The Art of Imperfection in Poetry (and in life)

I’ve offered the following advice to a few of my writing students: don’t try so hard to be perfect. These students wrote very nice, tidy, wrapped up, often impeccably rhymed and scanned poems. They would present these poems with a flourish. See, they seemed to say, I’ve put everything in its perfect place. And some of those poems really were perfect – perfectly airless boxes, with no room for the reader inside.

There is genuine beauty in imperfection. Take what’s pictured above. Those are spiny rose galls. Inside are tiny wasp larva that have created those amazing structures in which they’ll overwinter. The galls are blushingly other-worldly. You could not by any stretch say that they are perfect, but I think that they are indeed beautiful.

How many of us try so very hard to be perfect in our writing and in our lives? Somewhere along the way, someone has convinced us that to be loved and accepted, we must be without flaw. It’s a dangerous pastime, working towards perfection, because no matter how hard we work, life is by its very nature chaotic and imperfect.

In writing, our yen for perfection leads to all sorts of mischief – writer’s “block,” a continual process of rewrite, a tendency to avoid truly finishing anything. And in the case of a poet, the process of rewriting until the poem is like a tight knot with no crack for the light to get in.

In my own writing, I have been trying very hard to not connect all the dots for my readers, to leave that space that will allow them to enter the poem, bringing with them their own experiences and connections.

And in my life? Well, imperfection is inherent in the natural world – a blossom loses a petal, an insect eats a hole in a spinach leaf, it is a rare stone that is perfectly round. I take my cue from my surroundings and try to be glad of rain during a run or a head cold that insists that I stay close to home, snuggled up reading. Perfect imperfection…

3 Replies to “The Art of Imperfection in Poetry (and in life)”

  1. Amazing. I was just thinking about that gall wasp and how rose like its growth; had been going to go look it up.

    On not connecting all the dots for your readers–yes also! I have a note at the bottom of a recent page in my notebook in larger-than-normal handwriting saying “my reader is smart!”

    I hope you enjoy the lassitude and couch despite this gorgeous day. Terrible day to be out on the water!

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