In Defense of “Craft”

Annie Finch stands up for a beleaguered noun

Photo credit: pathlost, Courtesy of Creative Commons

Photo credit: pathlost, Courtesy of Creative Commons

I THOUGHT HARD before I used the term “craft” for my recent book A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry. I considered whether the word might be overused, or whether it was simply classic. In the end, I decided it was a term full of juice—deeply-hued, potent, and dense when applied to the art to which I’ve devoted my life. So when I noticed that Daniel Brown, in an essay for Partisan entitled “Craft Schmaft,”  was attacking the use of the word “craft” to describe the poetic process, I felt moved to defend the noun. 

Poems are small boats, and a good poem, it seems to me, takes all the craft we can muster to steer it.

I actually agree with Brown on his most basic point—that the process of writing and revising poetry calls on our deepest and, to use his adjective, most “mysterious” awareness. Where I disagree with him is in the idea that there is any fundamental opposition between this mysterious creativity and the more mundane idea of “craft” as skilled labor.

The more I meditate on the word “craft,” the more layers of significance I find. “Craft” in its first recorded meaning, in the Old English of the twelfth century, meant “strength and power.” After its meaning evolved from power to “skill and ingenuity,” the word came to signify “a small boat.” Why? Because it generally takes more skill to steer a small boat than a large one.

Isn’t that beautiful? Poems are small boats, and a good poem, it seems to me, takes all the craft we can muster to steer it. A poet who writes with sufficient skill can reverse that direction and take us back beyond skill to something far larger than conscious human action—into the realm of “craft” in its ancient metaphorical sense of power and, yes, magic (witches today still refer to their spiritual path as “the Craft”). Just as a great athlete or potter or filmmaker or chef or composer or painter or filmmaker turns craft seamlessly into art, so, too, does a great poet. To belittle the notion of poetic “craft” ipso facto is to set the bar for potential poetic genius depressingly low as compared to other arts.

From the early twentieth century to the early twenty-first century, the vocabularies of proportion and harmony, and the techniques of structure and rhythm, were largely pushed aside as poetry colonized the page with the help of the typewriter. Poets came to prioritize the values of originality and freedom. During that hundred-year period, a sense of mystery became more of a core poetic value than a sense of craft.

Poetry is living proof of the transformative potential of metaphor.

But that century is over. Now, thanks to multimedia technologies, we enjoy a restored sense of poetry’s place in community. My own experience as teacher and editor has shown me that poets in today’s increasingly performance-based poetry universe are hungry to reclaim the skills that make poems performative and memorable—skills that thrive through attention to craft.

But the metaphor matters to me, too. After all, poetry is living proof of the transformative potential of metaphor—a sentence that uses the word “living” metaphorically, and yet, as anyone who loves poetry is likely to agree, not metaphorically at all. Poetry does live—even though it doesn’t. And it is this exact interface between objective truth and experienced truth, the slantness of which Dickinson wrote, that a word like “craft” gains multi-leveled power and reminds us, in turn, of poetry’s multi-leveled power. Isn’t it far more evocative to use a metaphorical word like “craft” to gesture towards the ways poetry moves us beyond understanding than a word that tries to point to that mysterious motion head on—a word like “art,” say? Or “mysteriousness?” Craft bobs along on a sea of meaning.

Ani (ANNIE FINCH) is a poet, writer, and performer. She has published numerous books of poetry and poetics including Among the Goddesses, Spells: New and Selected Poems, and A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry. She is the founder of Poetry Witches.com, a community focused on poetic craft.


WHAT TO READ NEXT: When I think of craft, I think of, say, a cabinetmaker fashioning a table leg.