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

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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.

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