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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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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

"The Mind After Everything Has Happened" by Rowan Ricardo Phillips -- Poetry Daily, 9/25/13

from The Paris Review (fall 2013)
poem found here

first lines:
Perpetual peace. Perpetual light.
From a distance it all seems graffiti.


explorations in punctuation and ideation

This poem offers a couple points for exploration and questioning. I'll just take a couple, one at a time.


Have you ever written a poem like this, that is made of short (often verbless) phrases which you want to keep separated in equal measure? Have you ever given serious play to the possibilities? There are actually quite a few. Here, the decision was to go with periods. But, since the poem moves to full statements at the end, it might have been possible to use semi-colons. (I am going to resist changing any wording or lines.)

Perpetual peace; perpetual light;
From a distance it all seems graffiti;
Gold on gold; iridescent, torqued phosphors;
But still graffiti; someone's smear on space;
A name; a neighborhood; X; X was Here;
X in the House. A two-handed engine
Of aerosols hissing Thou Shalt Not Pass
On fiery ground. A shot-down Aurora

I stop it there because that's the first of the long statements, and the shift to a period seems justified. You have to recognize, however, that when the poem shifts to fuller statements separated by periods, it creates a difference between the weight of the elements of the first part of the poem and those of the latter. I wonder if it works to greater success killing the first letter capitals?

Perpetual peace; perpetual light;
from a distance it all seems graffiti;
gold on gold; iridescent, torqued phosphors;
but still graffiti; someone's smear on space;
a name; a neighborhood; X; X was Here;
X in the House. A two-handed engine
Of aerosols hissing Thou Shalt Not Pass
On fiery ground. A shot-down Aurora

Notice how the capital Xs help ease the transition from all lower case into returning to opening letter upper case? There's also the possibility of keeping the capitalizing of the first letter of every element (as though they were separated by periods) but still using semi-colons:

Perpetual peace; Perpetual light;
From a distance it all seems graffiti;
Gold on gold; Iridescent, torqued phosphors;
But still graffiti; Someone's smear on space;
A name; A neighborhood; X; X was Here;
X in the House. A two-handed engine
Of aerosols hissing Thou Shalt Not Pass
On fiery ground. A shot-down Aurora

It's very close to the original poem, but with the punctuation change. But still different. I might actually like this one better, personally. (Though, I admit it may a matter of taste.)

William Burroughs, in his cut-and-paste books like the Nova Express trilogy, uses the long, typographical em-dash:

Perpetual peace — perpetual light —
From a distance it all seems graffiti —
Gold on gold — iridescent, torqued phosphors —
But still graffiti — someone's smear on space —
A name — a neighborhood — X — X was Here —
X in the House — A two-handed engine
Of aerosols hissing Thou Shalt Not Pass
On fiery ground. A shot-down Aurora

This time I changed that first period (after "X in the house") to the em-dash, because an em-dash seems to carry on its own the ability to bleed into a full sentence. There is a ton that can be learned about writing with short statements and strings of short statements by reading the Nova Express trilogy. (Just to say, you rather have to read the whole of the trilogy to fully get the books. The final book works to add a stylistic and ideational mesentery to the whole of the trilogy; and if you stop short, you're missing out on a major aspect of the works.)

Celine developed this punctuation "==" in his books, which he used as a kind of measured pause between phrases. (And now I can't remember if there is a space between the signs, and I don't have one on hand.)

Perpetual peace == perpetual light ==
From a distance it all seems graffiti ==
Gold on gold == iridescent, torqued phosphors ==
But still graffiti == someone's smear on space ==
A name == a neighborhood == X == X was Here ==
X in the House == A two-handed engine
Of aerosols hissing Thou Shalt Not Pass
On fiery ground. A shot-down Aurora

I could go on, of course. You can try elipses -- ". . ." -- but don't use the elipses that Microsoft sticks into your document, they never work. You can also use asterisks: " * * * ". Or go all MLA Style on everyone and try this craziness: "[. . .]". Also, you can experiment with how many open spaces you put to either side of the punctuation -- which does change the effect. All this also works with prose ("non-line-broken text"), but it adds the element of how the breaks look when the text is full-justified. (That's where the added space to either side comes into greater play.)

But I'm not just saying play around, here. I'm saying play around, but pay attention while you are playing around, Because you will find that the medium -- and I don't just mean "language" I mean the poem itself -- has no small say into what offers more or less to the poem. Here, the fact that there is a transition into full statements is very important. Also, the Xs do play a part in that transition, so some things might work here that won't work in poems without that aid. Something to experiment with and explore, at more than an "I like how that looks" level. They change the reading of the poem.


Look at the sentence starting on line 9, with "That raised areola." Does this sentence work within the flow of the poem? I see how there is the play between "Aurora" and "areola" and the repetition of the "Thou" brought in two lines earlier. But look at the ideational flow. Everything up to that point is about graffiti. Then, suddenly, a radical shift to something sexual. Yes, the idea of "areola" is about color: but an areola is a ring of color, usually around something particular (biologically, a nipple; religiously, something spiritually charged). That's a marked shift from the previous lines, where the color -- the graffiti -- was the "something" to which attention was being paid. By shifting to "areola," the reader is being asked to look instead to the thing in the middle. But in that there is no religious icon or such offered to be in the middle, the natural reading is to take "areola" not as a "ring of color around a something" but as the biological feature. As such, the color remains the "something" that is being talked about. But is it still the sudden appearance of sexuality out of nowhere, one amplified in that the ideation is moving from graffiti (which is large, wall encompassing, and public) to a breast being licked (which is small, personal, and intimate).

Which is not necessarily a problem, considering there are the ties to the previous lines (with the punning and repetition and the color). But where such a shift works the best is when the shift is moving out from the specific (here, graffiti) into a broader flow of ideas. We have all read instances where a character in a text sees something -- be it a small thing or a large, graffiti-like image -- and is captured by it. The text focuses first on the thing seen, then moves away and outward as the thoughts of the character also move outward, as prompted by the appearance of the thing. Thus one can go from seeing impersonal graffiti to thinking about something more personal, like sexual encounter.

Except that in those situations, the time spent on the first "something" opens into at least equally long wandering; and, more importantly, in that the whole point of narrating the viewing of the first thing is to then get to the mental wandering, it is the wandering that is the most important part of the text. Thus, it is the wandering that should deserve most of the emphasis and energy of the text. Here, the "wandering" is but one sentence, and then the poem turns to summation/exposition. The jump is quick, abrupt, even startling and yet it is given only one sentence of energy. It is not like the whole of the exploration was building up to the sexuality: it came out of nowhere. There was a radical jump in ideation. And that jump was given only a line-and-a-half, as opposed to the eight-plus lines given to the graffiti-ideas.

Yes, the summation does play on the idea of the "raised areola" in that it opposes it to sunken craters. Except, what does the opposition of raised-versus-sunken have to do with the graffiti lines? They are flat images on a wall. The raised-sunken contrast is another idea that has come out of nowhere.

What I am describing here is something you see not infrequently in contemporary poetry: there is great effort and energy given to the set up of the poem, and then comes a pay-off that is quick, abrupt, and very often only tangentially related to the set-up. That is, the set-up doesn't actually set-up the pay-off; it merely offers ideas that are related to the pay-off, and the pay-off has to itself establish its own ideational basis. (As here, with the suddenly appearing opposition between raised and sunken.) Here is the question: do the lines up to "That raised areola" actually contribute the ideas of the closing lines of the poem? Or are they merely related to the ideas of the closing lines of the poem?

I do know one reason why such poems exist (and I'm not saying that is the case here): it happens when the idea that spawns the poem (the idea that offers the initial creative energies to the poem) lies in the set-up. But the set-up doesn't really have a pay-off -- and god knows contemporary poetry has to have its pay-offs, one of the dominant conventions of pop poetry. So the poet comes up with an idea that can serve as a pay-off and attaches it to the end of the set-up. The ideas within the set-up, however, end up as having only commonalities with the pay-off: the pay-off rarely actually is derived from the ideas of the set-up. The reason the poems end up ideationally fractured is because the poem is being written backwards: if you are going to have a pay-off, everything in the poem should flow out of the payoff, even as they in the reading lead to the payoff; and the poem should be written out of the pay-off, not the other way around.

But, as I said, these pay-offs are very much a convention of contemporary, pop poetry: they don't need to stem from the set-up ideationally, because they will always be surface-read through their conventionality. There is a set-up, there is a pay-off. That is all that matters; because, poems that have set-ups and pay-offs are good poems. 'Nuff said. Deep reading the poem, noticing that the pay-off does not actually derive from the set up (or more importantly, vice versa), is not part of the intended reading experience. The reading is supposed to end at the conventionality.

Now, this does not mean you are supposed to be writing all poems out of the pay-offs. What it does mean is that poems do not have to have pay-offs. The first eight lines of this poem run along grandly. They have me wholly into the reading both with the decision to use the short statements, and the play of ideas surrounding graffiti. It could even have gotten into sexuality, with the areola as a kind of graffiti on a breast. Plenty of places to go. And it could have made a wonderful poem without every getting to any kind of pay-off, summation, or exposition. (Indeed, reading Burroughs is often demonstration and exploration of that, of how to sustain an interesting text on a single complex of ideas without ever forcing a pay-off. Naked Lunch is very much a book of such moments.)

When it comes to it, when I crack a book of poetry I'm doing so because I want to read poetry, not because I want to read philosophy. I'm looking to read creations made out of words, little textual micro-cosmoi. If there is philosophical ideation running through the poetry (say, as with Shelley) it can add to the flavor of it. (Of course, so can many other things.) But at the core, I want a poem. I don't have to have a philosophical pay-off. Let me give an example, that might work best because it is not a stark example: the poem "Day Sleeping Girl" by Ho Xuan Huong (a woman who lived in eighteenth-century Vietnam). I reached for Ho intentionally, owning the book Spring Essense, poems translated by John Balaban. (A somewhat contorted sentence which I put in because it's a book worth having on your shelves.) This poem's not in the book but it serves my purpose.[FN] Reading the poem you see it is a description of a scene, with energies generated out of the contrasts between the individual sleeping half naked, out in nature, the man who sees her, and the cultural mores that are governing the moment on both sides. There is no moment of exposition or culminating "pay-off" (the final lines are not pay-off, completing the description of the scene): the ideas all flow together to create the micro-cosmos of the poem. The creation of the ideational complex is enough for the poem to succeed. (Because it's a translation, I won't speak as to phrasing and such; but, obviously, for the first part of this discussion, the ideational complex of the poem includes the grammar and semantics and the poetics.)

[FN] There is no translation note on the web page, as you can see. And, I'm not saying anything about the quality of the translation: in fact, I have great issue with the word "Elysian" being used within the poem, particularly when capitized. But the general idea of the poem is to my point.

I might as well come out and say it. Explore this syllogism: pay-offs are almost always conventional; writing to pay-offs will thus almost always diminish a poem (the exception is where the point of the experience of the poem is to experience the jar of a pay-off, or punchline); thus, poems will generally be better poems if they avoid any kind of pay-off. Of course, poems without pay-offs are more difficult to write. But there you go.


What about the presence of "Benedict Robinson" in the poem? I am wholly unfamiliar with the name. A quick check gives me that he edited three books on Amazon, none of which I am familiar with. "Benedict Robinson + graffiti" gives me nothing. (Considering the books edited, there was no reason to expect anything.) "B R + hell" gives me only a couple rate-my-teachers. ('Tis to laugh.) "B R + crater" gives nothing as well. So I can only assume this is a personal reference for the author. So I have to ask, why have the name appear in the poem? Stylistically, the poem breaks down at the name, with both another shift in idea and a complete shift in voice. Could the poem not have been written with a "for Benedict Robinson" epigraph that still would have spoken the personal message?

But here's the better question: What is the result of introducing into the poem a reference that is both (1) not readily understandable (with research) by a reader and (2) of no small importance to the reading of the poem? At the entrance of that name, was I told by the poem "there is no reason to go on; this poem is meant wholly for someone else, and you won't be able to understand what follows at all because half the necessary information cannot be found in the poem, but lies in an outside conversation"?

And here's an even better question: if there is a complex of ideas (from a conversation or what) related to a poem being written that are worth making a direct, overt mention to them within a poem, why not write the poem so as to include that complex of ideas for everyone to experience? And if the poem as written does present that complex of ideas, why, again, do you need the direct mention of the name within the poem? And the key word there is "need": does the poem need the reference? Because if it doesn't, then the reference is weakening the poem.

Here's another way to ask it: is the direct mention within the poem a lazy way to carry ideas into the poem? Would not the poem be better if the ideas were wholly generated, and the personal aspect moved to an epigraph? (Even a quippy epigraph, like "If you could text me an answer, Benedict Robinson?")


Just to say, the first time I read the poem I was ready to start off writing about how the second line has too sharp a contrast to the positive images of the first line. But then came line 4 and "But still graffiti" and I thought "brilliant save!" That was a set-up with a pay-off worth the reading.

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