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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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Saturday, May 4, 2013

"Here Be Monsters" by Katherine Coles -- Verse Daily, 5/3/2013

from The Earth Is Not Flat
poem found here


First lines:
We could fall off one
Edge or another. Water


playing with wording and ideation

— reformatted 9/30/15

I am glad this one showed up because I was in the mood for something like this. Let's just explore wording: both to query the wording given, and to play around with alternatives.

Now, addressing the poem as a whole I should say I don't think it works. I don't think the two primary ideas are successfully brought together into organic unity: those ideas being the opening idea of a kind of mythical, mappa mundi-type edge of the world, and that of "As soon as we arrive at any point / We're headed out the other side." (On their face they are about opposite to each other.) And even on the smaller scale, thought by thought, the poem doesn't meld. "unknown/ But fully imagined" never gels with "headed out to the other side": there is nothing between mediating the two ideas. Ideationally, I find the poem wholly out of control.

For example, in the first lines the poem says "we could." It is establishing a situation. It is scene-setting. And yet, can you follow the poem through to "at any point / We're headed out the other side" without conveniently forgetting that set scene? The poem begins by asserting the idea of "there is no beyond," but ends with the conclusion of there is always a beyond. Why begin, so assertively, with an "edge of the world" idea if you are going to move to its exact opposite: a world that never ends? The one does not inform the other the way it is presented.

My guess is really the intent was only to bring in the idea of the terra incognita, of "beyond here, we don't know," and the "edge of the world" slipped in. But even with the terra incognita idea it rather falls to the floor, mostly unrealized, by two-thirds through the poem. Which is too bad, because the idea of turning endless same-ness into a land of imagined monsters is an interesting idea.

And how does "Where surface will not hold / We must shatter" fit into anything that precedes it? What is so important in a surface that will not hold? I am guessing that what is being aimed at is where the unknown will not hold then the unknown must be shattered: except that still really has no union with the rest of the poem, especially a poem that seems to try to turn the unknown into an endless sameness: in such a realm there is nothing to shatter.

I might make more jots to that end here and there; but, I really want to play a little with words, so:

We could fall off one / Edge or another: Note that there is a difference between "one edge or another" and "one edge or the other": the latter only has two edges, which means the former has multiple edges. I am not sure how that idea of multiple edges fits in the poem. And then water "roils . . . as if it would throw itself over": if that means "over the edge" -- which, in context, it does seem to so -- then you have only one edge. She how clashes in ideas are being established?

Now, the idea comes to me "throw itself over" could be meant to mean something in the sense of "flipping itself over" -- which might be a little easier to make fit in context in that it is simply increasing the energies of "roil." But, the whole of those energies have no use in the rest of the poem. Especially, when, at the end, the poem is describing a sea of ice, and endless sameness. No roiling there. In fact, it's (again) the opposite: it is a world that is trying "to hold."

and glacier / Meets sea by pushing into / Erosion's demand and response.: I have absolutely no idea what that is supposed to mean, or even where that is trying to go. How did we get from a roiling sea to glaciatic erosion? I can come up with erosion's demand: which would be "erosion." But what is erosion's response?

Fissure / Could swallow a body whole / Then close on itself, sucking its tongue: See the failure to meld? We've moved from the edge of the world, to the sea (which could maybe be at the end of the world but is not described as such, and with "as if" pretty much pulls wholly away therefrom), to a glacier (very much not the edge of the world), and then to a fissure: which is off the sea, on land (so obviouslly we were not at the edge of the world, and is described as a whole, not just an edge, so there's both sides, and it's no longer the end of the world but merely a crack. And the sea's no where to be found.

But, let's play:

Fissures --
they'll swallow a body whole.

That sounds like a "got milk" commercial.

A fissure will swallow you whole,
Suck you down and close tight.

Fissures like to swallow you
And suck upon your passing taste.

Eh. You know, I have a hard time doing something with "close in on itself" because it seems only to repeat "swallow." (After all, the difference between falling into something and being swallowed by something is the latter carries the sense of that something closing upon you.) And I have no idea what to do with "sucking it's tongue." I guess that's better than "with a num-num-num," but that's about it.

Feel / The earth's end old maps . . . . : This is my favorite part. There are fun words and ideas to play with here, but the execution is not that great. In part, it's contextual. For one thing, "earth" is not capitalized, so it's the end of the land -- which is a problem since we started off at sea. Now, knowing how sloppy Verse Daily is, it could very well be it was supposed to be "Earth." But even then, "tooth and claw" puts us back on land.

Now, perhaps someone by now is saying "it's on a boat approaching the land": which is probably what is meant. Except that that idea is not continuous in the poem. That idea is an "oooohhhh, I get what you were trying to do" idea. But, still, to the words:

              [. . .] Feel

The earth's end old maps
Elaborate with what's unknown

But fully imagined, voracious

Tooth and claw
White to the bone.

I see nothing gained in "feel." (Everything it has to offer already exists in that the lines are written and meant to be read.)

The Earth's end.
Old maps elaborate with
What's unknown and fully imagined --
       The voracious,
       The tooth, the claw, and white bones.

Old maps elaborate at the Earth's end
With the imagined unknown --
Tooth, claw, and white, white bone.

("white, white" because it's snow-world; and if we move the "end" down, the lines are smoother)

Old maps elaborate at the Earth's
End with the imagined unknown --
Tooth, claw, and white, white bone.

(let's complete the tercet:)

Old maps elaborate at the Earth's
End with the weirdly imagined unknown --
Tooth, claw, and white, white bone.

(Yes, obviously it's not free verse anymore. But (1) you can have metered verse in the middle of free verse (if you don't know that, you need to seriously expand your reading); (2) why pass up on something aurally lovely when the opportunity arises?; and (3) it's far more interesting than prose-with-line breaks. Just answer me: how is it that all these poets out there are writing lines of poetry, yet so very few of them are writing lines? Yes, this poem uses line breaks a touch as grammar; but that's it. And that's not very much. Especially when you consider all that was missed out on.)

Just beyond the horizon . . . .: Another mess. The words just before are solid objects (tooth, claw, bone), so when the poem says "right over / There" the ideation is that of look at a thing right over there. (Well, duh.) Yet, immediately after, the entire idea shifts from the thing that is over there to "trouble trying to picture." Put it in a sentence:

Just beyond the horizon, right over there, is the trouble trying to picture our progress straight and flat.

See how the sentence changes what it's about half way through? how "over there is the trouble" is a thing that is over there, but "the trouble trying" is an abstract concept of difficulty that occurs in a person's head? and how, because of it, the sentence -- and the lines in the poem -- makes no sense whatsoever?

Just beyond the horizon, right over there, is what causes the trouble with our trying to picture our progress straight and flat.

That makes much more sense. It still doesn't flow out of what preceded it, though. The sentence before was about the idea of a very tangible if very unknown world before them. Now, all of a sudden, the entire poem jumps tracks and tries to be about that it is difficult to picture "progress straight and flat." What at all does that have to do with "tooth and claw"? Not good. Not good at all. And, then, "is what causes the trouble with our trying to picture" is not exactly elevated language. So instead we have in our poem something more "poetic" that doesn't make much sense. No wonder the poem's a mess.

I also want to point out the issue with the missing comma after "There." The poem as a whole tries to establish a grammar where line ends can suffice as a comma (as with "At the wave's top[,] / The body hangs weightless"). Which is wholly legitimate. But you have to nail it: both in adhering to it, and in creating the energies at the line breaks that reinforce the usage. (On rereading, the reader should be naturally hearing those line breaks-as-commas.) Unfortunately, there are a couple places in this poem where the grammar weakens the system, as with the missing comma here. And the one missing in "It runs out[,] the body after all." And there is a general weakness in that the poem gives off the quality that the line breaks were mostly arbitrary, anyway, so let's continue.

"Right over there" sucks, so I'm killing it:

Not before the horizon, or at the horizon,
But beyond it --
There lies the trouble
Of picturing progress straight and flat.

Let's bring in an idea from the end of the poem:

Up to the horizon, difficulty
       In the ice that strives to hold.
Beyond, trouble
       In picturing progress straight and flat.

Hopefully you see here yet another ideational clash: if, at the end of the poem, there's ice before them that they are breaking through, how is it difficult to imagine flat beyond the horizon? I could continue, but I think you get the point. The far-too-looseness of the poem's ideas gives even discussing it the risk of falling into absurdity. And the 'moral' at the last third of the poem does little help to resolve any of it. "As soon as we arrive at any point / We're headed out the other side." How is that not a simple description of movement? It's rather like a Dummies verson of one of Zeno's koans: "as soon as you get there, you're leaving." (The opposite of "wherever you go, there you are"?)

And, really, that is my point here. That you are able to not be tricked by the assumption "this is a published, therefore it is good," and are able to see for yourself what is going on in the poem. Which is, here, a lot of chaos. Because, believe me, when, say, Eliot published The Waste Land, he very much was hoping you would see for yoursel, and experience for yourself his efforts.

Anyway, really, I mostly wanted to play with the "Earth's edge" lines. They're the best bit this lump of strings has to offer.

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