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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"Elk Skeleton" by Amy Fleury, Verse Daily, 4/16/2013

from Sympathetic Magic
poem found here

first lines:
Down the draw at dusk seven mule deer come
to browse the blanched grasses around the cabin.


wording, metaphor, and the narrative "I"

--- Some editing and rewriting, 6/11/2013.

The words I looked up while engaging this poem: draw, has, scree, leach, lichen, brocades, hove. Some because I was not sure their meaning; some because I wanted to check to be sure I had the right meaning; some because I wanted to check their usage in the poem. (Thank you for teaching me this usage of draw, by the by.) Is this is a problem? Let me be clear: absolutely not. Poetry is about words. It is about discovering words. It is about the usage of words. (Indeed, it is also about the sharing of words and the usage of words.)[FN] Irritation at having to look up words for a poem is to me only one thing: laziness. (Well, two things. It almost assures I will have no interest in the poetry of said lazy person, because that laziness will appear also throughout their creative endeavors poetry.)

[FN] In demonstration, I'll share something I learned yesterday: the origin of the word hobgoblin comes from the character Robin Goodfellow from folklore. As it happens, at one time, one way that people made diminuitives from names was to put an 'H' at the front. For example. Richard could have the nickname "Hick," and Roger would become Hodge. Here, Robin becomes Hobbe, which becomes hob, for "elf." Then, add goblin. (This from I have not yet checked it against the OED.)

That, just to say. Because it does need to be said every once in a while. (And, from it, I think I will add to my aphorisms on creative writing:

Aesthetic writing -- and poetry in particular -- is about words. It is about the sharing of words. It is about the discovery of words. It is about the creative use of words. Any other approach can be only attributed to laziness, or to a psychical insularity, neither of which makes for anything terribly interesting.
I'll work on the wording.

So, wording. Let's look at a couple moments and explore:

First: the "has" in line three. Is this grammatically correct? There are three possible subjects that I see: "seven deer," "grasses," and "not all," all of which are plural. Change the verb: would it ever be valid to say not all is dead? Or, change the pronoun: not many of them is dead or three of the five is dead? Now, I will be honest, I do catch myself saying "not all has" while thinking about and writing this post; but, it seems grammatically incorrect.

There's something else with that line: a curiosity as to time. The verb is "has been": a perfected verb, an action that is over. The line says "in relationship to the time of now, not all have have been winter-killed." Yet within the sentence there is a time-stamp of "this early April." So the phrase is, actually, narrowing the time of death of the grasses to early April -- which is a little off as far as seasonal cycles go. What is happening is the poet wanted to establish a time for the poem; but, by accident of language, created an idea that doesn't belong. You have to be careful how you execute things: syntax is very important.

Which prompts another question: does it even need to be said, overtly that the poem is set in "early April" at all? Keep in mind, there is nothing here establishing where (geographically speaking) the action is occurring. And, early April in Maine is very different climate-wise from early April in Mississippi. (O.K. There are not all that many elk in Mississippi, but you get my point.) But I ask, why even state a month? Is there anything being added to the poem that is not already established within the presented details? Actually, I can see how, without the month, one might read it as being early winter -- though, I think the fog works against it. But I believe the idea of spring could have been introduced -- or clarified -- without actually naming the season or a month. My point, however, is, simply: why be blunt if there is no need? (or, if you can avoid it?)

It is always much more interesting to generate an idea than it is to simply state a point fact. Point facts don't have anywhere to go. In fact, point facts tend even to restrict where its associated ideas can go. The end of this poem presents a kind of winter-spring -- or death/life, or death birth -- image, with the moth on the elk bones. Now, a simple comparison: which generates more energy? Abutting the word April with the idea of a moth on elk bones? (which is at best simple metaphor); or something like:

Seven mule deer emerge to browse blanched grasses
And a moth, perched on a rib from an elk, tests its wings.

(I rewrite a touch for my purpose, and make no claims that his is, thus, 'good.' I'm just exploring.) Yes, it's still playing with a simple metaphor, but with two non-facts there is more energy generated. Not only is there the 'awakening' of the moth, but there is 'emergence' and 'hunger.' However, with

            [. . .] April,
And a moth, perched on a rib from an elk, tests its wings.

the word April, because it is a base fact, contracts the energies. It is no longer so much play-in-metaphor but a definition: April, and a visual idea like you would see in April. One of those seems irrelevant. And might it not be true that, really, overtly stated time really has its greatest utility when it is being played against other times? (As in April here, because later in the poem it's going to be June, and I want to formalize the passing of time.)

Similarly, I ask this question: what is added to -- or detracted from -- the poem with the presence of the present and viewing "I"? It only appears twice, with the "my" in the second stanza, and the "I" in the third. Yes, it adds a viewer. But is a viewer necessary? And, to split the difference, does the viewer have to be an "I"? Indeed, up the appearance of the "my" in line eight there is no hint of a viewer, nor any need to provide one. The ideas are working quite well all on their own. I would argue the poem would be far more interesting without the "I," and even more so without any viewer at all -- and, even, that the viewer is irrelevant to the poem -- for nearly the same reasons I spoke about with the use of "April."

An "I" in a poem works the same way and the "April," above. It is not an innocent insertion: it is the presentation of a brute fact: "this poem is a witnessing, the narrator is viewing in the present time." That changes the poem, and (potentially) constricts the ideation of the poem: it is no longer simply ideas generated from a scene; it is not about the person seeing.

Something to consider, something I do myself with my every project: whatever you are doing, if there is an "I," give it a try writing it without it. I have found -- both with my own work and, in a greater number, with other peoples' -- two things: the poem is (1) harder two write, but (2) usually comes out the better. Even when the poem is meant to be speaking a narrator's focus.[FN] (Something worth exploring: E.E. Cummings's many sonnets, most of which have a narrator's voice. When does he use an "I"? What is the reason? What is the effect?)

[FN] I was just reminded on a web page these last couple of days of a little creative prose writing trick: if you are having difficulty working out a scene, shift to a present first person and brainstorm way. You might very often find that shifting into first person does, in fact, make the scene easier to write, and easier to explore. But that should also be pointing out that it is probably not as good a text as you will have when you pull it back out of first into some other narrative framework.

A couple of other notes. I do not think "hove" in stanza two is used correctly; though, I do love the word. To be honest, I don't think it should be used at all since it demands either action on the part of the stones or action on the part of something heaving the stones, neither of which really works in the ideas as presented: it makes stones in someway animate or animated, and if stones are active, I think it rather clashes with the idea of the very non-active elk skeleton.

Finally, at first read I didn't like the comparison of the skeleton to a ship, because the poem is jumping from woods to water. But, the more I read it, the more I like it. I think it is justified with the skeleton being found "at the trailhead," which is an idea of emerging, just as the ship would have 'emerged' onto land from off the water. Though, I do feel like it is a touch underused. In fact, if I were writing this poem, and I got to that third stanza, I would be very tempted to trash the first two and start at the ship/skeleton idea. (Notice also how having the broad dead elk idea being compared to the broad shipwreck idea works in the positive way described above?, in that it is two ideas brought together to generate energies, as opposed to brute statement?)

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