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


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!

Or Maybe Growing a Poem

cecropia moth to send

So I know that the language I often use for this blog to talk about writing is architectural for the most part, but I have not always thought of it this way. On the one hand, I see students and other writers who see a piece of writing, a paragraph, say, as a brick wall that cannot be changed without actually breaking it apart and making a mess and then getting new bricks and more mortar, and it all seems to be much more work than they are willing to do. And I tell them, well, okay, if it must be a wall, make it out of Legos not bricks, because then you can change the size and color and try to do it a whole bunch of different ways quickly and easily and with some sense of fun.

And they often respond, “Huh.”

I do tend to think of words as small varicolored toys of varying sizes and infinite complexity, but that is more often when I feel that either I am in control of a piece of writing or, at the very least, or perhaps best, the writing is in control of the writing and I just have to let it come through my hands.

Alas, as we know, most writing doesn’t work that way, even for a bloody productive writer like me (last count: 48 days, 79 poems, 100 pages). Sometimes a piece of writing, or a part of it, kicks your butt for days, weeks, even months. In this case, where I can’t see a way in to simply take out pieces and replace the working parts, I start to think of the poem as being more organic, something that needs to grow, without me doing the growing. All I can do is water and weed and wait.

That is when it helps to have a writing buddy to kick back for you, or if you are very fortunate, a midwife. For years, my Poetry Midwife, Pamela read my poems when I was stalled out. Usually her answer to my dilemma, though phrased much more diplomatically and kindly, was basically, “The ending sucks.” Over and over, I just couldn’t end the thing right. Either I was overwriting or underwriting (which sounds like I was selling insurance) or just not, well, right-writing.

The beauty, however, of having the same problem over and over is that once you have finally figured out how to fix it, you have practically no problems left, until the next one comes along. So I got to the point where, when I was stuck on a poem and ready to pass it to her for help, I said to myself, “Self, I bet you she is going to say (nicely) that the ending sucks. So fix the ending first, self, before you send it to her.”

And somewhat magically that left her saying things like, “I really like this one.” Period. Success! And in my gratitude for all she did for me, I wrote her the following poem.

The Midwife’s Poem

for Pamela

Rub your hand across this mound

of words. Do they kick? Does the rhythm

move your hand? How fast does that

counter-rhythm heartbeat flutter behind?

Does it fly in time? What kind of moth

child trembles under your hand, under

the skin of the poem? Is it drawn to the heat

of your palm? Does it hear yet another counter-

rhythm, the heartbeat that you bring

to your silent, mulled questioning?

Every few weeks, I come to you for this

questioning, this touch you have for rhythms

and the reasons behind them. Without you, yes,

I might gestate properly, but anxiety, the ache

in the night, might slow this mothchild’s growth

in me. You have a touch, softer than feathers

on a warm breeze, for the unborn delicate grey

wings, for the dark hot blood pumping, pumping

into each phrase, each stanza. You deliver

them, living, into the pale papery light.

Practical Poetry

You might think, if you are not a poet, that poetry isn’t practical. You might recall Ernest Hemingway’s assertion that “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration,” and think, well, maybe poetry is interior decoration… You would be wrong. Or, if right, not in the way you think.

Poetry won’t keep the rain off your head and unless you have a really thick hardback book of it in your breast pocket, it probably won’t save your life. (Teddy Roosevelt once survived an assassination attempt because he had a thick speech in his pocket, but bullets were slower and smaller back then.) Poetry does not protect us the way architecture does. But what is the practical purpose of interior decoration?

Many of us, when thinking of interior decoration in the abstract, might think of the crowded Victorian parlor with its innumerable mementos on tables and mantles, and walls so filled with pictures that the wallpaper is invisible: lots of things that have little value and serve mainly to distract the viewer and make the room feel full. Abundance presumably symbolizes wealth here, with quantity being more important than quality.vic parlor

It is no surprise then that it wasn’t the Victorians who invented the haiku! A lot of us were taught that the haiku is a 17-syllable poem of 3 lines, of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each. Actually that defines a senryu, which can be about any topic. Strictly speaking, a haiku needs to be about nature, the seasons, etc. But here is the problem that nobody explains. A 17-syllable poem in Japanese might have as few as 5 to 8 words. The word sensei, teacher, sounds like only 2 syllables in English, but in Japanese, it is 4 syllables: se-n-se-i. So those brilliant haiku poets, Basho and Issa? They are even more brilliant than you thought!


Similarly Japanese interior decoration is traditionally minimalist. A home might have a room where you would greet guests, and in that room is an alcove called the tokonoma where the family will display a scroll or flower arrangement or holiday decoration. Not ten. One. Keeping it simple and classy. Often the decoration will change with the seasons, making a small artistic statement about how we move through the year, and how the seasons move through us. I think poetry can be like that, a beautiful moment to acknowledge a truth about the world and ourselves. And to me, that kind of poetry is very useful, very practical.

In the introduction to her 1982 collection of poetry, Marge Piercy explained how she wanted her poems to be of use. “What I mean by useful is simply that readers will find poems that speak to and for them, will take those poems into their lives and say them to each other and put them up on the bathroom w all and remember bits and pieces of them in stressful or quiet moments. That the poems may give voice to something in the experience of a life has been my intention. To find ourselves spoken for in art gives dignity to our pain, our anger, our lust, our losses. We can hear what we hope for and what we must fear, in the small release of cadenced utterance. We have few rituals that function for us in the ordinary chaos of our lives” (xii).

This is what I look for in poetry that I read, and this is what I work for in poetry that I write.

Piercy, Marge. Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy. New York: Knopf, 1982.