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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.



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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"Rocket" by Todd Boss -- Poetry Daily, 11/13/2013

from Poetry (Nov. 2013)
poem found here
 

first lines:
Despite that you
wrote your name

 

the very important importance of lines

 

Lines, again, I know. I am constantly returning to lines or line breaks. But in truth no matter how I might want to go explore and strengthen other arguments to different conclusions, I invariably return to the primacy of the "line" in poetry and for poetry. If there is to be any sophistication to the writing of poetry, then it must begin in the idea of the "line."
 

--- And immediately I recognize that there is in the above an issue with terminology as to the word poetry. Though, rather than address it here in very-brief, I will give it its due in a separate post, to follow this one. ---
 

Now, why the quotation marks around the word line? Because I want to leave open exactly what a "line" is, and give definition to it that only goes as far as "a discrete visual unit on the page." That way, the idea includes such things as vertically typeset text (where a line more narrowly defined might only include a single letter); visually broken or stepped lines; concrete typesetting (which I consider mostly a gimmick but which inhernetly proposes the idea of the visual structure being a "line"); and even, possibly, the prose poem (which, in its finer forms, might be considered a very long but nonetheless one-line poem).

To me, not crafting lines is the equivalent of etching an image into the side of a large block of marble and calling it "sculpture."

    "You do realize that sculpture is rather inherently an exploration of three dimensions?
    "I'm postmodern."
    "You're a looney."

Not paying attention to lines is the equivalent to not paying attention to phrasing and nuance in music. It is the equivalent to taking a Beethoven piano sonata having a comupter play it timed to clockwork precision. More to the point, it is the individual who is either unable to introduce phrasing and nuance into the music, or is unwilling to do the same (I do not believe there is any difference once the poem is on the page), and thus plays the sonata as though being played by a computer, with clockwork timing and precisely measured and executed changes in volume.

    "You do realize that it's not the notes that make the music, but its performance?
    "I'm postmodern."
    "You're boring. And you're a looney.

I had a friend once who musical skills roamed in rhythm, and he would talk about (this back in the 80s) how he could always tell if a song used a drum machine, and how it sounded rhythmically dead. Another example, an important experience in my own development, was going to see a popular pianist perform. The fellow was a technical marvel, able to race through runs and accurately strike quite a number of notes per second. But it was musically dead, for all he was was a technical marvel; he had zero nuance to the music. It was very active and yet very boring music.

Though, what was even more interesting was that most of the people in the audience were totally oblivious to the fact. They thought it was wonderful, and at the end gave him the requisite, enthusiastic standing ovation (something which used to mean something, but is now as trivial an offering as an open bowl of candy at a bank counter). That few people within the audience could tell the music was terrible (and merely spectacle) showed me that there are two parts to the equation: the text, and the ear. And I am not the only person to say that much of what defines poppoetry is the result of unsophisticated, undeveloped, poetic ears, and that the cultural substitute for a developed ear is verisimilitude.

Fundamental art sophistication: painting from life (in literature, reportage and convention) is the lowest form of art. In that painting from life is wholly an issue of technique, it shows that technique is, truly, the lowest common denominator of art. When poems are line broken, but there is nothing in the line that gives necessity to that construction, and there is nothing created out of that formation and its break except "a line," the poem has fallen back upon that most basic common denominator of technique, declaring to the world: "I am a poem. See, here is my line break."

But to a developed ear, it speaks also, "I am nothing more than words with a line break." Which makes for very boring poetry. An obvious conclusion, and yet one seemingly continually ignored.

Poems that do not craft lines, that are merely sentences with a scattering of line breaks (even so-called "experimental" poems that prove their existence as poetry by having their lines pop out in all over the page[FN]), are sculptures that fail to venture into the third dimension, are music that fails to give thought or effort to phrasing and nuance. They are poems by category only. Inevitably, they are also quite forgettable. And books of them? Simply because they show up en masse does not pull them out of the triviality of mere base technique. (Which is commentary also on the trend in the plastic arts to do things big, as though, somehow, ten-thousand strings tied about a museum's central hall carries more depth of experience than a hundred strings woven within a box. It doesn't. It's just bigger. It just took longer to make.)

**********************
[FN] Which is not to say that such a visual effect cannot be used to great experiential and ideational effectiveness. It just rarely is.
**********************

Which brings us to this post's subject poem, "Rocket." The poem is essentially a single sentence, line-broke and stanza-broke, with internal punctuation removed: a comma at the front, after "magic marker," and commas at the end:

[none of the above] will ever be restored to you by the people, in the topmost branches of whose trees, unseen, it may yet from its plastic chute, on thin white string, still swing.

It is very contorted phrasing. And I have deleted out of this post the about forty lines of playing around with it that it took to figure out the syntax of it. But even grammatically cleaned up, it is confusing, because the final phrases begins with talking about "the people"

[none of the above] will ever be restored to you by the people

phrasing which prompts -- primarily through that "the" -- that the words that follow will be about the people. But the long phrase ends being about the rocket

it may yet from its plastic chute, on thin white string, still swing.

There is a shift in subject. Since the writer has broken the text into very short lines, even breaking up the natural phrasing, the lines themselves can offer no new syntactical clues (or rules). We have to rely on basic, English grammar, syntax, semantics. And within that context, what one finds here is a poorly crafted sentence, one that creates confusion that not only makes the poem difficult for readers to get a grasp of, but also, apparently, made the poem difficult for the author to get a grasp of. Complexity will only create problems if the complexity cannot be brought into some kind of sense (be that sense rational or irrational). Good writing -- good poetry writing -- is by definition the detection and elimination of such problems.

Here's the thing about grammar. It is not for entertainment purposes only. To the other side, it is not there solely because there are the rules and you are supposed to follow them. Grammar (and syntax and semantics)structures the text, so that (1) the writer is able to create the reading they want to create, and (2) the reader can make sense of the text. You cannot (not you should not, you cannot) arbitrarily remove grammar from a text if doing so creates problems in the reading of the text. That is not being poetically clever, that is being god-awful sloppy. It is, simply, bad writing, whether it is in prose or in a poem.

Nonetheless, since this is the internet and there need be no consideration for printing costs, let me lay out the sentence as a whole:

Despite that you wrote your name and number on its fuselage in magic marker, neither your quiet hours at the kitchen table assembling it with glue nor your choice of paint and lacquer nor your seemingly equally perfect choice of a seemingly breezeless day for the launch of your ambition nor the thrill of its swift ignition nor the heights it streaks nor the dancing way you chase beneath its dot across that seemingly endless childhood field will ever be restored to you by the people, in the topmost branches of whose trees, unseen, it may yet from its plastic chute, on thin white string, still swing.

In that it is so plainly a sentence, and that line breaks and line crafting were not used as grammar or syntax to clean up the problems at the end of the sentence, then the only conclusion is that there was no crafting of lines. There was merely the addition to the sentence of line breaks and stanza breaks. So, this is the question: given that the poem is a single sentence (and a flawed one), and that the poem does not use line breaks to create syntax or grammar not already present in the sentence (and, in fact, in removing the grammar, makes the sentence difficult to read), what do the line breaks, as chosen, contribute to the poem? What is generated out of the line and stanza breaks that merits the words of the poem being oragnized on the page in this manner? What makes it "better" to do it the way written rather than, say, this way, which follows the phrasing of the sentence:

Despite that you wrote your name and number
     on its fuselage in magic marker,

neither your quiet hours at the kitchen table assembling it with glue
nor your choice of paint and lacquer
nor your seemingly equally perfect choice
     of a seemingly breezeless day for the launch of your ambition
nor the thrill of its swift ignition
nor the heights it streaks
nor the dancing way you chase beneath its dot
     across that seemingly endless childhood field

will ever be restored to you by the people,
in the topmost branches of whose trees,
unseen,
it may yet from its plastic chute,
on thin white string,
still swing.

Not only follows, I would argue, but improves the poem by (1) giving a structure to the poem to highlights the nature of the sentence; (2) giving greater visual emphasis to the repetitions that make up the body of the poem; (3) creating new energies by giving visual emphasis to rhymes; and (4) removing the hindrances to reading the flawed final phrases -- though does not cure it, it is still poorly written. (As regards the second point, yes, the neither/nors all start stanzas, but the emphasis is somewhat lost with the short lines.)

So, again. What is gained, what is created out of breaking up the lines the way they are?

Some might say the verticality creates a visual image of a rocket. Well, I'm sure in the Poetry print edition the poem covers more than one page. Plus, it is such a gimmick, I would rather assume the poet did not have that in mind.

Some might also point to the isolation of "dot." Except that that has to be one of the most trite poetic tropes that can be found in contemporary free verse. If I was editing a journal, I would have stopped reading at that point and moved on to the next submission. In fact, I am astounded that one of the so-called flagships of U.S. poetry journals would include a poem that has such a trite trope within it. (Except, of course, I am not astounded. Because that what Poetry has reduced itself to: the trite and expectedly conventional.)

There is also the isolation of "unseen." Except, I do not see how that isolation is not one of the primary causes of confusion in reading those final lines. Well, I should say exacerbaters of confusion, since the actual cause of it is the bad sentence structure. But as written, like this,

by the people
in the topmost
branches of whose trees

unseen

"unseen" wants to attach to "trees," not "it." (And, also, "by the people / in the topmost," without any comma, generates a phrasing that puts the people the trees, not the rocket.)

There also the isolation of "still swing" as the closing line of the poem. We are supposed to go "oooooh, so poignant!" with that: that is the convention and its convention demanded response, after all. Unfortunately, any sophisticated reader is actually going "ooooooh, so absolutely expected, commonplace, and ideationally trivial!" ("Seemingly endless childhood field"? That is a phrase that a premier poetry journal chooses to include within its pages? The content and language of this poem reeks of hackney and shallowness.)

I cannot find any valid reasons for structuring the poem as it was written except for reasons that are derived from the conventions of poppoetry. There does not seem to be any action going on here that is derived from out of the words, except the hackneyed isolation of words in stanzas.

But let's play with it for a minute. Let's, perhaps, test the conclusions. Maybe there is the possibility here of demonstrating the arbitrariness of these line breaks (and, in the end, stanza breaks). What I want to do here is randomly generate new lines and stanzas just to see what happens. I will keep to two rules: (1) as with the original poem, the neithers/nors will keep their positions at the start of stanzas; and (2) as with the original poem, I will remove all punctuation.

First, we'll start off simply, with random line lengths, between 1-6 syllables, and random stanzas between 1-6 lines: both of which are the spans in the poem as written. (If a word is broken, I will let the word finish.)

Despite
that you wrote your name

and
number on
its fuselage
in magic marker

neither your quiet

hours at

the kitchen table
assembling it with
glue

nor your choice of
paint and

lacquer nor your
seemingly equally
perfect

choice of a
seemingly breezeless day
for the
launch of

your ambition

nor the thrill of its swift

ignition

nor the heights
it streaks

nor the dancing way
you chase beneath
its dot across

that seemingly

endless childhood
field will ever
be restored

to you by
the people in the topmost
branches of whose trees

unseen it may yet from
its
plastic chute on thin white string
still swing.

This one time might suffice! For how amazingly full it is of basic, poppoetry conventionality. Look at that first, two-line stanza setting the passion of the young individual searching for identity within a world that will prove beyond its understanding. And then that second stanza, daringly beginning with an isolated "and," reaching across the previous stanza break to pull into the body of the poem that declaration of identity. There's the sound echo within "neither your quiet" emphasized by the isolated line. (Of course, the shorter the lines, the more readily such simple sounds are created.) And then the emphasis of "hours," without falling into trite repetition of the one-word line that appeared just two stanzas eariler. But, there nonetheless the willingness to use the single-word line with "glue," an apt word with which to end the stanza, re-emphasizing the situation of childhood through the use of a term so readily bantered within that period of life.

We have the repetition of the lines beginning with "seemingly," which works well with and yet in counterpoint to the repetition of the "nors." And then of course the sound of "seemingly breezeless day" is emphasized by the line length. And the key idea of "the launch of your ambition" is broken up as though giving countdown to the appearance of the central idea of ambition (toward achievement and adulthood) -- with the stanza break working to create that hushed moment of tension before the act happens. Then the one-word stanza, "ignition," and the idea of ambition to achievement -- ambition that will in the end fall short (or, as the case may be, too high) -- is pushed to the fore.

And when we get to the next one-line stanza -- "that seemingly" -- its isolation creates a loose ideation, applying the word to the whole of the poem, and we come to understand the illusion of the effort, that it can only fail because it was never real.

Look how so very contemporary is the stanza:

choice of a
seemingly breezeless day
for the
launch of

It's actually not a bad stanza as far as poppoetry goes.

And I do believe that is sufficient. Because what you should be able to see from this is that when you craft a poem that (1) does not have any potent and particular energies being created in the structure you craft, or (2) have any demands for structure within the text of the poem itself, you can wholly rearrange it into what is a very recognizable, very conventional, poppoetry form. In the end, this is a very trite poem. Its structure -- or lack of necessity within its structure -- is part of that banal conventionality. Nothing in it speaks anything beyond what most every other poppoem speaks, and as such you can re-arrange it randomly and get pretty much the same result: the same ol' same old. All it has going for it is a sentence made of a list of "nors" -- except that it is also a sentence of which the poet lost control before the final period; a sentence, I would argue, that the poet sabotaged with the removal of punctuation. But, of course, it is nonetheless in Poetry. So it has, with all it offers or does not offer, nonetheless landed safely within the conventional.

And if that's what's demanded, that's what you'll get.

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