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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"A Moment" by Philip Schultz -- Poetry Daily, 2/24/13

from The Southern Review (Winter 2013)
poem found here

first lines:
A measurement of time
In which dogs live


lists and short lines

-- reformatted, editing and some rewriting 1/10/2014

A note after editing: while on rereading I stand by my observations, here. I should point out that it is a nearly unavoidable effect of speaking to points as "unsuccessful" that it sounds like you mean "glaring unsuccessful." Such is not the case, here. Much of the below is speaking about effects that are less than glaring, perhaps merely "present." But, as a reader, a stumbling point is a stumbling point is a stumbling point, irrespective of the size of the stone. And as a writer (speaking here in the general), finding such is a key skill. Sophistication develops when you learn to see and here stumbling points to which you were previously you were blind and deaf.

I should also add that I do not think the below is itself at all successful in what it wanted to do. Not one of my better posts. Possibly one of the worst. -- 1/10/2014

Lists. A staple of literature. I will admit, I love them. (I have not yet read Rabelais, the first great master of the list, but I have Joyce.) And not just lists qua lists, but lists as syntactic and semantic devices as well. (French literature (fiction and non) is filled with such.)

So, here, a list. What do I think of this poem?

First, starting with the obvious, there is the line length. Why so short? This is how the poem reads to me: "A measurement of time." "In which dogs live." "Without regret." "Or desire to enhance." "Their reputation." "And personal worth." "An idea designed." "To shelter contentment." "And regulate fretfulness."

Do you hear how clunky it is? To my eyes and ears, this is not a poem that is intentionally designed to to have short lines. It is sentences broken into short lines: there is no organic interaction between the line length and syntax (or rhythm). "Oh, but you should read it smoothly," one might say in defense. Then why break it into short lines? What was supposed to be gained in the act? Why not have longer lines (Whitman style); even, one line per sentence? In the least that would be recognizing the structure of the wording of the poem.

"Well, it creates a visual effect," one might try again. Except that poetry is by its nature aural. You have to give the reader overt reasons to not read a work aurally (as with much concrete poetry). So the response is, how can you justify a visual effect that creates such a terrible aural effect? 

"Well, then, it creates an emphasis on the phrases in the poem." Nice try, but no. Yes, it does create an emphasis on phrasing -- that is, perhaps, the fundamental effect of line breaks: to create, visually, "phrasing." Except, here, where so much of the language is abstract, if not of syntactic purpose alone, the idea can not stand justified by the poem: really, what is being highlighted, is that the "phrases" of the poem are actually quite uninspired, banal, even trivial. It is worth noticing, also, how, far down the poem, periods suddenly start appearing within the lines: a giveaway that structure was mis-attended to by a poet. Perhaps the phrasing would be more justifiable if the whole of the poem continued like the first half. But by the time you get to

of sanity. An end
a beginning. A room
in which bad news
resides. A wall

can there be said to be any reason behind the short lines except that the nature of the poem was simply "the lines will be short lines"? Now, that trailing away in short lines is somethin of a pop-postry convention, so you do see it. But the issue is does it work? Even the first half of the poem, do the short lines work? Is that over-punctuated aural effect a success for the poem?

(To note, I am not, actually, stating as fact that "phrasing" as such is the fundamental effect or purpose of line breaks. Nor am I saying it is not. But that statement is definitely something to throw into the ring to ponder and discuss.)

And what of the sentences? (Yes, obviously they are not proper sentences, but they are still sentences: the repeated "it is" -- or something such -- is implied.) There is a decreasing length of sentences, which is an oft seen structure. Of course, that structure is betrayed by the line lengths, which cuts everything down into short choppy phrases. But there is also the content of the sentences to examine. (It is not a bad idea to write the poem out into its constituent sentences. Not a bad idea to do this with any such poem, so as to see clearly the ideas that are -- or are not -- being generated.) So, we can presume the title is the first organizing element: so, what does it say? A moment. Singular. But what do we have in the body? 

Sentences two through seven ("An idea" through "A plea") work well together. (I am passing over phrasing: "a horrid memory or fear of the corner" does not work for me.) The first six are all descriptions of a moment's pause, which can work in their differences as creating a more complex idea than might be generated with a single statement. (Though, not a wholly successful execution thereof.) The final sentence of the group, "A plea," begins to expand out from the small container or the other six, moving out of "moment" into more an action.

But then the next one: "A ubiquitous cave of sanity." That phrase only works when you don't think about it. The minute you do, it becomes daft. There is the ideational clash between "ubiquitous" and "cave": one is expansive, one contractive. There is then the off-syntax: normal English would be "ubiquitous caves." (Or "ubiquitous cavey-ness" or such. And not that you have to stick with normal syntax: but when you vary, it has to work, and here it doesn't.) Then there is the ideational clash with the earlier lines, for example, "in order to regain one's reasonableness and equilibrium." The earlier line is a positive emotional idea, like the general tone of the others, giving the idea of "a moment" taken to move to the positive. But then you have "cave" -- which is not exactly something that fits with a theme of "coming out of a bad place into a good" -- and the longer "cave of sanity" -- which, even with the loosely positive idea of sanity is itself internally contradictory, again in that cave is contractive, while sanity is expansive.

From that point on, the sentences deteriorate. "An end without a beginning." Could you have a more trite usage? Yes, it is something that could very easily appear in "Four Quartets," say; but such a poem is crafted to generate ideas that fill phrases like "an end without a beginning" with complex, vibrant meaning. Throwing out phrases like that to do the heavy lifting rarely works. Here, it is little more than a cheap ploy to to bring in some koan-like profoundity. Besides, how does that fit with sentences 2-6? Does it even carry a successful idea? It should have been killed the moment it was written.

"A wall behind which nothing more waits to happen": possibly an interesting phrase on its own -- though its poetic utility I would question until proven otherwise. Here, it does not work for me. It does not meld with what precedes it. It doesn't aid to poetic unity. (There is even a clash in semantic rhythms, but that is something too subtle for this context.)

And the rest? How are they anything but a jumble of clashing phrases? The aim of a poem structured like this would be (generally) to have the ideation be both developing and congealing as the poem moves along. But can either be said here? especially when the title frames the poems as "a moment"? Far more accurate a statement is that the poem loses control of itself and becomes, merely, a list. And not a very interesting, nor very good one at that.

But, again, this is very much a type of poem you see in pop-poetry, both in subject and in form, from the short lines to the shifting rhetoric. So I can see how it looks like a successful poem. And, because it follows a type, that type will for many readers be sufficient to its success. But that is a poor way to read anything.

So, to go back to the first question, why the short lines? First, I would say, because of the influence of pop conventionality. But also, perhaps, because once implemented, it they serve to hide the problems with the language of the poem. But then I could also say the problems of the poem were created by the short lines, no?

And it is very important that: I see it not infrequently how arbitrary lines create an effect that hides what a natural reading would reveal; and also how they create as many problems as they artificially cure. So care with those line breaks. They very well may be getting in the way of your own crafting of the poem.

To say it a different way, if you are crafting a poem with short line breaks, and you are not intentionally designing each line to succeed as a short line, then you are failing.

To say it yet another way: Don't make line breaks; craft lines.

So what do I think about this poem? All in all I think it fails. Though, breaking a bit from the above, it does read to me like an interesting experiment that did not work -- which makes it a profitable poem from which to learn.


On the positive -- though, because of the distance involved it is underplayed here -- I want to point out the two phrases "regret" and "regulate fretfulness." Do you notice how well they work together aurally? Not just work together, but play together. That is some of the goodness of poetry right there, I tell ya', bud.

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