Poetics, Or Oh Yeah, THAT Was the Point of This Blog…

shopping

I just burned through reading C.D. Wright’s new book with the impossible title, The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All. It is made up of short prose-poem style essays largely about how she feels about words, poetry and her favorite poets; in short, her poetics. It made me want to get back to that project myself, as that was one of the goals I had when I started this blog about a year and a half ago.

And since, as they say, talking about music is like dancing about architecture, and since I began this blog considering the poetic architecture of cathedrals, it makes a certain kind of sense (to me at least) to go about examining the music of poetry by talking about dancing.

I took a ballroom dance class once in college. I didn’t much care for always having to follow rather than lead, but I loved the jitterbug, and the circular waltz, with each couple doing small circles inside the larger orbiting circle of the dance, was like being inside one of those spirograph toys. One dance is simply enjoying your partner’s company. The other is about being together one of the small moving parts of a larger communal piece of art.

And maybe that’s true of poetry as well. Sometimes you give your readers a little gem of enjoyment, showing the unique way you see the world in such a way that they want to come back again—also the way friendships begin. Other poetry you write to show off your virtuosity (and yes, poets, unlike English teachers, think about virtuosity; sometimes I have to look in the mirror before I think so I can remember which hat I’m wearing).

In the coming weeks I will write about flamenco, tango, those awkward junior high school dances and anything else I can think of or you can challenge me with—oooh. I like that idea. Gentle Readers, suggest a dance and I will explain how poetry is like it. If I haven’t heard of it, you may need to direct me to a YouTube video to enlighten me. Game on!

Verse Lengths

Invisible-measuring-tape

For some reason this week I seem to keep writing poems with verses of either three or six lines (except for the bridge poem which took its form from its subject). I’ve been trying to figure out how I get my verse lengths. The modernist poet, Marianne Moore, played around with uneven, inconsistent verse lengths, probably for some terribly modernist break-the-boundaries reason. I just find they give me the structure I need to get from the beginning to the end. Looking back just on what I wrote last week, I suspect the answer is that I take the length of the first verse, in which I have my starting idea that has its own length, and then I apply that length to all my other ideas. Not sure how much sense that makes, but it seems to be working for me, so…?

Elevating Experience avec Tous Les Mots Justes

I just had half a discussion about why we read poetry and I am thinking at the same time about why I write poetry. I think during the Teenage Angst Years, I wrote for the same reasons a lot of kids write: to Express My Inner Turmoil. This is not a bad reason for writing, and if you can also make money off it (which some novelists and pop singers do manage to do), that’s even better.

Sometimes I write to experiment with sound, as I did when I wrote a dozen poems about Jack of the Beanstalk with tons of internal rhyme to get a bit more of a constant rhythm going, or when I wrote twice that many about flamenco, using staccato short lines to try to convey the percussion’s feeling.

Sometimes I write to tell stories, as I do when I unpack what I think is going on in a Japanese woodblock. Sometimes I write to take a story that already is out there—Jack of the B, Xena Warrior Princess, the Wright brothers—and go deeper into it, looking at it from a few sides.

But sometimes it seems just a matter of elevating experience, giving dignity to our joys and sorrows as Marge Piercy might say, through finding all the exactly right words to make Truth happen.

Truth and Truths

In his book, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes about the Vietnam War (because he almost never writes about anything else). He discusses the difference between factual truth (the things that really happened in Vietnam) and emotional truth (the story of what happened that readers can actually take in). I think of this because I have been thinking about Emily Dickinson’s poem:

 

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

 

I also think of this because of all the writers I love who have used fantasy or science fiction or even comedy/horror to tell truths that are difficult to communicate directly in a straight documentarian kind of way. Fantasy frequently helps us talk about religion and moral values: good vs. evil. Science fiction interrogates our fears about the uses and abuses of technology. Horror can illustrate a more manageable or more laughable version of social fears: vampires demonstrate class warfare, werewolves our discomfort with the wild vs. the domestic, zombies our feelings of incipient chaos. Perhaps all of literature is in part telling the truth at a slant so that it catches the light in a more meaningful way.

 

Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Ed Ralph W.  Franklin. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998,

The Weirdness of Precipitation. Also Umbrellas.

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So a friend has pointed out that I have been veering from the straight path of poetry and investigating all kinds of apparently nonpoetic things, and she is not wrong. At first I thought this was simply a result of my writer’s block, again, and to some extent it is. Then I thought about how I started this blog in part to figure out my poetics, that is, what the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics defines as “a systematic theory or doctrine of poetry” (Preminger 636). What do I think counts as poetry and where do we draw the line? Is it enough to “not be prose,” i.e., to have lots of short lines, some of which may happen to rhyme? Is it likely to have more elegant language and imagery than non-literary prose generally uses? Must it be beautiful? And what do we mean by beauty?

And then I realized that some of what I have been unconsciously doing is figuring out my aesthetics, which oddly enough, Preminger does not define, although he does include aesthetic distance and aestheticism, this last of which he seems to define as art for art’s sake, although he takes several pages to do it. I think for me defining one’s aesthetics is about defining what one as an individual, artist and nonartist, find beautiful and not. What draws you, as the bagpipes drew me before my mind had realized that my legs were moving? What repels me, as the sonorous, groaning organ does, even though it has great symmetry and harmony and All The Things, and can move other folks to tears for Very Different Reasons?

And I have been fascinated by our recent popular culture projects, because they have been drawing me in a similar fashion. Some of what I like is the smart juxtaposition between apparent opposites that we often get, the mixing of deadly serious and light wit, or dark, almost Gothic environments mixed with warm companionship. Or just high school students reading 500-year-old texts in an actual library to learn about the demons they are about to face. These tinctures in the story-telling of our time fascinate me, and I hope are teaching me about how to tell a more beautiful story, whether I do it in poetry or prose or some other way.

But for those who came for the poetry, here is a poem from last Monday when I got soaking wet about three different times.

.

Suddenly the air

is awash front to back

with water, which once,

before today, used

to be ocean or cloud.

.

And walksign people

scurry and slosh across

sidewalks become rivers

for a moment or two

too long for dry shoes.

.

Only the dry ones, those

who planned ahead,

stay anywhere near dry

carrying their nylon roof

on a stick.

.

Preminger, Alex, ed. Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1974.

Language, People!

age-of-ultron-captain-america-language

So last week my writing students at MIT were given a piece by science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany’s book About Writing. The passage I like best says, “Use the precise word. Don’t say ‘gaze’ when you mean ‘look.’ Don’t say ‘ambled’ or ‘sauntered’ or ‘stalked’ when you mean ‘walked.’ (And don’t say ‘walked’ when you mean one of the others.) As far as the creative writer goes, the concept of synonyms should be a fiction for high school and first-and second-year college students to encourage them to improve their vocabularies. The fact is (as writers from Georg Christoff Lichtenberg [1742-99] in the eighteenth century to Alfred Bester [1913-87] in the twentieth have written), ‘There are no synonyms'” (4).

Similarly, poet Marge Piercy says (somewhere probably in this book but I cannot find it) that every poet should have, in addition to a good dictionary and thesaurus, a set of Peterson’s Field Guides to trees and flowers and birds. There is a difference between a grackle and a sparrow, a walnut tree and an oak. Similarly, when you get a good thesaurus, that means Roget’s, NOT Mirriam-Webster. For “Color” Mirriam-Webster says things like “hue” and “tint.” Roget’s gives you all kinds of reds, oranges, yellows, greens, etc. Some are from flowers, others from gems. Always look up the thing to see what it came from.

Particulars persuade, people. So watch your language!

Delany, Samuel R. About Writing. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Piercy, Marge. Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1999.

The Problems of Non-Concrete Poetry Where Placement on the F^*%ing Page Matters in the Context of Electronic Publishing

Okay, so a while back I was talking about concrete poetry, a poem that looks like the subject it is about and I gave my pear poem as an example. That form translates off the page and into the world of electronic publishing with no problems because most platforms will allow you to center your text. Unfortunately, as I have been working to prepare my upcoming book, Icons & Action Figures (Batteries Not Included), for e-publishing this spring, I have come across some annoying problems.

sandy01

It turns out that although I rarely write concrete poetry, I do from time to time tab words and phrases away from the regular text line to suggest, say, fog or leaves or, in the example I am thinking of, foxes bouncing around a restaurant. “Fox Games” is one of my favorite poems because I achieved something that I love managing: conveying with words on the page the colors and dynamism and message and story that I see in a piece of visual art (ekphrasis).

sandy03

The poem is based on a photo of an installation of the same name by artist, Sandy Skoglund. I attach the whole picture and some close ups to show the details of this vivid masterpiece.

I originally wrote the poem in two styles, alternating between sections with regular lines and sections about the foxes, where words or phrases mimicked on the page what the foxes were doing all over the print. To reproduce the effect without being able to do anymore that left-justify or center the pieces is impossible; I might be able to manage that here in a blog post, but if you try messing with styles in an e-book, you end up with…well, a mess. So I am stuck with only left-justification. So I had to choose to go for only the sound of the action, rather than sound, look and feel. Sigh. But I still love the poem. Here is the second half of it:

He begins to speak of himself. She can’t help looking at him,

imagining his face in forty years of soft folds, his voice

crinkling newsprint. Time, she thinks,

fades us to this grey. Time,

she thinks, her face blank pink attention. There is never enough

time to learn to speak in color. There’s so much we can’t say

with our bodies. We need

these foxes

jumping

.

on tables

.

playing

at tearing out

each other’s throats

.

crimson

foxes

dancing

.

among grey tablecloths

grey baskets

grey bread

.

while we sit in our grey corner speaking of the blush

of the wine about to be poured out by our waiter in his grey vest,

wine that holds itself back, corked for rational inspection, grey

bottled up, wine that knows itself

crimson

playful

ready to bark

and bite.

Skoglund, Sandy. “Fox Games.” Cibachrome print. 1990.

Spilecki, Susan. “Fox Games.” Kimera. June 2001