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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Bad Sheep" by Hailey Leithauser -- Poetry Daily, 10/6/2013

from Swoop (Greywolf Press)
poem found here

first lines:
Midnight's merely blue,
but me, me, me, I'm


wording and context, and poetic gameplay

"Bad Sheep" is playing a game by running the poem through with synonyms and metaphors for the color black. Which is wholly a good thing. Games are good; it is through games that we organize our world and be creative. To be honest, I don't understand why some people hear the word "game" and immediately think pejorative intent: it is unfortunate for them that they have condemned the word, so.

I am sure that a large percentage of poets have played, whether successfully or not, or whether or not the results go any farther than their desk, synonym games like the one here. And, with reason. There is definitely something fun to it, even when the intent is merely to play around and not strive for quality. (It is, after all, very much is the same game as list-making.)

But when you are striving for something beyond goofing-with-words, you should realize that a game, in itself, is not enough to the success of a poem. You still have to create the poem. Always this means that the synonyms game has to be embedded within an ideational matrix, that which turns the game from a list to a poem. Here, you have the play with the idea of black sheep, and the simple idea of "search as you might, you will find me black through and through."

Also, and almost always, you need to bring in structural play and attention to keep the poem from sounding like nothing more than a list. Here, you have constant sound play: a heavy emphasis on (playful) rhyme, and no small attention to rhythm and flow. The latter is seen not only in moments like this:

O there's swart in my soul,
coal by the bag,
cinders and slag,
scoriac grit, so please
come, comb

but also in the use of the repeated words, as with the "me, me, me" in the second line. Which for me creates the echos of the baa-ing of sheep. I'd be interested to see how many other people heard that.

There is also an interesting flow in that at the end of the poem the list starts to tap into more shall we say eruditic terminology: "caliginous," "atramentous," "piceous." Does it work? Better to ask, when that happens, does the poem succeed?

I have heard it said by teachers of poetry writing that you should flat out not use words like "caliginous." That "contemporary poetry is based in common language," and thus Greek or Latinate words thus have no place. Which is absolute nonsense, of course. Not only is it bumper sticker poetics, the attempt to create a rule out of something much more complex, it's just daft. What if "caliginous" was a word of the poet's vocabulary? In line 13 there is the word "fuliginous": a word I particularly like, and word that I have heard other people say in conversation. (It's a wonderful word.) I'm not going to forbid its use ever on the grounds of some puerile appeal to pop poetics.

Poetically, the issue is never the use of the word, but the context within which the word is used. Exact as with what I said about gameplay: the issue is never the game; it is always the poem: that is, does the poem succeed?

Can you imagine a poem using the word preponderatingly? Well, have you ever heard of the double dactyl? It is a short, formal poem created by Anthony Hecht and John Hollander. The rules are: two stanzas of four lines each. The first three lines of each stanza are made up of two dactyls ( / ∪ ∪ / ∪ ∪). The fourth line of each stanza is a dactyl followed by a truncated foot ( / ∪ ∪ / ). The first line is always "Higgledy-piggledy." The second line contains the name of the person that the poem is about.[FN]. Finally, the clincher, the second line of the second stanza must be a single word. For example:

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Often wrote poems
That lay down and die.

Walt Whitman sent him his
Better book. Emerson
Read it and cried.

Seems cheating since it is a humorous poem, but the humor goes directly to the point. Any word -- any portmonteau for that matter -- has potential for success if the poem that contains it creates the context necessary to its successful use. Here, the word functions within a context of humor, a rhythmic context, and an ideational context. The use of the word fits the poem. Say it another way: the poem welcomes the use of the word, and the word adds to the nature of the poem.

[FN] I learned the double dactyl from Leon Stokesbury, and the example is his, titled "I Greet You," from his book Autumn Rhythm. I am unsure if the rule of the second line containing the name is original or one that developed over time. Stokesbury also held that it is best if the whole of the line is the person's name -- which sometimes takes a little creative manipulation, as in his line "Old Possum Eliot" in another double dactyl, "Primer Litter," from the same book.

No language can be forbidden from poetry, which should be an obviousness. Nor can any language in itself be justification as to the quality of its poem. (The reverse of the above: just because a poem is work-a-day langauge, does not make it work.) This issue is always how the language is used within context. For example:

You do not want to use language that clashes ideationally with your poem. Say you have a poem about a mountain, and the poem runs through with metaphors and ideas based on geology and minerology and such. You don't want there to appear metaphor that's biological in ideation: a good reader will feel the jar of the sudden shift out of and then back in to the geological, which mars the poem (which is an error in the poem, and which is read as such).

Also, you do not want to use language that clashes with the voice of the poem or the voice of the narrator. For example, you wouldn't have a narrator who is a Pittsburgh, lower-middle class steelworker using Latin phrases. A dockworker would never say "Q. E. D." At least, not astutely, or, probably, correctly. Now, the poem's voice and the poem's narrator are two different things: sometimes one can override and control the other.[FN] Usually (I mean that statistically), it's the narrator's voice that governs. But not always, and not ever completely, as with the previous example of the mountain poem. It is the voice of the poem that has chosen to use geological ideas.

[FN] I am not using precisely correct terminology here. But the meaning is quite clear.

You should note also that narrators govern what they are narrating. So, for example, if a narrator is narrating dialogue between speakers X and Y, even though a piece of language spoken by speaker X clashes with what is understood as their voice, if it is natural to the narrator's voice it is still quite alright. Arguably, it should be natural to the narrator's voice, and the text is far more interesting when it is. One of the interesting aspects of Browning's The Ring and the Book is that the chapters are each in the voice of a different person (with some repeat speakers). So the language, the focus, the rhetoric of each chapter changes with the speaker: and, also, the story itself, especially from its emotional angles. It is is generally true that a story told second hand is far more interesting than a story narrated directly: which should be obvious if you think about it for but a second.

Of course, every rule can find a context that successfully breaks the rule. For example, I could see a very interesting moment in a poem where the above steelworker says "quid pro quo," and through the language of the poem elsewhere the reader is given enough of a hint that the steelworker has gotten the phrase from Silence of the Lambs. (The less explicit the explanation, the more interesting that game would be.) But, again, what permits the "breaking" of the rule? Context. Which is to say, unity.

Within "Bad Sheep," fuliginous appears well before the string of words at the end. But the line could not be a more natural context for the word. At the end of the poem, however, the presence of the words is more to the play of the game of synonyms than to the smaller moment of any particular line. Looking in to the old OED, caliginous appears really to be straight synonym for "black" (if one that is more about murkiness, shadowiness). However, atramentous is not a direct synonym. To say something is atramentous is to say it is like black ink, or as though stained or colored by someting black like ink. It does not mean merely the color black. There is a physical element anchoring the meaning of the word. So does it so well fit in the context?

down to a core of caliginous
pure carbon, atramentous,
utterly piceous,
shadowed, and starless,

(Piceous is associated with pitch, which is also physical. But its use has created a more direct synonym for black.) The nouns in the lines are "carbon" and "marrow." Can carbon, which is already a black solid, be "atramentous"? Is there a clash in that she is trying to establish being black through and through, but "atramentous" means something being stained black, not being naturally black? (Even, perhaps, implying black only on the surface?) Is the poem falling apart at the end because of the efforts toward the games?

Let me now argue it from a different side. The big words are all at the end, where they would naturally occur if someone was working through a list: the easy ones come first, the hard ones come last. So the lines can be read with a sense of poetic desparation, as though the poem is itself laughing, saying to itself and the reader, "How do I keep this going?! Can I keep this going?!" At least when I read the poem I read a slight increase in the humor of the poem created by the appearance of the words, coupled with a "clumpty clump" and the "pop pop pop" of the list of nouns and descriptors. Does this humor permit the possible errors in usage? If it does, is the humor -- which is to say the exasperated willingness of the poem's voice to err -- established enough? (To be honest, I can't quite maintain consistency in meaning through the last four lines: for me, the poem begins to rapidly fall apart. I might be missing something, though.)

So, let's sum up. Play is good. Play is very good. But, no matter how fun the play, the poem itself -- that is the poem qua poem -- must succeed. If you let yourself as a reader or writer get too caught up in the games of the poem, you get pulled out of reading the poem in itself. It is the equivalent of focusing on the lead guitarist of the band. Even if they are a spectacular guitarist, you are no longer listening to the band. So, when you do make comment that the guitarist was brilliant -- or, in a poem, that the play of the games was brilliant -- recognize that you are not saying the band was brilliant, or that the poem was brilliant.

Something pretty much everyone has to be wary of. On reading and re-reading this poem, it is very easy for me to get caught up in the play of adjectives and sound. I have to force myself to pay attention to the poem as a whole. And when I do, then I have to ask questions about the use of the games within the poem: to what degree they are successful on their own as games?, to what degree the poem is successful as a unified poem? The games in themselves are never enough to the success of the poem as a poem. (Many contemporary movies work on this: like, I would argue, Abrams's Star Trek: Into Darkness, which plays a lot of visual games. But, I argue, are those games being played in no small part to keep the viewer/reader from thinking, to keep the film surface only, because once you start to think about the plot and story, problems start to arise. How does it compare, say, to Aliens, which is brilliant in its pacing, but whose energies very much need and work with the ideation of the story/plot/script. The applicable word here is spectacle: one worth adding to your vocabulary. Spectacle is, for the most part, a pejorative: it speaks of show over content, of fireworks and effects over technique and creativity, of going for the big and loud (and surface) rather than the deep, thought-out, engaging.)

As for "Bad Sheep," there are a couple of games being played: the synonyms games, the rhyming play, the rhythms. And they are played well for the most part. And there is much to learn from a poem that plays a game as regards playing the game. But one must still ask whether the poem itself is successful, for to write a good poem, you have to understand how the game works in contexts, how to have a game be part of the greater, encompassing context of a poem, so the poem does not get overrun or overpowered by the game. So the poem, and not just the game, succeeds.

Whether "Bad Sheep" succeeds or fails as a poem I leave to you. Note that there are actually two questions: how well does the poem work as regards its use of the games?, and how well does the poem work in other regards? Here I've been concentrating mostly on the first question; but don't forget to explore the second as well. (For example, I could see how over focusing on lists in a poem could create rhytmic problems, or even line-length questions, if the poet doesn't pay attention.) Don't forget that the answer will, in no small way, be individual, and one dependent upon where the answerer is in their own development and sophistications, and where they are currently in their own explorations. Remember though, it is the asking and the exploring that are important; far more than are the answers. ("Yes, it works," offers nothing. "Why" offers everything.)


Midway down the poem:

O there's swart in my soul

So, are you an "O" poet or an "Oh" poet? I used to lean to the latter, but now I rather very much prefer the former. Though, I would wholly accept the argument that they actually carry two different connotations: "O" leans more to the vocative and the performative; while "Oh" leans more to the onomotopeiatic and the expressive. (That is, when the otherwise delicate woman suddenly gets the dirty joke and its immediate implications, she says "Oh," not "O.") It could be that it lies that "Ooooooh" is still pronounced "oh," while "Ooooooo" has the same sound as blue.

Notice how even there it ends up context that is influencing, establishing -- if not creating -- the word.

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