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Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Tablet" by Chris Dombrowski -- Poetry Daily, 3/16/13

from Earth Again (Made in Michigan Writers Series)
poem found here

the narrative "I"

— reformatted 3/30/14

I wanted to take a break from OCDing with this blog for the weekend, but this poem has been pulling me back. Specifically with the presence of the word I in the poem. I have kept coming back to the page asking myself, “Could I rewrite this same poem to a greater success removing the ‘I’s?" I don’t think they are necessary to the poem, and I think they weaken the poem because of it. I think if they were removed, the reader would be brought to focus more on the ideational relationship between the nature elements of the poem and the ideas generated at the end. So, here’s a little writing on it, though I ended up approaching it from a different angle.

Let’s take a little look at the first few lines; an exploration of variations in wording, which means in no small part explorations guided by my own poetic sense and manner of sophistication, and as such will be unavoidably idiomatic. But such explorations are still, and always, worthwhile. That is in part why writers of poetry seek poetry — to ask, “How would I have done that?" and, “Can I write it better?"

The “striking stone" in line two never works for me, no matter how I concentrate on making striking a verb rather than an adjective. The natural reading of the sentence up to that point is for it to be an adjective. Then I realized a simple solution would be to remove the second comma:

Up the cutbank of a creek named after stone,
striking stone I came walking, my fingers

Without that second comma there is no signal to pause, no reason to want to have the phrase look backwards to the previous stone, thus, you naturally want it to connect to the soon coming walking. But I still don’t much like it: it feels forced, and “named after stone" feels weak. How about this?

Up the cutbank of the stone-named creek,
striking stone, I came walking, my fingers

Or, without the comma:

Up the cutbank of the stone-named creek,
striking stone I came walking, my fingers

Stress-wise, it’s a more graceful line, the clumsy triple stress of “creek named af-“ (which the mind tries to correct by de-stressing “named" but never quite pulls off) is gone, replaced with a more fluid, line-ending, solid-syllabled triple stress. (In solid-syllabled I mean no half-word “af-.") It eliminates the negative aspects of the “striking stone" ambiguity. And, by combining the triple stressed noun phrase with a comma, it creates a greater pause after the line, setting the reader up for the next line, and making easier that that line starts off with a fourth stressed syllable.

But I still don’t like it: primarily because of my allergies to the first person I — an allergy I suggest for every writer to acquire. For I have found that that I is an easy out. Poems become amazingly simpler to write when you have an I present, orienting it. Oddly enough, I am talking about the actual word I more than I am talking about having a speaking — even self-meditative — narrator. Consider the Romantic odes: the written Is establish the meditative aspect (and the moment of meditative capture), and then the actual "I" tends to get left behind, as the poem sinks wholly into the meditation. Also, if you begin your poems allergic to the first person pronoun, then, when you do realize the I is necessary, you have found a strength in the poem, and an integral part of the system of the poem. (Just as with commas: the simplest editing rule is to eliminate every one, and put back only the ones that are actually necessary.)

So I ask, is there value in this first "I"? Especially in that it clashes action-wise with the second "I" (one is walking, one is seated, writing). Come to think of it, do you even need “walking"? After all, you already have a direction- and movement-orienting “Up" right at the start of the poem?

Up the cutbank of a stone-named creek,
striking stone, fingers stained with pulp
of raspberries picked of branches arched

Or, perhaps, this, with (I think) better lines:

Up the cutbank of a stone-named creek, striking stone,
fingers stained with pulp of raspberries picked
of branches arched o’er a snowmelt

Or, perhaps,

of branches arched over snowmelt

I use "a" instead of "the" because the energy of the poem is about some specific creek; it is simply about the concept of "creek." Do you need descending? It doesn’t really fit aurally, and it’s not really adding anything to “snowmelt." To be honest, though, I don't quite understand the idea of the raspberry bushes arching over a run of water from melting snow; I can't quite get it to work, especially since I am already oriented upon a creek. (Is there a different, idiomatic meaning of "snowmelt"?) I like “of" rather than “off" or “from," but that’s very idiomatic. I also like “o’er" rather than “over," and the sound of "arched o'er a" a lot. Do not let some tone-deaf, small-minded poetry teacher tell you “we don’t do that any more." We very much do, when we are concerned with the sound of a poem. And if you are not concerned with the sound of your poems, what are you writing poetry for? Go run to pop-prose and stay there. Check out this little loverly: Derek Mahon’s “The Seasons," here. Notice the poetic contractions in line seven (they typoed the “I," it should be “i") — not an easy thing to pull off, and a wonderful sound. Makes my aesthetic drive tingle, I tell you what.

But back to the “I": there are the second and third “I"s, which are stronger than that first. Perhaps I dislike the first so much because the lines are simply setting a scene, and the “I" is unnecessary to it. Perhaps because the “I" is giving emphasis to the weakness of that scene setting, primarily in that it wholly puts the focus on movement, travel, where the rest of the poem (from the second sentence on) is more about stillness. So perhaps it is less the “I" than it is the “I came walking." Still, as I said in the opening bit, above, what pulls me back to this poem is the thought of a complete rewrite eliminating the “I" altogether. Not necessarily eliminating the individual, nor the meditative aspect. But getting rid of any and all first person pronouns. Might be an interesting experiment.

And as for what comes next, I do not like “beneath two clouds and blue sky," because up to that point the focus was very localized to the area of the creek. With that line the poem suddenly pulls back and away into a wide-angled picture. Yes, it is setting up the “extravagant quilt" in the next line: except do you see how the word extravagant does not really fit the idea of simplicity established in the previous description of the sky? And, do you need to describe the sky to keep the idea of the quilt? “Napped beneath an azure quilt on sunwarmed sand. Except, isn’t there an ideational clash between “sunwarmed" and “snowmelt"? After all, until that moment, the only word we have about the general weather conditions is “snowmelt" — so I am not thinking anything that would permit napping in warmth.

Final thought, I do think that the flow should be longer for this first moment. In fact, I think the flow should be longer for the whole poem. Since there is nothing being attempted formally or semantically that would make condensing the size of the poem a challenge — which would in turn offer more pleasure to the reader — there is no reason not to develop the scene a bit more. But not through rambling: I would keep it tight as possible.

And it could very well be — and I have a hint of a feeling of such — that if the scene setting were developed, it might be made apparently that, in fact, the poem should be tight and condensed. But, as I said at the fore, it would still be a good experiment. Even the first writing of a poem, its style and form should tested, no?


One last thing. “Poleaxed" seems kind of violent for the moment, no? And a clash also: poleaxes are huge; nickels are tiny.

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