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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]

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[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.

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[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.

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