The Importance of Embracing Contradictions

In this post, Ben Berman looks at the importance of embracing contradictions and mixed emotions when writing poems.



Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the great researcher of creativity, has written a lot about conflict and dialectical tensions in his research on creative personality traits. In his study of some of the most eminent creators of the 20th Century (Nobel Prize winners in every field of study), he found that many of these people shared what he called antithetical traits, and he grouped these into ten categories


According to Csikszentmihalyi, creative people often exhibit these paradoxical traits – they are both extraverted and introverted, playful and disciplined, passionate and objective etc. It speaks to how complex the creative process and how you need different temperaments for different stages of the process. But it also offers a great starting point for poetry.


“One way to make a convincing poetic voice,” writes Tony Hoagland in his book The Art of Voice, “is to display the mind in motion, or the mind changing direction as it speaks… this changing movement can be represented in many ways. It can be embodied through a kind of stuttering hesitation, or by a spontaneous uncensoredness, or as a deepening tangle of psychology.”


Another way to think about duality is to write a poem about a subject where you feel two ways at the same time. Here is a wonderful poem by Tom Wayman called "Did I Miss Anything?". 


The poem’s title poses the question that we teachers often hear whenever a student is out, but then alternates back and forth between very different answers until it concludes.  

Writing Prompt: Write a poem that speaks to the paradoxical tensions that creative people often feel. Begin with a subject that causes you to feel two ways at the same time. As you write the poem, make space for opposing feelings or ideas to co-exist – try to embrace Keats’ description of Negative Capability, where a writer is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.


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About the Author

Ben Berman’s first book, Strange Borderlands, won the 2014 Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards. His second collection, Figuring in the Figure, was recently selected as a Must-Read by the Mass Center for the Book. And his new book, Then Again, came out last November. He has received awards from the New England Poetry Club and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches at Brookline High School and lives in the Boston area with his wife and two daughters.

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