Jack Ridl on the Riddle of Writing

Poetry is a tricky thing. Despite our wishes as young writers, there is no magic formula, no set of rules on how to go about writing a poem, no absolutes on what we should or should not do. We ask ourselves over and over again, spinning ourselves in circles: “What should my poem look and sound like? What should my poem be about? How do I make a poem a really good poem?” Or simply, “Where do I begin?” For poet Jack Ridl, and many other writers who have discussed their process, the relationship between poem and poet is one in which the poem is really in charge.
In “The Poem and I Have a Little Conversation,” Jack frames this inner dialogue that runs throughout the life of his poem "Repairing the House," illustrating the nature of this relationship in which he must eventually hand over control of the writing process to the poem itself. The poem becomes a seemingly conscious entity that he recognizes as being “much smarter than I am,” and as he continues to revise and revise and revise, it is not his own desires that guide the changes, but rather the poem, writing itself as it wants to be written. So what is the poet’s role then, once this shift in power occurs? Jack describes it as an act of acceptance:
“But I’m stubborn; every time, I want to have my way. Then finally I start to listen.”
As he listens to the poem, it begins to reveal an unexpected purpose. He discovers that the “problems” of the house were not what was most important, but rather the opportunity the “problems” themselves had to offer.
Of course, it’s unlikely a poem will ever just tell the poet what he or she needs to know. The poem guides us, asks us questions, and allows us to figure out the answers for ourselves. “You’re sure?” Jack’s poem asks him. “You’re sure?” And of course he knows he is not, that there is something he has yet to learn, some other angle from which he needs to see this thing he’s writing about. If only he holds it up to the right light, he’ll find it. In the instance of “Repairing the House,” the thing he has yet to learn is that there is a kind of beauty in the brokenness.
Last year, Jack gave a TED-Talk in Macatawa, MI entitled, “Perfectly Imperfect.” In it, he addresses the idea that beauty does not lie in perfection and challenges the notion that something is only worth doing if you do it well. “That’s a lie,” he assures listeners. “In fact, you can do something imperfectly and something wonderful can come out of it.”
And he relays the story of how one Christmas, he and his daughter Meridith hung lights around their door. Having meticulously nailed in all the tacks, they carefully strung the lights, only to run out halfway down one side of the frame. Jack wanted to take the lights down and rehang them - Meridith stopped him. “Why?” he asked, and with the wisdom of a child, she replied, “Because they’re perfectly imperfect.” The lights stayed, unexplainably charming guests through the winter, and the image of the uneven lights becomes the trope for the idea that art, that beauty, that things of value, are not made valuable by their level of “excellence” but rather by the joyful and meaningful new ways they teach us to look at the world.
When writing this article, I asked Jack how, in his experience, that phrase “perfectly imperfect” applies specifically to writing. “In every single way,” he answered. “I think excellence as a goal is soul-deadening. So much of what is rich is paradoxically also imperfect. So much has been spoiled in our culture by not respecting the tattered, old, and shabby, the Velveteen Rabbits, and replacing them with something sterile.”
But just as important, if not more so, he reminded me, was Meridith’s idea that “with” is the most important word, because “we are always with.” With regards to writing, Jack says, “I try to apply that to every poem. I am with the subject, with poetry itself, with anyone who comes across the poem, etc. Therefore, I do my best to follow Meridith's ‘command’ that ‘we should always try to create a good with.'"
This notion of creating a good “with” as a poet is evident in the relationship between Jack and his poems, in the way he allows the ideas of his poems to shape their eventual “style” or “form.” There’s the couplets eventually agreed upon in “Repairing the House,” or the eschewing of punctuation in some of his other poems, or the narrative quality of his book Losing Season. Throughout his writing process, Jack is willing and able to admit his own potential flaws in light of the poem’s greater genius.
By relinquishing control and relieving himself from some of the responsibility for the poem’s outcome, he’s able to create an environment in which the poem is free to grow, shift, and transform into a thing of flawed beauty, of imperfect perfection. In permitting the poem to guide him in his writing, he also permits himself to learn and experience something he would have missed had he continued writing the poem as though he could bend it to his will.
There are times, of course, in which more planning and calculating is necessarily, even for Jack. When writing Losing Season, a collection of interconnected poems that follow a small-town high school basketball team through a less-than-hoped-for season, Jack “imagined the town and the people, the whole thing and then went about realizing which people, places, weather conditions, situations fit.”
That’s a far more active role in the process than what is suggested in “Conversation.” However, the ideas set forth in “Conversation,” in Jack’s TED-Talk, in his daughter’s insistence that “with” is the most important word, that wonderful things can be discovered in the shine of uneven lights, remain present throughout Losing Season. The title itself suggests that even in shortcomings, there is something of value. Out of a slew of loss, dejection, yearning, and confusion there is life, love, and learning - and poems.
With his poetry, Jack shows us that “perfectly imperfect” is not just a part of the creative process, but a part of the process of life itself. Houses slowly crumble with age. Sports teams lose games. Life does not turn out the way we think it will or plan for it to be. But when we loosen ourselves from the things to which we cling, we allow ourselves to experience parts of life we might have otherwise missed.
We feel the caress of handmade socks on our toes. We dance in the streets with drifting snow and feel the sun on our faces during that weekend drive when we get to that place where we remember that we are always “with.” With the poem, with the winter, with the mess, the grind, the hum. With each other.
This is why we write. This is why we live at all.

Works by Jack Ridl

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.