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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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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"Going Back to Bimble" by Maurice Manning -- Poetry Daily, 5/20/2013

from Smartish Pace (#20)
poem found here


First lines:
If I went I'd go through Shepherdtown
and Burning Springs; I'd cross the stream


exploring content and structure, and poetic laziness (with, first, a grammar/syntax point)

— reformatted, with some, small editing 9/30/15

First, a brief grammar/syntax point. I want to bring it up because it opens the door for something beyond a basic grammar comment. Hopefully on your own you stumbled when it occurred. Line 11 (I give 9-12)

another rope and took in twice
the tithes of the last two months
and said, hellfire, he ought to shoot
that bell more often; and then in a mile

The site of stumbling is the "he." It should be I, as the natural reading is that it is the preacher who shot the bell, it is the preacher who is speaking, and "hellfire" is the introductory interjection to that speaking: thus, it should be

another rope and took in twice
the tithes of the last two months
and said, hellfire, I ought to shoot
that bell more often; and then in a mile

Now there is another possibility in asking: what if the only part meant to be dialogue was "hellfire"? In that case, the "he" would be correct, as it would be the narrator saying "he ought to shoot that bell more often." But, if that is the case, then there arises a need for a semi-colon after "hellfire," like this:

another rope and took in twice
the tithes of the last two months
and said, hellfire; he ought to shoot
that bell more often; and then in a mile

Do you see why? Two reasons: (1) it serves the purpose of eliminating the appearance of a grammatical error with the he/I issue; and (2) there is a strong enough break in flow and ideation that the system of the poem demands it. That is the purpose of semi-colons in the poem: to divide the thoughts/moments. And, even though the "he ought to" phrase is still very tied in to the story leading up to it, the fact that it changes from mere narration to commentary on the event justifies the semi-colon.

Now, you could also do a dash:

another rope and took in twice
the tithes of the last two months
and said, hellfire – he ought to shoot
that bell more often; and then in a mile

Which kind of works but I don't think as well. Also, being the only dash in the poem sould give unwanted emphasis to the fact that that phrase is the only commentary on the narrative in the poem. Parentheses are also a possiblity:

another rope and took in twice
the tithes of the last two months
and said, hellfire (he ought to shoot
that bell more often); and then in a mile

But it has the same end result. In fact, in experimenting with the grammar, I am now wholly burdened with the idea that there would be a problem with it being the only direct commentary in the poem. Which is enough, for me, to say it should be spoken by the preacher, and it should be an "I" after all.


Complete aside: shouldn't it be "twice the tithing"? That is, am I correct in the "twice the tithing" means twice as much net money, while "twice the tithes" means twice as many donations? Now, I'm not saying "tithes" is an error; I'm just pondering words.


Now onto the relationship of content and structure. I really like the flow of this poem: the iambic quadrameter gives a great rhythm to a poem that is a flowing journey of places – places with lively names (which is important). But let's look at the content.

Most of the poem is the movement from one place to the next, as though you were listening to someone talking about a trip, and visually following their finger funning a line across a map. As I said, because of the liveliness of the names (lively without becoming comedic), and, because of the care taken in connecting the places, it works very well. Look at the different "and then there was" phrases:

I'd cross the stream / some people still call
and pass through
then in a mile / or so I'd go through
till it crosses
and then / in no time I'd be at
and that's about halfway to

And so on. The pleasure of the poem is not just in the list of places (and their relationship to each other) but also in how the list is presented. Very worth attending to – both in reading and in writing. I cannot tell you how many published and online poems I read that have a halfway decent idea but utterly fail in their execution of the idea. Pretending this was such a poem, it is as though the poets think that the idea itself – the idea of a travelogue of a journey – is sufficient to the writing of the poem, and so the execution of the poem gets half effort (if that much).

Indeed, if there was one complaint about contemporary poetry that I would scream out above all others, it is that the exceeding majority of it seems the result of not trying very hard, of not trying to do something that is very hard, of not trying to do something that merits a loud "look, ma! no hands!" I tell you, I would love to have a symposium with this subject to debate: "Contemporary poetry is a culture of literary laziness." We'll take Tennyson as exemplar: comparing the grand efforts of the Idylls and In Memorium to the lackadaisical efforts after being named poet laureate. Begin . . . .

In that vein, but removing any sense of accusation and turning instead to exploration and pondering, let me ask a question of Manning's poem: This is a 39-line poem. Within those lines there are twenty-two place names (including naming Bimble and Shephardtown twice). Which speaks much to the success of the diction of the poem, in that it never gets repetitive or silly. But of those twenty places, only five get discussion: Pinhook Chapel (with the bell), Bad Jack Branch (with the ancestor), the Fork (the best stretch), Big Rock House (a marvel of design) and Bimble/Redbird bottom (and Mrs. Jonsee).

This is the question (and it rather is a similar if not the same question I asked of the Jill Osier poem, here): is that the right balance? Would it be a better poem – even if somewhat different poem – if there was more description given to more of the places? Then, with more description, would there need also be more places? Or, would adding more kill the rhythms of the poem? Would you be able to sustain the rhythms by keeping descriptions and their diction short-ish?

Let's rephrase the question. Is this a poem that is about description, or is this a poem that is a journey through places, and descriptions are added to decorate and make interesting the connections between the places? With that question, I have to ask of the poem as it stands: is the preacher/bell story too long for the poem? Does it get far too much time and energy for the size of the poem and thus does it imbalance the poem? Notice, also, how, unlike the other places, the story drifts away from "why it's a place worth mentioning" to the subplot of "I ought to shoot things more often" – which I, personally, think is an error in the poem, and an ideational problem that does imbalance the poem. And if the answer to the question is "yes," that it does imbalance the poem, is the problem in that the preacher/bell story is too long, or is it in the poem is too short? (or both?)

If this were my poem – and I mean that as stated not by a critic looking at "Brimble" but as a writer brought to thought by "Brimble" – and I noticed that problem in the drafting, my solution in the error would be to expand the poem, to see if I could write not a 30 line poem but a 150 or 200 line poem that sustains this flowing rhythm and style: that is, focusing on the places being passed through, and only ever very indirectly refering to the person passing through.

But, then, that would also have been my initial approach: I would naturally start such a project long, and contract. And, now, with saying that, it is my impulse to write, "But that is my personal writing style/method, not necessarily those of others." Except for what I wrote above: maybe it is important to start big and contract, because only then are you pushing yourself beyond something easy. There is a curious aspect in the development of a person's composition writing as they move through education: it starts off with writing 300 words, and those 300 words are difficult. Then they are pushed up to the 6-page essay, and 300 words becomes easy.[FN] Then, when the 12 and 15 page essays come along in college, 6-pages are what you write just brainstorming in the library. And then comes 30-pagers and beyond . . . .

[FN] And, you know, if hight school juniors and seniors were constantly writing 6-page essays, they would probably have a far better understanding of the paragraph by the time they reached the U than they do now. And before you teachers start bitching about "but we have so much work we have to do already" blah blah blah, let met explain to you: grading them would be nigh irrelevant to the learning process (as grading papers are now, actually, nigh irrelevant to the learning process); the learning would be in the doing. (And the discussions, in class, before and after.)

(Or, at least, if we had an education system that actually focused on writing and thinking skills, that is how it would be. But don't get me started.)

It seems to me, that in this culture of 50-words-or-less poetry, that what you see in print is a result of the extent of the poets' striving. And I wonder if, in creative writing education, there should be a lot more effort in getting people to write long works: because if a poet can conceive of writing a 500-line work, can approach a task with confidence, then writing a 100-line work (instead of a 15-line work) would no longer the huge task it now seems to so many. And then, in learning to struggle with sustaining value and intensity through 100 lines, they can learn how to really pack 30 lines with power. And then, perhaps contemporary poetry would be more about "I had an idea and I took it to its limit (whatever the final size)," rather than what it seems like, today: "I had an idea and I jotted something down."

To offer example, in the current issue of Poetry we can find these poems by Kay Ryan: "Party Ship," "Album," and Still Start." My most honest question to Poetry: how do they at all pass the "So what?" test?

Anyway – let me say again: don't apply those accusations to "Going Back to Bimble," which I think is well executed poem, one given ample thought and playtesting. Apply only the questions, and, most importantly, the pondering. (And, then, hopefully, the experimenting.)

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