In her book, Strange Big Moon: The Japan and India Journals, 1960-1964, Joanne Kyger revealed her struggles with her own work as she told of her life and process as a poet and as Gary Snyder's wife in two unfamiliar countries. What she discovered is enlightening, particularly to those who write. The introductory material in the book says that the journals were not edited or revised. Left in their raw state they lay bare a four-year process of learning. Because of this, the reader learns with her.
While the travelogue/historical document (which includes names of beat poets and artist friends and the hearty embrace of mind-altering substances) is entertaining, it is the dovetailing of her meditation and writing practices that gives the book strength and that teaches. Out of the 280 pages, I can pick out two words that Kyger stressed that have already changed the way I see a poem: turning and suggest. Here is the paragraph with "turning":
Confused way of turning
sentence until it changes its intention many times from
the beginning and turns itself into a kind of maze. The
intention bores me from the outset, turning in the hand like
a bauble to catch a light; which way will surprise.
Kyger speaks to the line breaks, not just the breath, but the content. You can change the content mid-stream. We know what so many things look like already: leaves falling to the ground, rain on a face, the steam of a cup of tea. How do we write about one of those familiar topics and turn the hand, turn a corner, catch a light? Maybe we show what is underneath the leaf, that the face is a statue, that the tea was abandoned on a bench.
I first learned of Kyger's poetry in 1984, shortly after her book Going On was published, and if memory serves me, I heard her read, "News bulletin from Keith Lampe" on the radio, and promptly bought the book. Going On features selected poems from 1958-1980, and "News bulletin" is also in another book, All This Every Day. For some reason, I was tickled to find out that Keith Lampe was an actual person, a friend of Kyger's, something she mentioned in Strange Big Moon. Here is a lovely turn for you in the middle of that poem—two lines—as example:
that all drivers of motor vehicles remain firmly seated
within their bodies while the vehicle is in motion.
The turning seems so easy that you might think it just popped into her head, but no. The difference between "turning" and stream of consciousness is craft. Kyger's poems may seem to have disparate elements, but they are mindfully well-shaped. They are surprising and playful as well.
The second word I wanted to highlight, "suggest" also comes around to a surprise, but it does not surprise us blankly: we learn something. We get a delightful combined physical, emotional and intellectual surprise, much deeper than you might expect. Another excerpt from Strange Big Moon:
You can't make a point in a poem [i.e. build up with
examples.] The reader is way ahead and gets bored way
before you finish. Anticipation is obvious, therefore, need
not be stated. Suggest and suggest and keep turning.
Slightest hint only to follow the turn. The surprise is
innocence & revelation of the mind.
Suggest and hint. Give enough information so that the reader stays interested, but don't give it all away. Find alternative angles. Keep on turning.
If you are interested in learning, in humor, in expanding your idea of a poem, of letting different kinds of voices into your writing as they come to you, in nature, in the spiritual, try the poetry of Joanne Kyger.