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Sunday, March 3, 2013

"Necessity Defense of Institutional Memory" by Camille Rankine -- Poetry Daily, 3/3/13

from Tin House (14.3)
poem found here

First lines:
So the free may remain free

     say the nightmare is


poetic structure, and poetic grammar

-- reformatted with some editing 1/26/2014

What I like, or find interesting, or say “good job!” to:

The use of spacing as a kind of punctuation.
They are well placed; there is not a one that is spurious or flippant in its use (which, as other poets seem to demonstrate, is harder than one might think). But they are not merely well placed: they are effectively used. Functioning even better than would commas, most likely because (1) the terseness of the statements (emphasized by the absence of a “that” after the “so”s), and (2) because of the visual lightness of the poem. This is related to:
The use of double line breaks as a kind of punctuation.
Before the indented lines, the double line break works in the manner of a comma, or a dash, or such. Coupled with the tab it creates a reading where it is not simply line, response, line, response; but, rather, isolates the lines to de-emphasize the line-response pairing, and give each part a bit more life of its own. (This also utilizes the lack of “that”s.) While the semantics (as guided by most of the pairings) is of line and response, the punctuating of the poem with space brings the lines more into juxtaposition rather than pairing. Note that this also means that it creates justapositions/pairings out of the indented lines and the non-indented lines that follow them, which might arguably be a weakness in the poem, disassembling, a bit, the ideational development. (I question whether that weakness could be cured, or if it is an understanding that can only be carried into the next poem-writing.)
The three-lined stanza (“so I may be replaced . . .”.
I tell you, I really really like how this stanza works. And you have to note how the effectiveness of this stanza is set up by the sparsity of the lines above it. The aural pauses created by the breaks and the gaps are perfect to the pacing of the poem, creating (in a musical sense) a kind of flourish, a momentary rise to fortissimo, though without making any more of the lines than they can bear.
The use . . . . no, not use, but presence of the colon.
It is the only formal punctuation in the poem. Many poets would leave it out, thinking that the rules of the poem are that there must be no punctuation. But the poem demands it, and you must listen to the poem. Why is it demanded? Because the colon is being used to announce a change in the reading of the poem: the lines are no longer soft line-response pairings. The colon announces the final statement, announces to reader to ignore what is the norm up to then, something different is happening. And, in that it is a colon, it naturally, in the normal nature of the colon, announces a concluding explanation or explication or expansion, often seen presented as a list, so you are ready to join together the final lines into a single statement. It is a small thing, but it is an excellent thing.


What I don’t like, or question, or say “what?!” to:

A weakness in the structure of the poem.
Because the line breaks create an equality between the margin-lined and indented lines, coupled with that the first pair does not readily cue to me the nature of line-response, I am choosing to read the poem as line-response. Which may not be the intent. Not every time I read the poem can I get the first pairing to work that way, and many times it wants to completely buck the idea of line-response. I think this is a weakness that should have been avoided at the beginning: if it is not meant to be line-response, then do not let it fall into such. And once a rhetoric is decided on, stick to it. Which leads to:
The lingering question of whether I am correct in reading it line-response.
Which should not exist. Once I figure out line-response (or whatever reading), the poem should be assuring me (even if subtly) that I am correct. The poem should, to wit, open up as a unified whole because of the decided approach. If it cannot do so, then either I have the wrong reading, or there is a problem with the poem. And, especially because of the first pairing, which I do not think works terribly well, I still, after however many readings, have doubts. Which leads to:
The poem is too abstract. Let me restate that: because the poem is so abstract, there is only so far you can go with it. Depth, organic depth, the resonances of depth, are developed with ideation; and over-abstraction makes for shallow ideation. When it comes to it, the “preserved” in “so we are preserved” could mean many things, both positive and negative in nature. (The only way the poem is stabilized is by taking the most shallow, generic, conventional meaning of the word.) Walking away from the poem I find a very intriguing idea for the structuring of the poem, but one that was failed by the abstractions in this particular use of that formal idea. Abstractions are almost always laziness, and that is undeniable. Abstractions are but a loose paraphrasing of what should be being generated by fuller, more complex ideation. (Do not confuse sparsity with abstraction: the “so I may be replaced” lines are sparse, but far more concrete than the opening pairing.) Now, the challenge here: what would make this poem a true “Hey, wow” poem, would be if there could be such development without losing the general feel of the poem. Verbless phrases seems a potential path to explore.
And, for that thought, credit to the poem: something was attempted that speaks aesthetic creating, that creates and carries literary energy, that prompts in other writers the thought “that is an interesting idea . . . .”, whether or not this poem itself can be said to wholly succeed.
The title.
I hate it. I think she shot for something big and failed. Even at its most basic traits, I think it doesn’t fit the style of the poem. And, if that much explanation has to go into the title to make the poem work, it is a dead giveaway that either (1) the poem is too abstract and unanchored, and/or (2) the poem itself misses its intended mark, and the title is being put forward to aim the poem in the right direction (because it can't get there on its own). (I rather repeated myself, there, didn't I.)

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