it happens to all of us. First, I would suggest you pick up a copy of The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and read it through - it will take about an hour or so tops. Next, I'd suggest an old friend I met in a Shakespeare class - Desiderius Erasmus.

Erasmus and Copia
My first Shakespeare professor, Dr. Laura Scavuzzo Wheeler, wanted to show us why Shakespeare felt the need to work his way through so many damn sonnets, so she had us go through an exercise that not only helped me understand Shakespeare, but also improve my own poetry.

Here's how it goes. Erasmus wrote a rhetorical guide, Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style, and he offers a famous example of "abundance" by creating 195 versions of the phrase "Your letter pleased me greatly." Here are some of his iterations:
  • Your epistle was delightful to a degree.
  • That you paid your respect by letter was assuredly a satisfaction to me.
  • Good God, what a mighty joy proceeded from your epistle.
He, of course, goes on and on. Practice with this single phrase allows Erasmus to master the words in any iteration he can imagine.

This was such a wonderful revelation, this playing with language - dressing a line up and down with new adjectives, verbs, phrases, etc. And what a fun way to find my way out of writer's block - just by thinking of a line or a phrase or even a word and throwing words at it, seeing what works, what sounds funny or creepy and just having fun with language. Try it - if you don't get a poem, at least you are writing... and you will be surprised at the new appreciation you can have for a word or a phrase (such as "you must practice" - notice how many ways I say this phrase in this section).

Also, once you've tried some "copia" go back to Shakespeare's and Petrarch's sonnets and see if you don't notice the amount of dressing up and down they do of the same phrases and images (Emily Dickinson does it, too).