Statement of Philosophy

A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

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.



★★ The Latest Posts on Hatter's Adversaria
Something I Read #19 – Carl JungSomething I Read #18 – Mircea Eliade
Something I Read #17 – D.S. SavageDelillo's Underworld – a Review/Response


Saturday, June 29, 2013

Stephen Fry on Grammar

 

grammar snobbery again (and the weirdest pocoyo ever)

This is worth sharing, with comment:

a-little-animation-of-a-Stephen-Fry-podcast

Two comments, actually.

First: do not take this as promoting a get-out-of-jail-free card as regards literature. Inherent to what is being said is the difference between being sloppy and being creative, between thinking "it's not so important" and thinking "what can I do with this?" The formers are inattentiveness to language: which is the exact opposite of aesthetic literature (especially poetic literature, which is supposed to all about attentiveness to language).

What you have to realize is that writing that is inattentive and writing that is created -- even if the both are equally full of idiom -- does not sound the same to a sophisticated reader. And a text that sounds unattended is not exactly putting up a strong argument to continue reading. A sophsiticated reader of poetry is not looking for words to read; they are looking for things made out of words. And there is a difference. An important one. The latter is a wholly different project.

Of course, everyone who has any care for language has their pecadillos. I myself go through stages where I can't watch ESPN or the news because I've had my full with the word impacted appearing in every third sentence. ("'Had an impact on!,' you tone-deaf idjits!" I scream at the television, throwing my coffee cake at the screen.) But such is the nature of language -- especially English -- that it is constantly in flux. Lovers of creativity give attention, and enjoy watching the change. (Wouldn't it have been interesting to actually see the Great Vowel shift happening? Ok, maybe not for all of you.)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Our Lady of Ash Wednesday" by Joe Hall -- Verse Daily, 6/23/2013

from The Devotional Poems (Black Ocean)
poem found here

 
first lines:

A third virgin carved from horn and
this horn slowly beginning to branch

 

a note on the grammar inherent to a poem

There's a very interesting -- and rather nifty, if I may dare the word -- moment in this poem, in the last two lines. The first couple of times I read the poem, I kept stumbling at the end of the second-to-last line and misreading the move to the third, expecting "Mary, Saint" to be opening up a new clause. And it is a quite natural impulse, as the first part of the line, up to the dash, has no verb. So I am expecting a verb to appear after the dash. But "Mary, Saint shake me useless" is grammatically counter to the poem. Without a comma after "Saint," "Mary, Saint" lists two people; and, of course, they are two names for the same person. There needs to be a comma after "Saint" if "Saint" is going to be a second name for Mary in the clause "Mary, Saint, shake me useless."

Then I looked closer at the poem and noticed the use of capitalization to mark new sentences. "Shake" is capitalized, so the last line is an independent sentence. And the second to last line is then to be read as a verbless phrase, that begins and ends on that line. So the correct reading of the end of the poem was made clear, once I figured it out.

Here's the question: is it ok to have a moment that will naturally cause the reader to misread a line or phrase or whatever, forcing them to stop and figure out how to read it correctly?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

"We Come Elemental" by Tamiko Beyer -- Poetry Daily, 6/22/2013

from We Come Elemental
poem found here

 
first lines:

We step into the humid light.
It sticks to our skin

 

the good of sound and form; the bad of ideation

Here's a poem with a scientific slant -- and you would be surprised how hard it is to write a scientifically oriented poem without it becoming aurally clumsy or turning into Tom Lehrer's Elements song. (Here's a good animated youtube spot, because it's worth the click. Notice the dischord in the opening measures, and how it forwarns the unavoidable silliness of the effort.)

There's some good stuff here with sound and form. Form wise, the lines are created out of the wording; the stanzas created with the lines (and all vice versa), so that the stanzas and lines each have purpose and self-resonance. And then there is the use of the indent to mark a thought within a thought (that is, stanzas 3 and 6 are ideas within the ideas of stanzas 2 and 7, and 4 and 5 are within 3 and 6) -- something I like, though I wonder if the indentations might be too large, visually.

With sound, this poem is a live with rhyme and aural repetition. Let me see if I can chart out the play here, including rhymes, slant rhymes, and repetitions (whether I like the repetition or not). I'm doing this half to see if it will be an effective way to display this. Because of the narrow margins of the blog, I am going to shrink the indents. I'll only do about the first half of the poem.

We step into humid light.
It sticks to our skin
and microbes gorge
in greywater runoff pools.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"Poetry Slam: Or, The Decline of American Verse" by Mark Edmundson -- Harper's (July 2013)

Note on formatting: I have always been rather unsatisfied with how paragraphs work on my blog as I have had it (with the normal space between paragraphs you get with unmodified html), so as you see I am beginning to explore variations. Forgive what reading difficulties it might create in the process.

 
from Harper's (July 2013)
article found here -- though, it is a pay site; so check your nearest magazine stand or library

 

poetry in the U.S.: a response to "Poetry Slam"

Articles (or posts) like this one do appear here and there, enough so that they can be greeted with post titles such as "It's That Time Again" (on Poetry Foundation's site, here). Though I generally fall behind the spirit of the essays -- it is no secret here on this blog that I find US poetics to be in a nadir -- I often have problems with the arguments of the essays themselves. Usually, this is because the essayist tries to give analysis to those observations, and in doing so, moves into an area outside their intellectual their comfort zone: the result ends up being a mish-mash of poorly applied ideas of literary theory. (A failing always accompanied, ironically, by some attack against literary theory, which is mind boggling to me. But that's another issue.)

This article, however, even though it fumbles about a bit at the start, rather nails it in a couple very important points. As such, I think it's worth talking about here on this blog. )And, perhaps, because of the critical nature of this blog, all such articles would be worth addressing in the future . . . and perhaps one from the past about which I've again been thinking.)

Let me start with a couple weaknesses of the article. The first is nearly unavoidable, and it lies in his use of examples. The problem with example in such an essay is that printing space restrictions do not permit the writer to go in depth, to stand back from the examples and assume the pose of a teacher trying to explain something to someone who, at the start, just flat doesn't see it. Which is the invariable case. When you are arguing out of short examples, the exceeding majority of the people who do see your point will be those poeple who already saw your point before they even began the essay. Those people who didn't and don't won't then be convinced by what will be a rather glancing presentation. But, as I said, it is an unavoidable fault.[FN]

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Two Poems by Tom Hennen -- Poetry Daily, 6/18/2013

 
"I Think of Bread and Water and the Roots of a Tree All Wet" and "Landscape of Night" from Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems (Copper Canyon Press)
poems found here

 
First lines:
A description of the freeway
Lost

 

exploring poetry while playing around with the poems

— reformatted with minor editing, Aug 1, 2014
 

These poems offer some good opportunities to explore poetics and wording and such through playing around with the poems. But before I start that, let me take a moment on the brevity of the poems. There's nothing wrong with short or small poems, of course. My question here is more with their presentation. Is this enough text to really get a feel for what Hennen is doing? Might it be said that two small poems are too little a sampling to really give a taste? or an experience?

The more I work with and explore poems as they are presented on the web — either on these sites or on on-line journals — the more I am convinced that, if ever I venture into a lit mag, I would demand from each contributor a minimum of 50 lines or more, perhaps even 80-100, of a coherent body of poetry. I would want enough to give the reader a true sampling of the poetic project which the poems represent. And not only for the reader, but for the poet also, that they are given enough space to make their argument.

Just a thought — as, here, I don't find these two poems to be enough to really tell me that much about Hennen's explorations, and I wish there were more.

But let's get to the poems. I just want to explore today. Explore the poems, what I see in them, and prompt questions for your own exploration. These poems offer much to that end — especially the first one.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Space Junk" by Lisa Olstein -- Poetry Daily, 6/13/2013

from Little Stranger (Copper Canyon Press)
poem found here
 

First lines:
There is a point on every mission
when something must be jettisoned

 

meticulous wording: another exercise in close reading

added the correcting paragraph ("However . . .") — 3/17/2013
reformatted with editing — 8/2/14
 

One of the common faults of much of popular poetry is a failure to pay attention to the words in the poem. This is not a small fault: this is a necessary point in the development of sophistication. A poem is a created thing, a crafted thing. Sloppiness in the wording cannot be permitted: sloppiness destroys the poem. You want your audience to read your work, not gloss over it with passing, inattentive glances. As such, you must pay at least equal attention to the writing the poem as you expect in its reading.

I have seen poets often reject the notion of "seeking the perfect word" (as the phrase was used by Mallarmé and such) as a kind of over-obsessiveness with the wording of a poem: and, generally, when you see or read the idea of searching for the perfect word played out in pop criticism, it is usually played out with such obsessiveness in mind. But that is a false concept of the idea, one whose real purpose is to legitimate a casualness with wording, that any pretty phrasing is sufficient to the writing of a poem.

But it is not sufficient to a poem as an unified whole, as a crafted micrososmos. The falsely chosen or mis-placed word will very readily create disruptions, or contradictions, or dead spots in the ideation of the poem, if not create a reading that is simply pointless. Perfection may be the unattainable goal in poetry — and there is an inherent joke in that phrase in that perfection in a clockworks sense is wholly the wrong direction —, but carefulness is most assuredly the lowest bar, and meticulousness rather the expected aim.

Let's take this poem for examples of how the wrong word or the ill-used word (or phrasing) can weaken a poem.

First, let me break the poem into its sentences:

There is a point on every mission when something must be jettisoned into the thin, black air.

Nothing likes to be abandoned, no one likes to be compared.

There is a point when the plan lifts from our control panels and shimmers while we go ahead and stare.

How long do we call the plan the plan after it disappears?

There's no such thing as a few minutes alone.

There's no such thing as making up your mind when everything is determined: the rate of our turning, our distance from the sun.

I followed you here with my naked eye.

You've lost your white glove.

It travels now like a comet burning up the sky.

A couple of quick notes: First, technically, grammatically, there should be a semi-colon or a period in the second sentence ("Nothing likes . . .") rather than a comma. But, in practice, with the comma being at the end of the line, and with the poem not using terribly complex sentences, Olstein can get away with it. But, that does not mean that the semi-colon is not a better choice: it is, most definitely so, because (1) line-breaks are not being continually used as a form of punctuation; and (2) since Olstein is writing sentences, the use of the comma comes off as looking like she doesn't have a good grasp of grammar.[FN]

———————————————————-
[FN] An important correction to that: the idea of the use of the comma coming off as though Olstein was not good at grammar exists very much because this one poem is the only text before us. If there were others, with clean, well-implemented grammar, it might merely look like a goof.
———————————————————-

Second, sentence 4 ("How long . . .") seems to need to be written with the second "the plan" in quotation marks, like this:

How long do we call the plan "the plan" after it disappears?

Or, you can put the words in italics, that works as well. But it should be marked off in some way. Not marking it off creates reading problems. (On my first two readings of the poem, the sentence would not make sense to me: that is because I was trying to find a way to read with the assuming the current punctuatiing of the sentence was correct. I it was not until I realized that the quotation marks were missing that I caught what was meant with the sentence.)

But let's get back to wording. If you look at the sentences, the poem is three parts (or, two parts, with one part split by the other.) The opening and closing lines are both about the same idea, but the middle lines seem to be doing something on their own. I want to look at the opening and closing sentences first, so let me set them out:

There is a point on every mission when something must be jettisoned into the thin, black air.

Nothing likes to be abandoned, no one likes to be compared.

I followed you here with my naked eye.

You've lost your white glove.

It travels now like a comet burning up the sky.

First, there's a small problem with the first line, in that there is no air in space. That is rather the definition of "space": being beyond the layer of air of the planet. (Where, precisely, that is is another question, one that came up with Felix Baumgartner's record freefall.) Also, you don't say that air here on the planet is blue, do you? So you wouldn't say air in space is black. Which may seem nit picking, except consider your reader: this is the first stanza, and already there is a moment that gives reader permission to think "this poet doesn't know what she's talking about fact/terminology-wise," which will lead right to the presumption that "she might not then be very good." That's not a good way to start a poem.[FN]

———————————————————-
[FN] To note, this problem in line 3 of the poem makes the comma/semi-colon issue in lines 4 and 5 all the worse, because the reader already has lost some confidence in the quality of the poem.
———————————————————-

Second, the word compare requires at least two things to be compared to each other. "No one likes to be compared" only supplies one: the "no one." As such, the clause is cut short. A reader stumbles over the syntax: "No one likes to be compared to what?" they ask: an answer which is not present in the poem. Now, I think the error here is actually that compare is the wrong word altogether. This is what I read out of "no one like to be compared": that there is supposed to be the idea of "equating" an individual with the mass, with everyone else. That, once a person becomes nothing more than a member of the throng, they lose their value and can be jettisoned without loss. I think that is what was intended by the phrase. (Alternatively, but to the same end, no one likes to be compared to other things in a measure of usefulness or value.) The word compare, however, does not get us there. So I want to rewrited it:

Nothing likes to be abandoned. No one likes being unnamed.

(Or, in the alternative: Nothing likes to be abandoned. No one likes being undervalued.)

I think that is closer to the intent. (Whatever the intent, the dangling "compared" — without something anchoring the idea — suffers also simply in that left open it is mostly wrong: generally, people very do like to be compared. By being more specific the phrase would gain direction, greater purpose, and greater energy.)

Third, the "here" in "I followed you here" does not wholly fit the rest of the poem. The glove exists as the parallel to stuff that is jettisoned on a mission. But there is nothing in the poem that establishes "missions" as being "here." In fact, it doesn't make sense, especially in that the glove then is jettisoned into space, which is definitely not "here." So the "here" could be eliminated — it really is an unnecessary word —, leaving

I followed you with my naked eye.

Much tighter: it is now in line with the outer space-oriented ideation of the poem by eliminating an unnecessary and confusing (if not contradictory) idea: "here."

Fourth, a comet does not "burn up the sky": it burns in the sky. But moreso, the phrase "burn up the sky" is one that generally gives a positive description. To saying, for example, "the rocket burned up the sky" is to rather elevate the rocket as being more magnificent, more potent than the all-enveloping sky: the rocket is leaving the sky — and the earth — behind for things much better, things much less quotidian: which is not at all an idea that fits with the word "jettison." So I'll change that as well (and get rid of the unnecessary comma while I'm at it).

Fifth, I see no reason to shift tense with "followed," especially now that "here" is eliminated.

What do we have, now?

There is a point on every mission
when something must be jettisoned.

Nothing likes to be abandoned.
No one likes being unnammed.

I follow you with my naked eye.

You've lost your white glove.
It travels now like a comet

burning in the sky.

I'm intentionally ignoring the middle lines right now. I'm also breaking the lines in a manner natural to the sentences. And I use a period in the second stanza to give the two lines equal weight. Hopefully you can see how the changes I've made in these lines is not merely cosmetic, but tightens the poem. The wobbly bits — the errors, the potentially questionable grammar, the syntactic and semantic clashes — are gone. That is the very demonstration of tightening: getting rid of what is not needed; getting rid of both actual — and, even if unjustified, unreconcilably perceived — problems; and getting the ideational elements to work together to build an idea, not splay a number of them here and there hoping that the reader will find the intended thread.

However, what I am absolutely not saying is that the above (i.e., my rewrite) is a good poem. I am only saying it is a text that has been tightened up. In fact, I find it now rather bland. But, just as it has been tightened up, so also can it be fed and flourished and filled out. It is not a bad thing to do, though, in the drafting process, to pare down the tree to its core branches to see just where the strength of the poem lies and through where the primary runs of energy are flowing, and to find issues so as to eliminate or correct them.

 

So now there's that middle bit:

There is a point when the plan lifts from our control panels and shimmers while we go ahead and stare.

How long do we call the plan "the plan" after it disappears?

There's no such thing as a few minutes alone.

There's no such thing as making up your mind when everything is determined: the rate of our turning, our distance from the sun.

Now, how does the "plan" idea interact with the "jettison" idea? Through the word "must" in line 2: if it must be jetissoned, then it is done so according to a plan. So you have a link to with which to start this middle bit. But, what comes from it? to where does it lead in the text? to where does the text lead?

There is a point when the plan lifts from our control panels and shimmers while we go ahead and stare.

Focus first on the word shimmer. What idea is that supposed to generate? There definitely should be something, since it is that word that does the greater part of the ideational work in the sentence; it is that word that most catches the reader's mind. It is the focal point of the sentence, the one part that is not normal, not run-of-the-mill, not a part of the ordinary event: "There is a point when the plan lifts from our control panels while we go ahead and stare." Even the staring is subordinate to the shimmering, since, potentially, that is why they are staring. But what does the shimmering have to do with anything?[FN] And then comes:

How long do we call the plan "the plan" after it disappears?

So the shimmering, floating plan disappears? Why? Even in the abstract, even only with the "if it must be jettisoned, then there must be a plan" idea, why does the plan have to disappear? It's a tautology what's been inserted into the poem. There has to be the creation of conflict, of disruption, so the plan disappears. But, you know, generally, "shimmering" is (again) a positive connotation: you don't generally say something like "glittering, shimmering death!" without giving some explanation to the inherent irony. So, you have another conflict: the positive word "shimmering" with the negative event of the plan sponteously disappearing.

———————————————————-
[FN] Curiously, if you at all take the "space" setting into any kind of sci-fi familiarity, saying the plan was "shimmering" brings things to a very different place than where this poem wants to go. And if, in a narrative, the plan was suddenly "shimmering" — that's where most everyone would indeed go.
———————————————————-

So then the third sentence:

There's no such thing as a few minutes alone.

It has me entirely flummoxed. I just do not see how it in any way builds with either the "jettison" or the "plan" ideas. It's a floating mass of "whaaaa??!" in the middle of the poem, something the reader is going to gloss over, not knowing how to deal wth it, and being given no hints to either side.

Finally:

There's no such thing as making up your mind when everything is determined: the rate of our turning, our distance from the sun.

A very poor choice of examples, since they are physical quantities: not something you make up your mind about. The distance between my reading glasses and the screen of the laptop I'm working on is a measurable distance (even if a varying one): there is no "making up your mind" inherent to it. Same with "the rate of turning," or, moreso, "distance from the sun." If Olstein was trying to establish some kind of deterministic universe for the space of this poem, she needed to do it fully, not with a fly-by sentence. It is too big an idea, and an idea that needs to pervade the text. The scene has to be created and the action described with determinism running through it all. She needed to orient it in actual events of choosing, not the measurements that result from the choosing. Instead, we have a weak line, that doesn't really flow out of or into anything with any degree of strength.

Besides, I thought the plan disappeared. Doesn't that mean that there is, now, choice whether to jettison or not? If the plan disappeared, then nothing is, anymore, "determined." And if it is supposed to be determined, why did the plan disappear? If Olstein was intending to create a sense of determinism, shouldn't the plan not be floating, but be solid and unmoveable? shouldn't it do the exact opposite of disappear?

Now, some will argue that the point of this part of the poem is the conflict between the determinism of a plan and the false determinism of a plan no longer present but still identified as "the plan." And, yes, I see those energies too. Except the same conflicts still apply: the idea is not the idea, the idea that governs the whole of the poem (or, at least, the whole of this middle section). Instead, there are three ideas: that the plan determines everything without cease; that the plan disappears and no longer applies; and that the plan has disappeared because it never really was a truly deterministic plan, but the people maintain the plan on their own (except that, they don't really, not according to the text). The words as given have not been told which one, so the poem as a whole suffers in its wobbliness and ambiguities (in the bad sense). Not being careful enough with the words has created an ideational mish-mash.

Which was the point of this demonstration. Hopefully you see it now yourself.

 

So: what's left? There is still the question of how the middle part goes with the bookends. I don't honestly know. In fact, to speak of the poem as a whole, I would say it was the middle part that fails the poem, and the whole of it should be cut. It doesn't leave much left from the book ends, so what's left would have to be developed. But there is definitely something there to be developed. Moving from "must jettison" to a glove burning across the sky is an interesting movement indeed.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

"Never the Twain" by Partridge Boswell -- Verse Daily, 6/8/2013

from Some Far Country (Grolier Poetry Press)
poem found here
 

First lines:
Perfect pearl suspended
           in the crosshairs of my apotheosis

 

text and form: an exploration of organic vs. conventional nature

— reformatted, with some editing 8/2/2014
 

Short one today, one that follows out of the three on contemporary poetic convention just previous.

Simple question: Does the form of this poem (i.e., arbitrarily broken lines in three-line, progressively indented stanzas) add to the poem, subtract from it, or accomplish nothing?

What I'm hoping for you to do is look at the poem, look at the line breaks, look at the lines, and decide if this form succeeds, or if this poem is a text forced into a structure that really doesn't fit the words. Do the words and form find organic unity, or is the structure merely a result of following contemporary poetic convention? You must notice also that there is almost no punctuation in the poem except for the period at the end. Yet both "Perfect" at the start and "You'll" near the bottom are capitalized; and "Memphis," near the middle, being at the start of a line, seems to signal a third place where a 'sentence' starts.

To get you going, let me point out a couple of moments in the poem that are problematic. (I say "problematic" in the sense that, if given the poem to edit, I would ask for justifications for these moments.) First, here:

           your finger on something irresistible
                        & not to be trusted in his johnnyroy

elvisjerrylee swagger & Lansky's

Notice how that single word — "johnnyroyelvisjerrylee" — has been broken in two. Is there a reason why that had to happen?

Earlier:

not with the sun there
            glaring you have to be-
                        have under winged

My want here from Boswell would be: justify the hyphenated word when (1) there's no apparent restrictions on lines to force it, and (2) it leaves me constantly reading the next line as "hav" (as in "I have a box") not "heyv" (to use Dictionary.com's phonetic spellings). There's a second hyphenated word later, with "juxta-posed."

Another:

            babelsong our safe house
                        roof now googlable from space—

remember that place? frozen

My issue: does not the line ending eliminate the need for the em-dash? (This one is half about form and half about punctuation, but the two are interrelated.)

Finally:

funambulist arc across
            summer's final panel
                        the only clue to loss her

Here, I wonder if the form is getting in the way of the reading of the last line in the stanza, the cluster of words on the line do not seem to gel, and I want to misread "loss" as "lose," especially in that "lose" rhymes with "clue."

As I said: they are problematic, and if put in a questioning duty I would ask for answers. But I put them here not as spot things to question, but as issues to be used to develop the question that involves the whole poem: does the form work for or against the poem? Is the form in natural engagement with the words of the poem, or are the words forced into an arbitrary structure? Or, what degree to either side?

 

Let me throw in one more question on form: do you find those indents to be workable, or too large?

 

Ok, one spot I absolutely do not like, just to bring it up. But I'll ask it as a question: Does the second line really work? Is this a moment of apotheosis? Does the moon being in the "crosshairs of my apotheosis" make sense in the context of the poem? Or is this just a pretty thing that you're not supposed to actually think about?

(Can something be "suspended in the crosshairs"? Or is that a problem created by the absense of punctuation, in that "suspended, in the crosshairs" makes more sense?)

By happenstance, the day after writing this, I came upon this usage of the word apotheosis while reading Moby Dick, in the paragraph closing the brief chapter on — the "six-inch grave" of — the helmsman Bulkington. For the coincidence, I put it here. But also to ask a question: should it be that some words can only be used in a context that itself speaks the word? and without that context, can the word only suffer bathetically?

But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God—so, better it is to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! For worm-like, then, oh! who would craven crawl to land! Terrors of the terrible! is all this agony so vain? Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing—straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!

(Chapter 23, pages 97-8 in the 1967 Norton edition.) —- added 6/9/2013

Friday, June 7, 2013

"For the Next Task, I Turn From the Bench" by Matthew Nienow -- Poetry Daily, 6/5/2013

from Southwest Review (98.2)
poem found here
 

First line:
with one hundred bronze clench nails
 

exploring "write what you know," the info dump, and other bits

— reformatted, with some editing 8/2/2014
 

There's things I like about this poem; some things I don't like. I do like that it does not pause to overtly state what is going on — the building of a small boat — but only gives you sufficient clues: specifically, "clench nail," and "strakes." You will see a phrase in fiction writing circles, especially imaginative fiction: the "info dump." An info dump is a moment where the action of a narrative comes to a stop so that the writer can give the reader information on elements of what is going on. You see this very frequently in science fiction, in TV and film as much as in books, and you can understand why, when much of the reality in the text is fictional. You can't, for example, continually use the phrase "dilithium crystals" without at some point clueing the reader in on what it means. More often than not, the writers try to conceal the dump through dialogue. And, far too often, it results in a moment where the characters are suddenly in the shadow of a stupid cloud: "So, you gonna use that hammer, Jim?" "Yeah, Jack. I'm going to use it to force nails into wood." "Cool." Usually, it's about that dumb, once you think about it, and once you start paying attention. And just because it is two starship engineers talking about the plastofisten microcomodumaker doesn't mean they are not speaking, in context, the blatantly obvious to each other. (Once you start watching for them, it becomes quite funny to see the info dumps: all the actors are forced to stand still in an absurd game of Red Light/Green Light waiting for the explanatory exposition to end.)

Which is why, in fiction, an info dump is a bad thing.[FN] And so also in poetry. And yet it happens all the time: a full stop in the poem to tell the reader what is going on. Had "For the Next Task" stopped to tell the reader it was a boat, it would have been an info dump. And unnecessay, as the center of action here is quite clear. All you need is a little dictionary work.

—————————————-
[FN] Curiously, it is usually the fact that info dumps are unnecessary to the poem. Great writing recognizes the reader should almost never need an info dump: they usually can get the information they need in context. If they can't (and need to), that's a problem.

Indeed, you will find most of the time info dumps are far less about the text than they are about one of two things: (1) the writer hand feeding readers too lazy to make the effort (which is a bad thing); and (2) a writer showing off their own imagination/knowledge (which is also a bad thing, when the text comes to a stop for it to happen).
—————————————-

As I've said before: you are allowed to demand effort on the part of the reader. More importantly, you are expected to demand effort on the part of the reader. Because if you poem takes no effort to read, there really is nothing to be gained in the reading, is there? (And "effort," here, does not mean only looking things up: it means actively reading.)

Another like: I really like the phrase "wide mouth mason." (Though, it probably should be "wide-mouth" or "wide-mouthed.")

But now, some of what I don't like. And it may seem I am being a bit overly nit-picky at points; but, to be honest, a great poem could take it.

I don't like that the poem is written as a single sentence broken up only by commas. It is such a long sentence it rather loses control of itself. It ends very far away from where it begins, grammatically speaking. Unfortunately, to be honest, I'm having a very difficult time putting into typed words the wobblies I see, so let me just set out the sentence like this:

For the next task,
    I turn from the bench
        with one hundred bronze clench nails in a wide mouth mason,
        the bucking iron's finger gap smooth upon my hand,
        the ball-peen longing for its sway,
            to meet each nail's head gently,
            to send the slender tooth into its bread,
            whereupon the head is backed by weighted hand,
                that the tapered spike may be driven in reverse,
                    the soft-tapping slow dance of the working bend,
                that the golden nail may re-enter the wood from which it came,
                & holdfast two strakes together,
                    that the many may share a single name.

Hopefully you can hear how by about the appearance of "soft-tapping" the sentence has begun to lose control of itelf. Some of the problem lies in that there is very little parallelism in the lists. Throw upon that the not always tight syntax and semantics (I'm not saying non-standard, I'm saying wobbly), and you have a rather unwieldy thing. Stepping outside of the specific issues, my question is: if you are writing poetry, why not use lines to help the reader manage that sentence? (Or different punctuation?) For me, this poem hides an unwieldy sentence in its arbitrary line breaks, and, by making it hard to read smoothly because of the line breaks, it makes it easier to hide its unwieldiness. Which is so often the case with contemporary free verse: the poet thinks they are writing lines, but they are not paying attention to how the lines work with (or against) the flow of words, and not always at all paying attention to that flow of words. So you end up with a lot of clumsiness created (and then hidden) by the free verse inattentiveness.

A lot of my other issues with this poem lie in its wording. Perhaps some of them are more influenced by taste than by poetics, but it might be worth pointing them out just to talk about them, to let you weigh them for yourself within your own poetic ear. There's a lot to be gained in trying things out.

I don't much like the title. "For the Next Task" sounds too much like "For My Next Trick," and carries a similar nuance. Neither fit the tone of the poem. Perhaps, simply, "Next"? (Or anything at all? Is it important to the poem that it is "next"?)

I very much don't like the missing commas in such as the first line: "with one hundred bronze clench nails" which should be "with one hundred, bronze clench nails." That seems like a little thing, but stringing out adjectives like that only creates difficulties in the reading (unless, you are very carefully crafting), especially when the poem is a long sentence.

I don't like the misuse of words and the resulting clashes in ideation like when "to send the slender tooth into its bread" is followed up on the next line with "that tapered spike." "Bread" is going for gentle, "spike" is rather quite the opposite. This one isn't taste: it's poor form. You have to be careful of this in your writing. When you create a clash between two ideas, the reader has only three paths: ignore one, ignore the other, ignore them both. Your ideation should build up, not be a series of independent moments. When it's the latter, that's when you are in threat of clashes like this one. And you can't generate depth when your words are at odds.

Another spot of this is the word "reverse." When you clench a nail, you are not driving it back, in "reverse" direction. You're more bending it over. The phrase "driving it in reverse" very much more sounds like you're hammering the nail back through so that you can pull it out. Another is that the nail begins as "bronze" and ends as "golden." You can't use a metallic color to describe a metal that is already identified as another metal. Just can't. The colors are too tied to the names of the metal.

Is "re-enter the wood from which it came" redundant?

I don't like the ampersand in the third to last line, but I've discussed that just a couple posts ago (here).

I like "sway," in that there is the idea that a hammer has sway over a nail. But it doesn't work in this context, because "swaying" is very much something a hammer should not be doing. If you are wielding a hammer and it is swaying, you're doing it wrong. (Or you need to stop because you are tired.)

Which leads us, first to "strakes," which I think is being misused here; and then, finally, to "ball-peen" and "write what you know." (Note that I am going to be making hypotheticals about the author in this bit.)

Here's the problem: a ball-been hammer is used in metalworking. You don't use a ball-peen to drive in nails: it's not made to do that, and if you do use it you're increasing the chance of screwing things up by quite a bit.

That said, we bring in "write what you know," one of the many workshopisms you hear in creative writing discussion, one of the many I have come to dislike. And why do I dislike it? Because it's bumper-sticker creative writing, and, bumper-sticker anything is almost always misused, ill-used, bad-habit-forming, badly-conceived, or otherwise detrimental to developing sophistication. Bizarrely, "write what you know" has somehow become a restrictive dicta of workshop mentality. "To write successfully, you must write from out of who you are. You must write what you know." Which means that if the origin of this little poem was listening to a friend of a friend talk about small ship-building, or reading a scene in a novel, or some such, and Nienow knew nothing about small ship-building when he got the idea, then he should not have written the poem, because he would not be writing "what he knew."

Which is, on its face, nonsense. Rather, what "write what you know" should tell you is that if you want to write about something outside your wheelhouse, then learn about it first. If you don't learn about it, you write superficially, and your text ends up superficial and shallow (if not flat out silly). Depth comes out of knowledge. It doesn't equal knowledge, but it definitely comes out of it.

Now, I, myself, take this to extremes, perhaps; but it works very well for me. For example, say I have decided to write a Keats-like, formally stanzaed poem about Hansel and Gretel. If it is the first time I had tried to write a Keats-like, formallly stanzaed poem, I would definitily (1) read, many times, some of Keats's own poetry of the nature, and study what he does with stanzas. I would also very likely (2) see if I can find a book that talks about Keats's use of stanzas: after all, the easiest way to learn about something is to ask someone who knows about that something.

Finally, (3) I will hunt down everything I can about Hansel and Gretel, including versions of the tale, other poems about the tale, and even the libretto of Englebert Humperdinck's opera. I want to see what other people have done. I want to see variations. I also want to see how they did it so I can learn from those people who have walked this path before.

Another peculiar thing that shows up in writing circles, though not so overtly: the idea that if I am writing about X, I am supposed to do it wholly on my own. Looking at what other people did is cheating. Which is complete and utter nonsense. If I am going to write a scene of, say, a ship leaving a dry-dock, I am, yes, going to research the practical aspects of it. But I am also going to see if I can find other people who have written about the same thing, so I can learn from them . . . . and do it better than they did.

Now, like I said, I tend to do far more research than I need, but I really enjoy researching. But, in truth, the number of times I have discovered some little gem of knowledge that just makes the work is more than enough to justify the effort. You can't be a good writer without knowing: both about your subject, about writing about your subject, and about the form in which you are writing.

But I digress.

So. "Ball-peen" here is a mistake, and a big one, because we are supposed to be accepting that the person in this poem knows what they are doing.

But let's flip it about. Let's suppose that the origin of this poem is someone Nienow knows personally — or, even, is about Nienow himself — and they do in fact use a ball-peen hammer.

It doesn't change anything. The claim "but that is really what they do" is justification for nothing in a text that is not reportage. You still have to "write what you know": which is to say, in this instance, learn enough about the subject so you know when elements in the real-life source are idiosyncratic — or, even, wrongly done. So then you can be writing to what the reader is going to read, not to what "is really real." And you can avoid what unavoidably comes off as an error. You still have to know that a ball-peen hammer is meant to be used with metalworking, not for driving nails. And you should know that a reader that knows anything about hammers is going to know that: using "ball-peen" in your poem is going to look wrong, look like a mistake on the writer's part, and decrease greatly the reader's faith in the writer's abilities.

So maybe not "write what you know"? Maybe instead know what you write.

 

One final note: what I absolutely hate about this poem: the word my (and the "I" in the title). It is an absolutely unnecessary element to the poem. And the presence of it actually changes the ideation of the poem in a detrimental way. The primary energies of the poem — even the extended sentence nature of it — points the reader to the last phrase: "that the many may share a single name" (and to the "holdfast" that sets up that phrase). By adding the first person to the poem, the poem becomes no longer about that final phrase, but about the person building the ship. Why? Because there is no reason for the first person to be in the poem in the first place. So when the first person shows up (primarily through the "my") it demands and gathers a huge share of the energies that should be being channeled to that summing phrase. With the "my" the poem is now divided in its purposes and aims, and loses for it.

I would argue this point is not one of taste, but one of poetics and semantics; and that the poem would be far better if rewritten without that first person.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"Bloodletting" by Alex Dimitrov -- Poetry Daily, 06/01/2013

from Right Here More Than Ever
poem found here
 

First lines:
I would like to request a volunteer.
Please raise your hand

 

more on contemporary, poetic conventionality (but first, the ampersand)

— reformatted, with some editing 8/2/2014
 

Before I start let me offer a quick thought on the use of ampersands, as in

I am going to put you in this box
& prove that I understand the finality

Ampersands are a typographical mark, a logogram, which is a symbol that stands for a printed word. (That is, you cannot in anyway say an ampersand) As such, & and and are not freely interchangeable. You use amperasands in English within typography, as in Currier & Ives, which is not a three-word phrase, but a three-word, visualized, proper noun — to wit, something able to be trademarked.

As such, when I see ampersands in a poem, I see primarily one thing: gimmickry. The only time such substitutions work is when the whole of the poem's explorations include typographical explorations, and where such explorations work to and with the unity of the poem. Here, the substituting of ampersands has no purpose within the poem: there is not one other typographical consideration going on. As such it reads entirely as pop-poetic gimmick. (You would never arbitrarily substitute a $ for the word dollar in the middle of a poem, would you?)

Rare I give advice like this, but take this one and pocket it: do not do this. Do not do this unless, in doing it, most everybody sees the game you are playing (and that the poem is playing) with the substitution — and that there is in fact a game being played. If there is no point to it, there is no reason for it. If your only point to it is to make the text look like pop poetry, congratulations, you have succeeded.

Which leads us right to convention, whose purpose — like the ampersand — is self-directed and self-contained. (That is, the purpose of convention is conventionality.) And, with this poem, we have a very common convention: the two-line (or, elsewhere, three-line) stanza.

And it is convention, because nowhere in the text of the poem itself can you find purpose or meaning in the breaking of the text into such stanzas. Now, I have heard it said "you break it into stanzas to make reading the poem easier." To which I reply, "If the poem is that hard to read without it, that should be a sign that there is a problem with your poem." After all, you are allowed — indeed compelled — to demand some degree of effort on the part of the reader.

I have also heard it said how finding a certain stanza break can aid the poem, that a poem can work "better" with one kind of stanza over another. And I have myself observed this in playing around with poems, typsetting them without stanza breaks, then with two-line, then three-line, etc., just to see what happens. Sometimes you find a stanza size that does work better than others. Except such a discovery is a lazy, backdoor method of writing poetry; for what you are, as the writer, failing to do is write stanzas. And that is what poetry is: if you are writing stanzas, then write the stanzas.[FN]

———————————————————
[FN] There is an exception to this, a place where I see that 'finding' the size of stanzas has some legitimacy: that is where the poet is crafting the poem focusing on lines, where the structure of the poem is primarily in the idea of the line, and the breaking into regular stanzas is done to give some white space to the poem, which can in turn give emphasis to the line-oriented structure of the poem. But for myself, if ever I discover that a poem can handle rearranging stanza breaks, and it is not to the end of finding the natural structure of the poem, I am led to distrust the poem and the words thereof.
———————————————————

This is something many students of poetry fail to understand about poets such as William Carlos Williams and Robert Duncan. Yes, the visual aspect of the poem was part of their explorations of poetry. But they did not write poems and then arbitrarily line break and stanza break them. Rather, they crafted their lines and stanzas. Williams did not write down the sentence "So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens" and then break it into its now familiar form. Nor were these lines by Duncan the result of arbitary line breaks (from "Achilles Song," which opens Ground Work: Before the War):

    All night
the mothing tides in which your
    life first formd in the brooding
light  have quencht the bloody
    spendors of the sun

(I chose that stanza in part to show someone who seems to be playing with typography, though Duncan intended all his typographical elements to effect the aural reading of the poems, so there is purpose to the typographical manipulations. Also, this stanza points out a great fallacy within arguments by certain poets justifying their line-breaking of a poem according to line size: Williams and Duncan composed on typewriters, with fixed-spaced fonts. In fact, much of what Williams was exploring with the visual nature of the poem is lost in reproduction because it is not then printed in monospaced font.)

Most contemporary poetry gives little if any attention to the line and the stanza. Breaks for both are mostly arbitrary. Which, much the same way as with the ampersand, speaks to me primarily of one thing: blindly following the convention and gimmickry that stands for poetics in pop-poetry. Secondarily, connectedly, lack of sophistication. And the poem prompts the obvious question: Why write poetic lines and stanzas if you are not writing lines and stanzas?

It's an obvious question. It is, actually, a question that demands to be answered. Especially when, as with poems like "Demonstrated Melancholy," here, the lines and stanza are working against the natural structure of the text. Let's play around with possibilities. (These are meant not to insist on something better, but just to explore possibilities prompted by the words of the text.)

First go:

I would like to request
a volunteer.

Please raise your hand only if
you are a lovely singer
        in possession of your own voice.

Please raise your hand only if
        your hand is actually a sunflower.

(Some materials will be supplied but others you should bring from home.)

(You must have a home from which you can bring things.)

I need help reconstructing these crayons:
        crayons that broke in half after she told me
        what I kept drawing wasn't right enough.

I have a thing for dinosaurs and lunar cities.

I was trapped in a mythical past;
I was imagining an improbable future.

(I need you to bring me a really long saw.)

I am going to put you in this box
        and prove that I understand
        the finality of separation.

(You are going to need to bring some replacement parts for the parts of you damaged in the performance.)

I don't like where that one is going. Though, the change in voice in the asides seems to want parentheses to set them of. (Or, perhaps, italics.) So, let's have a second go:

I would like to request a volunteer!
Please raise your hand:

Only if you are a lovely singer in possession of your own voice.
Only if your hand is actually a sunflower.
Some materials will be supplied.
Some materials must bring from home.
You must have a home from which you can bring them.

        I need help reconstructing these crayons
        that broke in half after she told me
        what I kept drawing wasn't right enough.

        I have a thing for dinosaurs and lunar cities.
        I was trapped in a mythical past.
        I was imagining an improbable future.

You must bring a really long saw.
I will put you in a box.

        I will prove I understand the finality of separation.

You're must bring replacement parts
for the parts of you
damaged in the performance.

Those capital "O"s in the second stanza seem to be pointing out a problem with this structure. Maybe indent most everything, and no capitals in the listing?

I only intend (and work out) quickie explorations, there; but, explorations of structures implied by the text. If I may point to one moment as example: the triplet idea of "dinosaurs and lunar cities," "mythical past," and "improbable future" seem to me to demand much more attention that being lost within arbitrary line breaks. That cluster creates a very strong ideation. (In fact, so strong, it might be said they also demand much more attention in how they work throughout the poem. So strong that their somewhat-dropped nature rather wants to turn them into a dropped pith, like I discussed in my previous post.) So I am led, as a sophisticated reader, to ask: why write the poem with arbitrary line breaks and stanza breaks when there is this element — and others — that seems to demand attentive line construction?[FN]

———————————————————
[FN] Just to say in case someone is asking: even though the stanza breaks are a measured two-line stanzas, they are still arbitrary in the sense that they are applied to the poem, and not derived out of the text of the poem.
———————————————————

But I don't want to write a poem broken up like that. I want a continual flow. — An imagined response. (I am not putting words in Mr. Pritts's mouth.) Which is fine, except for two points: (1) you have not written a text that is a continual flow; and so (2) why not write lines? Which points directly back to arbitrariness and convention. A convention is applied: it supercedes the actual demands of the words on the page. Success in a convention is performance of the convention, irrespective of the words on the page. So, this poem successfully performs the common convention of arbitrary line breaks and two-lined stanzas. Whether that structure fits the text is irrelevant. The poem succeeds structurally — within the conventions of contemporary poetry — simply because there are two line breaks. We can ignore everything else.

And, as with the poem on my last post, once you start to examine the text of the poem, you will often find the problems concealed by the presentation of the poem. (Problems created, in no small part, because the text was not written to be a two-line-stanza poem.) For example, in both of the results of my playing about, above, I still read a big problem with the shift in tone between the "please raise your hand only if" and "some materials will be supplied." The former are vocalized statements directed at people. The latter suddenly shifts to a kind of aside statement: the "you" has disappeared. So I would want to rewrite to put that "you" back in:

Please raise your hand only if your hand is a sunflower.
I will supply some materials.
You must bring others from home.
You must have a home from which to bring them.

The shift to an aside voice is made very problematic within the poem as written: while there is a major shift in voice, there is no visual/typographical response or cue that jusifies and anchors within the poem itself that shift. The reader naturally wants to stay in the "you"-directed voice. So does the poem . . . . and it does. A similar shift in voice occurs later, with "Can you yell frantically?," where the the voice moves from an imperative tone to an interrogative. (And this is a problem with the reading and structure of the poem.)

There is also a shift in the general ideation of the poem, of the idea of the magic show as relationship. The "dinosaur and lunar cities" lines, and those about them, speak that the problems of the relationship lie in the magician, in the magician actually believing in magic. That the magician expects to find magic in a relationship — and this in a positive (if misdirected) way. But then, suddenly, it turns accusatory with "after she told me / what I kept drawing wasn't right enough." So the energies of the poem are split: are they to the failings of the magician? or to the failings of the volunteer. I would say the latter needs to be wiped from the poem, and the focus entirely put on the metaphor of a magician who truly believes in magic, even though they know they are only performing tricks. (Which is, actually, an idea with great potential, and perhaps someone reading this will pick up that gauntlet and run with it.)

I need to pull this all in and sum up. When I read this poem, when I read the poem as written, I see a poem that has in its text a kind of internal structure, but which on the page is put in a form that in no way attends to that structure. So I see a poem whose structure is working against itself — and not in a positive way. Also, I see a poem that went — if not ran — to convention for solutions and styles rather than to creativity and thought, which is much more difficult. So I see a poem that speaks its own lack of creative effort. Finally, I see a poem that will be read by many as a successful poem because it is performing the two-line stanza convention, even though that convention does not at all fit the text of the poem (and, so, is quite unsuccessful).

Create. It is creative writing. My always first thought when I see a two-line or three-line stanza poem these days: well, don't expect much, because they didn't put much thought into it. The convention is so pervasive it now stands, like the ampersand, as a visual cue that the poem is built upon convention, on gimmick, and not on poetic creativity. That the poet was far more interesting in writing something that looked like a successful poem, rather than one that reads like one.[FN]

———————————————————
[FN] Perhaps there is found another aphorism:
The "creative" part of creative writing does not mean "imaginative." It means you are creating something new.

———————————————————

Monday, June 3, 2013

"Demonstrated Melancholy" by Nate Pritts -- Verse Daily, 5/30/2013

from Right Here More Than Ever
poem found here
 

First line:
I would like to request a volunteer.
Please raise your hand

 

more on contemporary, poetic conventionality (but first, the ampersand)

— reformatted with editing 8/27/2014
 

Before I start let me offer a quick thought on the use of ampersands, as in

I am going to put you in this box
& prove that I understand the finality

Ampersands are a typographical mark, a logogram, which is a symbol that stands for printed word. (That is, you cannot in anyway 'say' an ampersand) As such, & and and are not freely interchangeable. You use amperasands in English within typography, as in Currier & Ives, which is not a three-word phrase, but a three-word, visualized, proper noun — to wit, something able to be trademarked.

As such, when I see ampersands in a poem, I see primarily one thing: gimmick. The only time such substitutions work is when the whole of the poem's explorations include typographical explorations, and where such explorations work to and with the unity of the poem. Here, the substituting of ampersands has no purpose within the poem: there is not one other typographical consideration going on. As such: gimmick. (You would never arbitrarily substitute a $ for the word dollar in the middle of a poem, would you?)

Rare I give advice like this, but take this one and pocket it: do not do this. Do not do this unless, in doing it, most everybody sees the game you are playing (and that the poem is playing) with the substitution. And, that there is in fact a game being played. If there is no point to it beyond 'that's what everyone is doing' or 'it makes it look edgy' there is no reason for it.

Which leads us right to convention, whose purpose — like the ampersand — is self-directed and self-contained. (That is, the purpose of convention is conventionality.) And, with this poem, we have a very common convention: the two-line (or, elsewhere, three-line) stanza.

And it is convention, because nowhere in the text of the poem itself can you find purpose or meaning in the breaking of the text into such stanzas. Now, I have heard it said "you break it into stanzas to make reading the poem easier." To which I reply, "If the poem is that hard to read without it, that should be a sign that there is a problem with your poem." (After all, you are allowed — indeed compelled — to demand some degree of effort on the part of the reader.)

I have also heard it said how finding a certain stanza break aids the poem, that poems work better with one kind of stanza over another. And I have myself observed this in playing around with poems, typsetting them without breaks, then with two-line, then three-line, etc., just to see what happens. Sometimes you find a stanza size that does work better than others. Except such a discovery is a lazy, backdoor method of writing poetry; for, what you are, as the writer, failing to do is write stanzas. And that is what poetry is: if you are using stanzas, then write the stanzas.[FN]

———————————————————
[FN] There is an exception to this, a place where I see that 'finding' the size of stanzas has some legitimacy: that is where the poet is crafting the poem focusing on lines, where the structure of the poem is primarily in the idea of the line, and the breaking into regular stanzas is done to give some white space to the poem, which can in turn give emphasis to the line-oriented structure of the poem. But for myself, if ever I discover that a poem can handle rearranging stanza breaks, and it is not to the end of finding the natural structure of the poem, I am led to distrust the poem and the words thereof.
———————————————————

This is something many students of poetry fail to understand about poets such as William Carlos Williams and Robert Duncan. Yes, the visual aspect of the poem was part of their explorations of poetry. But they did not write poems and the arbitrarily line break and stanza break them. Rather, they crafted their lines and stanzas. Williams did not write down the sentence "So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens" and then break it into its now familiar form. Nor were these lines by Duncan the result of arbitary line breaks (from "Achilles Song," which opens Ground Work: Before the War):

    All night
the mothing tides in which your
    life first formd in the brooding
light  have quencht the bloody
    spendors of the sun

(I chose that stanza in part to show someone who seems to be playing with typography, though Duncan intended all his typographical elements to effect the aural reading of the poems, so there is purpose to the typographical manipulations. Also, this stanza points out a great fallacy within arguments by certain poets justifying their line-breaking of a poem according to line size: Williams and Duncan composed on typewriters, with fixed-spaced fonts. In fact, much of what Williams was exploring with the visual nature of the poem is lost in reproduction when it is not printed in monospaced font.)

Most contemporary poetry gives little if any attention to the line and the stanza. Breaks for both are mostly arbitrary. Which, much the same way as with the ampersand, speaks to me the same thing: no real justification except convention, no real purpose except to look conventional. Secondarily, lack of sophistication. And the poem prompts that same, obvious question: Why write poetic lines and stanzas if you are not writing lines and stanzas?

And it is an obvious question. It is, actually, a question that demands to be answered. Especially when, as with poems like "Demonstrated Melancholy," the lines and stanza are working against the natural structure of the text. Let's play around with possibilities. (These are meant not to insist on something better, but just to explore possibilities prompted by the words of the text.)

First go:

I would like to request
a volunteer.

Please raise your hand only if
you are a lovely singer
        in possession of your own voice.

Please raise your hand only if
        your hand is actually a sunflower.

(Some materials will be supplied but others you should bring from home.)

(You must have a home from which you can bring things.)

I need help reconstructing these crayons:
        crayons that broke in half after she told me
        what I kept drawing wasn't right enough.

I have a thing for dinosaurs and lunar cities.

I was trapped in a mythical past;
I was imagining an improbable future.

(I need you to bring me a really long saw.)

I am going to put you in this box
        and prove that I understand
        the finality of separation.

(You are going to need to bring some replacement parts for the parts of you damaged in the performance.)

I don't like where that one is going. Though, the change in voice in the asides seems to want parentheses to set them of. (Or, perhaps, italics.) So, let's have a second go:

I would like to request a volunteer!
Please raise your hand:

Only if you are a lovely singer in possession of your own voice.
Only if your hand is actually a sunflower.
Some materials will be supplied.
Some materials must bring from home.
You must have a home from which you can bring them.

        I need help reconstructing these crayons
        that broke in half after she told me
        what I kept drawing wasn't right enough.

        I have a thing for dinosaurs and lunar cities.
        I was trapped in a mythical past.
        I was imagining an improbable future.

You must bring a really long saw.
I will put you in a box.

        I will prove I understand the finality of separation.

You're must bring replacement parts
for the parts of you
damaged in the performance.

Those capital "O"s in the second stanza seem to be pointing out a problem with this structure. Maybe indent most everything, and no capitals in the listing?

I only intend (and work out) quickie explorations, there; but, explorations of structures implied by the text. If I may point to one moment as example: the triplet idea of "dinosaurs and lunar cities," "mythical past," and "improbable future" seem to me to demand much more attention that being lost within arbitrary line breaks. That cluster creates a very strong ideation. (In fact, so strong, it might be said they also demand much more attention in how they work throughout the poem. So strong that their somewhat-dropped nature rather wants to turn them into a dropped pith, like I discussed in my previous post.) So I am led, as a sophisticated reader, to ask: why write the poem with arbitrary line breaks and stanza breaks when there is this element — and others — that seems to demand attentive line construction?[FN]

———————————————————
[FN] Just to say in case someone is asking: even though the stanza breaks are a measured two-line stanzas, they are still arbitrary in the sense that they are applied to the poem, and not derived out of the text of the poem.
———————————————————

But I don't want to write a poem broken up like that. I want a continual flow. — An imagined response. (I am not putting words in Mr. Pritts's mouth.) Which is fine, except for two points: (1) you have not written a text that is a continual flow; and so (2) why not write lines? Which points directly back to arbitrariness and convention. A convention is applied: it supercedes the actual demands of the words on the page. Success in a convention is performance of the convention, irrespective of the words on the page. So, this poem successfully performs the common convention of arbitrary line breaks and two-lined stanzas. Whether that structure fits the text is irrelevant. The poem succeeds structurally — within the conventions of contemporary poetry — simply because there are two line breaks. We can ignore everything else.

And, as with the poem on my last post, once you start to examine the text of the poem, you will find the problems concealed by the poem. (Problems created, in no small part, because the text was not written to be a two-line-stanza poem.) For example, in both of the results of my playing about, above, I still read a big problem with the shift in tone between the "please raise your hand only if" and "some materials will be supplied." The former are vocalized statements directed at people. The latter suddenly shifts to a kind of aside statement: the "you" has disappeared. So I would want to rewrite to put that "you" back in:

Please raise your hand only if your hand is a sunflower.
I will supply some materials.
You must bring others from home.
You must have a home from which to bring them.

The shift to an aside voice is made very problematic within the poem as written, because the there is a major shift in voice, but no visual/typographical response or cue to that shift. The reader naturally wants to stay in the "you"-directed voice. So does the poem — and it does. A similar shift in voice occurs later, with "Can you yell frantically?," where the the voice moves from an imperative tone to an interrogative. (And this is a problem with the reading and structure of the poem.)

There is also a shift in the general ideation of the poem, of the idea of the magic show as relationship. The "dinosaur and lunar cities" lines, and those about them, speak that the problems of the relationship lie in the magician, in the magician actually believing in magic. That the magician expects to find magic in a relationship — and this in a positive (if misdirected) way. But then, suddenly, it turns accusatory with "after she told me / what I kept drawing wasn't right enough." So the energies of the poem are split: are they to the failings of the magician? or to the failings of the volunteer. I would say the latter needs to be wiped from the poem, and the focus entirely put on the metaphor of a magician who truly believes in magic, even though they know they are only performing tricks. (Which is, actually, an idea with great potential, and perhaps someone reading this will pick up that gauntlet and run with it.)

I need to pull this all in and sum up. When I read this poem, when I read the poem as written, I see a poem that has in its text a kind of internal structure, but which on the page is put in a form that in no way attends to that structure. So I see a poem whose structure is working against itself — and not in a positive way. Also, I see a poem that went to convention for a solution rather than to creativity, which is much more difficult. So I see a poem that speaks its own lack of creative effort. Finally, I see a poem that will be read by many as a successful poem because it is performing the two-line stanza convention, even though that convention does not at all fit the text of the poem (and, so, is quite unsuccessful).

Create. It is creative writing. My always first thought when I see a two-line or three-line stanza poem these days: well, don't expect much, because they didn't put much thought into it. The convention is so pervasive it now stands, like the ampersand, as a visual cue that the poem is built upon convention, on gimmick, and not poetic creativity, skill, or technique.[FN]

———————————————————
[FN] Perhaps there is found another aphorism:
The "creative" part of creative writing does not mean "imaginative." It means you are creating something new.
———————————————————

Sunday, June 2, 2013

"All You Know" by Carol Ann Davis -- Poetry Daily, 5/31/2013

from The Southern Review (Spring 2013)
poem found here
 

First lines:
Over time you discover all you know
fits into a thimble. Over time

 

the genre of contemporary poetry and anaphora

— reformatted with editing 8/27/14
 

It is my position that contemporary poetry is a genre -- one divisible into a collection of subgenres, yes; but, I believe the majority of it can be brought under one umbrella. And when I say genre, I do not mean contemporary poetry is categorizable. I mean it is convention driven and convention defined:[FN] in plain face language, the success of a poem depends on the performance of accepted conventions, and individual creativity plays second fiddle (if that), both in writing and in publishing. In truth, the conventions themselves stand for the quality of the work, and the performance of the conventions are often sufficient to the success of the work, even as other aspects of the poem fail.

--------------------------------------
[FN] After reading a journal edition dedicated to myth and poetry -- this years ago -- and found most of the contents to be quite non-mythic in nature (and subject, as concerns the non-fiction parts), I have wanted to do a survey of, say, a year's or a season's worth of journal/on-line poetry publications to demonstrate this. Even a mere month's worth might be sufficient.
--------------------------------------

Now, to many scholars of literature this is not exactly an original statement. In fact, it is an obviousness: pop lit -- and just because contemporary poetry is poetry does not exclude it from being pop lit -- is always genre driven. What I find fascinating about the genre of contemporary poetry is that only part of it lies in form (and that those formal aspects are centered in free verse). What I find interesting is much of the conventions of contemporary poetry lies in the wording and phrasing, and in the styles. (Now, scholars would say that this also is nothing different than from previous periods in time, so perhaps it is just this particular version of conventionality that I find intriguing, as it is the version of conventionality being performed right now.)

It seems like there is a cluster of poems these last couple of days that might work to exploring this idea, not in the broad scale of charting genres, but in the small scale of watching how conventions can govern a poem.

So, we begin, with "All You Know," and anaphora.

At its simplest, anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the begeinning of a line. (Technically, anaphora refers to the beginning of lines; though, the idea -- and the effects created thereby -- can be expanded: you can have 'anaphoric pharagraphs, for example.) Now, in that "All You Know" is free verse, it is not unsurprising that the anaphoric aspect -- "over time" -- is not at the start of lines, but at the start of ideas, of semantic units. Let me set the poem out broken up into its ideas, bold facing the "over time"s. I use indenting to show lists (that is, the first indented line is the second item in the list).

Over time
you discover all you know fits into a thimble.

Over time
you begin to see the folly of the vow,
     the well-made bed,
you hear your mother all these years later saying
     not for nothing in your ear.
     Where you began you end, silly girl, it isn't a maze but a circle,

over time
you see what everyone first warned about,
     see they were right,
     the both/neither of rumor,
     the spoken for,
     the compromised.

Over time
it's as clear as a dragonfly in spring,
     as pollen from a ghost maple,
     birthdays,
     birth orders,
     the four corners of most but not all rooms.
     As the nose on your face,
your mother again, reminding you to get out of bed
     — good morning, glory!
—phrases that knit together as they spin apart.

You remember, but
over time
you unknit,
     spend hours woven by unseen hands,
you can't believe in the cloud,
     in worship
     or school-yard play.

Over time
what you learn fits on the point of a needle,
something requiring your protection,
recalling the blue warmth out of the body into common air.
You can't be sure all of it won't go,
     everything you thought was true,
          the sweat that gathered some evenings on your father's brow,
          what the world knew of him,
          what went unnoticed or covered itself over on purpose—
how can you tell the difference?

A manner of repose in all things,
he taught you that,
leaning back on the legs of a kitchen chair,
     catching the cinder-block wall with the hard part of his skull,
     then easing onto the rounded cradle of the spine.
And this image in which he still moves—isn't it good it stays,
     isn't it a miracle it holds all you know?

(As should be expected, the indenting speaks my reading of the poem. For example, in the third grouping, I list all five elements in a list of "you see"s.)

So, the genre of contemporary poetry: One of the idioms of that genre is the use of anaphoric phrasing, which I think might be considered a subset of the more general use of listing (in the way this poem lists). This convention of the list demands a list, and offers the structure of a list; but what does not demand is unity (and unity of purpose) within the list. If you perform a list with enough creativity and variation, you succeed at the convention. Ideational control is irrelevant to the convention. Because of that centering of the making of this kind of poetry on convention rather than the organic and ideational unity of the poem, however, you have poem after poem that performs the list and which are easily read by the genre-readers (and subsequently praised thereby) as a good poem for performing the list. But, when you really look at the poems, they have failings all about, most especially being that the list, in the end, doesn't make much sense. Indeed, there will often be fuond no purpose to the list other than to (1) perform the convention and (2) have the performance of the convention be accepted by readers: readers who, because they are only looking for the performance of conventions, will see little else.

So let's look at the issues of this poem. There are grammar issues which I point out in the bulletted points below. I wholly believe those grammar issues are primarily created by the poet letting the conventionality guide the writing rather than the actual words on the page. But, I would rather first look at semantics and ideation.

Let's look, first, at some of sublists within the sections of the poem. Now, the list in the third section ("over time you see what everyone first warned about") I rather like, in how the five elements fairly well fit together within the idea of a "they" who in their wisdom give warnings about things, warnings which the warned will later ignore to negative result ("the compromised"). Also, the list creates a narrowing with "the spoken for": giving the idea of a very specific unattended warning.

The second section also has a kind of unity, though it is not immediately apparent. These are the four elements in the list in that section:

the folly of the vow,
the well-made bed,
not for nothing
Where you began you end, silly girl, it isn't a maze but a circle,

They describe a marriage. But, there is a wobbliness in it, in that there are in fact two flows of ideation. The first

the folly of the vow,
the well-made bed,
not for nothing

does not for me cohere ideationally (is it folly or is it not for nothing?); whereas the second

the folly of the vow,
the well-made bed,
Where you began you end, silly girl, it isn't a maze but a circle,

does (ignoring the grammar issues). The two ideas of "not for nothing" and that of the circle actually clash: not for nothing is signifying something of value; but the only way I see to read the circle lines is toward the removal of value. That is, it is speaking that there is no mythic maze of spiritual development, there is only coming back to where you began. In line with the next section, a negative idea, an idea that the marriage can only ever be folly because of the initial error.

Now, there is the possibility that the "not for nothing" is actually preluding and pointing at the circle idea. Except, the "not for nothing" is italicized, and the circle idea is not, which is giving the reader direct and indesputible assertion that they are, in fact, separate ideas, and not conjoined.

So then the fourth section, and here we begin to see stronger demonstration of the convention of the list. You have another list, things that are used to give body to the phrase "as clear as X." But for three things. (Remember, because of the "over time" and the nature of the listing convention here being used, each section is read as a whole.) First, the least of the concerns, why does "clear" necessitate that much energy? Second, while they are all valid conclusions to the phrase "as clear as X," none of them really add anything to the poem on their own, except to extend the moment this section. And, third, what does any of it have to do with "reminding you to get out of bed"?

What I am hoping you see is that the performance of the listing convention is overriding the need for coherence in the ideation of the poem. The poem is getting out of control at this point: something made very evident by the sudden insertion of "phrases that knit together as they spin apart" -- which sounds really nice, but really has no use or purpose within the poem, except as its own, little, independent idea.[FN]

--------------------------------------
[FN] Now, I see you can argue that the spinning apart is going toward the opening idea of "all you know fits into a thimble." Except what then about the knitting together? There is not but the one energy of making small, of tearing apart. There is also the energy of knitting together, of making larger, which directly contradicts the thimble.
--------------------------------------

That phrase is, actually, the performance of another, very frequently seen convention of contemporary pop-poetry: the use of pseudo-pithy lines, dropped into the poem as though to give philosophical content, but which in truth have no reverberation with the rest of the poem (that is, they never build out beyond their initial pithiness), and, indeed, rarely have much to offer beyond trite idiom to begin with.

Though, it is poetry writing out of pop-poetic convention. As such, ideation never had importance here, or the depth of meaning of spinning and knitting within the poem as a whole. What is important is only the performance of the convention. "Good poems have clever, little philosophical lines in them," the convention goes. And, it is true: good, conventional, pop-poetry has clever, little lines dropped in them at strategic moments (especially at the very end). But what I say is sophisticated poetry does not. First, if a sophisticated poem is going to drop a line, that line will function within the whole of the poem: energies will flow through the line, not out of it. Second, they would probably never be dropped to begin with (except ironically), because to do so is the action of being trite: it is using a quippy phrase to substitute for the work of developing an idea.

Indeed, in the next section, you have another phrase: "spend hours woven by unseen hands." Never mind the terrible syntax of changing the whole idea of the sentence at the comma (from "over time you unknit" to "over time you spend hours") -- What unseen hands? Why are they unseen? Doesn't "unseen hands" clash with the closing idea of the very present father? What does "unseen hands" have to do with "you can't believe in the cloud"?

The poem is quickly getting out of control. So it re-asserts it's initial contention, but with a bonus:

Over time what you learn fits on the point
of a needle, something requiring
your protection, recalling the blue warmth
out of the body into common air.

Notice how the protection idea is something wholly new to the poem. But more to the point, what does "the blue warmth / out of the body into the common air" at all have to do with the miniscule quantity of "what you learn"? Why is the verb there "recalling"? And I say that pointing out yet another syntactic error, the shift in the subject of the sentence from "what you learn [fits]" to "you [recalling]" -- a major goof that creates much of the problems with "recalling." I can guess that the idea refers back to something like the wedding bed implied in the second section, but holy cow is that grabbing at straws. The poem is becoming by now far too abstract to maintain any true development, or for a reader to assert any strongly unified reading.

Abstract is the key word: for conventions work, frequently, in the abstract: it is the convention of the listing that is important, not the content of the listing. And so, by the time we get to the last section, the father section, what do we have for the poem? Two assertions that "all you know" is miniscule; the idea of "you begin to see" coupled with the establishing of the idea of a foolish marriage; then the idea of being warned about folly and ignoring it; then the idea of clarity . . . . . pause for a second and restate it briefly: the idea of clearly seeing that the subject person's marriage was folly, and will end in folly. I nice idea around which to build a poem, except there really is nothing beyond that basic statement, except for lists.

Now, I recognize this conclusion, this reading may be incorrect, but it is very much valid from what very little is offered. Because, in the end, what of substance isoffered? "folly of the vow," "well made-bed," "warned," and "clear." (And that's not much.) Most everything else is repetition of those ideas or pithy-but-trite drops that don't develop -- ergo the conventionality of the convention being used: performance is more important than actual content. (Indeed, the whole presence of the mother and her words are empty attempts at emotional profundity.)

Which leads us to the father, who is introduced with a list:

everything you thought was true, the sweat
that gathered some evenings
on your father's brow, what the world
knew of him, what went unnoticed
or covered itself over on purpose—

Introduced, and slightly developed, or given the initial energies of development, but only to end up with "but how can you tell the difference?" which immediately begins to undermine that little bit of development, declaring it as irrelevant because of it being untrustworthy.So, the poem thinks, 'it's getting wobbly; so quickly, now, let's drop yet another piece of pith': "A manner of repose in all things." (How many does that make, now? Somewhere between five and eight, depending on how and what you count?) Yet, with the phrase comes a change in the nature of the poem: this bitty phrase is followed with concrete detail of the father leaning his chair against the wall, giving the phrase ideational strength: which is difficult to understand since I'm not sure how "a manner of repose in all things" works with "what you learn fits into a thimble" . . . . .

Unless, that is what has been learned. Which is ok, except, why then all those energies toward ideas like "folly of the vow" and the circle if they are not what is remembered? And it's not like "a manner of repose in all things" gives any development to the things that precede it. In fact, it barely touches on it at all. In fact, it can even be said to contradict much of it -- though it takes some parsing to show it since everything thus far is so terribly abstract.

But wait, there's yet more! One more pithy phrase! -- "isn't it a miracle it holds all you know." Not only must I ask where the hell did miracle come from, but then I must point out that the phrase functions within the poem to turn the entire attention of the poem away from all the folly and circles and clarity above to the visual image of the father, to that one specific moment, and the pithy but trite words said in that moment. (And note how previously I was reading clarity to be pointing at clarity of the folly of the vow, but now clarity is being made to point only at the father.)

So we really have little more in this poem than floundering about through abstraction, a degree of abstraction that flops from one falsely pointed moment to the next, only to conclude with a redirecting of the poem upon "the miracle" of the visual memory! Which has no ideational development with anything that preceded it!

BUT! ---- the poem does perform the convention of the list! So, even though, when you at all think about it, this poem goes nowhere fast, most readers, because it is performing the convention of the list, will read this as a successful poem, precisely and wholly because it is performing accepted and expected conventions. What the conventions accomplished outside their own performance, outside of marking the poem as something acceptable with the culture of contemporary poetry, as something expected by the culture of contemporary pop poetry, as something sought by the culture of pop poetry, is irrelevant.

Which is good, because outside of performing pop conventions, this poem doesn't accomplish much.

 

Since I'm speaking of anaphora, I want to put up a moment from the entry in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, somethig that very much caught my eye:

Anaphora has been a favored device in the poetry of many cultures, particularly in the form where the repeated words or phrases begin lines: this structure enhances the sense of the line even as it foregrounds the larger enumerative sequence. Anaphora may thus be seen as one form of parallelism which uses the repetitions to bring the metrical and syntactic frames into alignment. ("Anapest," 73)

Notice that middle phrase: "this structure enhances the sense of the line even as it foregrounds the larger enumerative sequence."

What I find interesting about poems like this one, that have an anaphoric aspect, is how they so very frequently fail to understand that aspect of anaphora and the anaphoric: it emphasizes structure. It is a structural trope; and yet, that aspect is utterly cast aside by poets wallowing in this kind of pop, low-brow free verse: I call it "low brow" because it is as though the attitude to the poem is "well, I'm doing free verse, so I have only to pay minimum attention to lines." But, to me, it goes much deeper than that: it is -- in pop poetry -- an established attitude of not only little attention within the framework of the poem, but little attention within the development of poetic sophsitication, as though what is really being said is "well, I write free verse, so I can wholly ignore the idea of the poetic line, both in my poetry and in my studying of poetry."

And, as I say often, their poetry then speaks that lack of attention, study, and practice. Here, there is only a little attention paid to the line -- perhaps one might say "sufficient" attention. But that attention is wholly marred and discounted by the anaphoric repetitions beginning the thoughts in the poem. It reads to me as though the poet found a new tool and decided to use it, without ever bothering to learn how to use it well: they never really bothered to learn how to swing a hammer, so there are bear paws all over the dry-wall.

In fact, the inattention to the structure of the poem makes it easier to hide the defficiencies in the poem, because the inattention makes it more difficult to read the poem. Which is why I like restructuring such poems in these posts. (One of the advantages of an electronic medium: there is no printing costs.)

But perhaps I should simplify my point here and merely ask: why not structure the poem so that the anaphoric aspect works to its greatest effect, what ever that effect -- in the context of this individual poem -- may have been? Why not strive for something beyond "sufficient"? To say it another way: Why settle for this average-at-best result, when you had in the poem itself the prompting to explore something much more?

 

Perhaps also a comment or two on grammar just to point them out. I won't go into detail other than to say they are problematic not simply in the grammar is non-standard, but in that the chosen grammar also gets in the way of the reading. I'll leave it to you to explore both the problems and the solutions.

There is commas after "girl" and "circle," here:

for nothing in your ear. Where you began
you end, silly girl, it isn't a maze
but a circle, over time you see

There is the period after "rooms," the comma after "face," and the dash before "phrases" in these lines (terrible grammar control):

birth orders, the four corners of most
but not all rooms. As the nose on your face,
your mother again, reminding you
to get out of bed—good morning,
glory!—phrases that knit together

The commas creating the run-on mess in these lines (though it may actually be more syntax and semantics issues, and the grammar problems are consequent):

You remember,
but over time you unknit, spend hours
woven by unseen hands, you can't believe
in the cloud, in worship or school-yard play.