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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"Sleeping Women in Movies" by Janet McCann -- Verse Daily 2/12/2014

from The Crone at the Casino (Lamar University Press)
poem found here

First lines:
She is sprawled arms akimbo
Yawns and stretches luxuriously


exploring a poem (organic form and pop conventionality)


Simply, there are some interesting moments in the poem and in what the poem is working to do, and I want to explore.


There is between the first two lines a shift from the descriptive to the active, from a view of a still scene to a participating in action, and there is nothing to give the reader a clue as to the coming shift. To me it reads as a clumsiness, something which perhaps is very visible when the lines are brought together within a quote: "She is sprawled arms akimbo / Yawns and stretches luxuriously." What is happeing is the second line is clashing with the syntactic expectation created by the first line, which would read something like this: "She is sprawled arms akimbo / Yawning and stretching luxuriously." As such, it reads to me as an error in the poem.

It happens again at lines 4 and 5: "she is curled on a lush divan / Shrugs off the cat" (instead of "she is curled on a lush divan / Shrugging off the cat"). That it happens twice cues to me it is not a mistake but an attempt at something structural. Amd there is something worth saving in the play of introducing through the static "is" and then developing through motion. Can the felt clumsiness be cured by creating a structure that sets off the latter type of lines as different from the former? For example:

She is sprawled arms akimbo—
      Yawns and stretches luxuriously
      In black and white, tosses a satin pillow
Or she is curled on a lush divan—
      Shrugs off the cat
      Reaches for her cell phone playing Bach

(I use abutted m-dashes as is used in the poem as presented, though it is not to my taste.)

She is sprawled arms akimbo
(yawns and stretches luxuriously
in black and white, tosses a satin pillow)
Or she is curled on a lush divan
(shrugs off the cat
reaches for her cell phone playing Bach)

There is also a third iteration of the event: "she wakens to a bird call, a slant of light / Rubs from her eyes . . .", only to me this one creates an issue with parallelism ("she is sprawled" -- "she is curled" -- "she wakens") that does not add anything to the poem, and, to me, subtracts from the poem by not permitting the repetition:

She is sprawled arms akimbo
(yawns and stretches luxuriously
in black and white, tosses a satin pillow)
Or she is curled on a lush divan
(shrugs off the cat
reaches for her cell phone playing Bach)
Or she is woken by a bird call, or a slant of light
(rubs from her eye the shreds of dream
pads to the kitchen in her bunny slippers)

The three events are isolated within the poem by a stanza break and by the next word after, "Ah," so there no need to have to create some kind of transitional passage out. There can simply be the stanza of three versions of a woman waking from sleep.

I do not want to force myself to the end point of treating this as an error. Yes, there is to me an undeniable clumsiness created in the reading. But I would rather think it here as a missed opportunity, a missed development within the poem. That stanza of the poem works out of a two-prong dynamic: (1) the energies of stating a static "is" moment then expanding it through action, and (2) the repetition of the idea. Where the poem falls short for me is that it does not fully engage the idea structurally. The ideas have merely been implanted within lines of text, with the result not only of limiting its energies but also in creating a reading where the reader has to put the form into the poem (so as to get by the clumsiness). If there is an "error" in that stanza, it is that the stanza never arrived at a organic whole: the structuring of the lines operated against the structuring of the semantics, rather than the two unifying to a greater whole. If there is an error, it is that the poem is speaking to me as a reader that it is unfinished.


There is also a clumsiness created out of the continuous shift in subject. The poem begins, in the title, with "sleeping women," plural. But then moves to focus on "She," singular, and a very directed singular. (It is a particular she, not a generic she, even with the "or"s.) Then, at the opening of the second stanza, the poem has moved to focus on the narrator's commentary, which at the fourth line thereof turned from "women" and "she" to "your." And then there is the last line, which dangles (if not flaps about) in its ambiguities.

Let me linger on that last line before going back to the women. If it is supposed to be statement about the mindset of the woman in her falling asleep and waking to fiction, then why is stanza 2 wholly outside the mind of that woman? If it is meant to be statement about the women in movies, or about women who "enact" sleep in movies, then why the "Your"? If it is meant to be a statement of commentary from the narrator directed at (even accusingly) the "your" woman, then why is the first stanza more within the experiences of the "she" woman? No matter what reading I want to bring to that last line, I find a part of the poem that is bucking that reading.

Why? Because that last line is far more conventional than integral to the poem. It is that commonplace last line zinger. It functions not in its engagement to the poem, but as a recognizable tag. It not the result of weaving a unified text; it is the performance of the conventions of pop poetry: the reader of pop poetry does not read the line in engagement with the rest of the poem; they merely see the convention, acknowledge its performance, and recognize that that convention is signaling to the reader the identification of the text before them as contemporary poetry. (And in the successful use of the convention, the poem gets qualified as "good" within the culture of pop poetry.) Well written, well crafted, that final line would work with the whole of the poem, would -- in its nature as a final-line statement -- be derived out of the ideational build-up of the poem. (And then point back to and participate in that ideational build-up.)

The same thing can be said for the last line of the previous stanza:

Ah, to enact sleep,
Its accouterments,
Its ebbing tide
Your tresses spread over the bed's edge—

It is another pop poetry convention: the sudden shift from the general to a specific, personal example or moment, usually presented in only one line, usually presented as the final line of the moment. And, with the last line, it creates instabilities within the poem because it functions not out of the poem but as a convention.[FN]

[FN] Perhaps it is more descriptive to say it does not create the stability, unity, and energies of the unified poem.

It is important to understand that what I am talking about is the use of conventions. A jump from the general to a specific, personal moment can be a successful structural idea within a poem. But when such an event is created organically, aesthetically, it is functioning within the whole of the poem, in engagement with all the rest of the poem. Why these lines here are conventions is because they do not so function: they function as recognizable tags frequently used within the conventions of pop poetry. They are, precisely, hack phrases. (Only, here, hack structures.) Can a hack phrase be used within a text creatively? Yes. One of the fun aspects of The Ring and the Book was how Browning could use trite idiom successfully within the text, as with this variation on the phrase heard in bridge clubs: "he who hesitates is dead":

Hear the priest's lofty "I am innocent,"
The wife's resolute "You are guilty!" Come!
Are you not staggered?—pause, and you lose the move! (IV.1192-94)

The question is not the words themselves, the structural moment itself, but whether or not the words integrate organically with the whole. A conventional usage does not. It cues the reader. "Your tresses . . . ." Cue reader: "oh, a touching personal moment brought in, how poetic!" Final line, punchline statement: Cue reader: "Oh, a profound moment at the end of the poem, how poetic!"

Except, do they work within the poem as a whole?

Which turns us back the the shifting subject. The title of the poem is "Sleeping Women in Movies." Yet, the first line immediately shifts to a specific individual. I ask, why not keep it within the modality established by the title, such as with:

Sleeping Women in Movies

Sprawled arms akimbo—
      Yawning and stretching luxuriously
      In black and white, tossing a satin pillow
Or curled on a lush divan—
      Shrugging off the cat
      Reaching for her cell phone playing Bach

Or, vice versa, change the title:

The Sleeping Woman in the Movies

She is sprawled arms akimbo
(yawns and stretches luxuriously
in black and white, tosses a satin pillow)
Or she is curled on a lush divan
(shrugs off the cat
reaches for her cell phone playing Bach)

Either path seems to create to me a greater integration, a greater unity -- which means also it is demonstration that to me the original creates (permits) a disunity.

And then there is the "Ah," which establishes within the poem the presence of the narrator. When the narrator is forced to the fore, the reader is forced to do something with the narrator. Though, here, I am not sure what it is I am supposed to be doing with it. At the start, it could simply be a person beginning to make comment upon images of women waking up as might be seen in movies: the word used, after all, is enact. Yet, then comes slamming in that "Your."

What am I supposed to do with that "Your" if I am trying to read aesthetically -- taking the poem as a whole -- rather than conventionally -- taking the line as a convention-tag in pop poetry. Now, the word is enact. So then is the "Your" play-acting sleeping? If it is, how am I supposed to read it? There is nothing in the poem that is negative to the idea, so is the poem then presenting the idea of play-acting sleeping as a positive? And if it is play-acting sleeping, when would the "To fall asleep to, and to wake to" be the fiction of the action? If the last line is supposed to be the narrator falling asleep and waking up to the fiction, then why is the rest of the poem about play-acting sleeping? If the final line is supposed to be negative correction to the rest of the poem, why is there "Ah, to enact sleep," which in every normal reading would sound a positive to the play-acting.

Speaking of, what am I supposed to do with that "Ah"?

Ah, to enact sleep
To fall asleep to, and to wake to, fiction—

That makes some sense there as generating an idea of fictive sleep in a fictive world. And that is a really interesting idea to explore. But within this poem, there are two problems:

  1. The first stanza is nothing but examples of women waking up in movie scenes. There is really nothing generated out of that first stanza except "here are three examples." In truth, there is really nothing terribly interesting or special about those three descriptions.[FN] They go nowhere beyond "here are three examples." Then, lines 2 and 3 of the second stanza are themselves more minor additions to the idea of play-acting sleep. But they also fail to generate anything out of mere description. So the whole poem is reduced, ideationally, to three lines:
    Ah, to enact sleep
    Your tresses spread over the bed's edge—
    To fall asleep to, and to wake to, fiction—
  2. But what does the move to a direct, personal moment have to do with fictive sleep in a fictive world? Can this whole poem be reduced, then, to a very basic statement of: "Women play acting sleep in films. And I mean you."?
[FN] I have the question in my head if one of the reasons that first stanza is both unremarkable and poorly constructed is that there really was not any great thing following the stanza: the last five lines of the poem are fairly unremarkable themselves, and race quickly to an artificially pithy closing. As such, the development of the ideas in the first stanza beyond what they are would have in turn created a demand upon the rest of the poem to step up and meet that development. But could it have? As such, did the poet unconsciously stunt the development of the first part of the poem so as to not unbalance the poem? I have had this question with other poems read here and there. Of course, the counter question is to ask is the stunted development of the first stanza really a result of an unwillingness of poets to develop poetic ideas coupled with a willingness to race to quick, artificially pithy (and very conventional) closings?
    This footnote really is more about the general event rather than this poem in particular. But it does bring to the fore something worthy of the attention of writers, something I frequently ask myself as part of my writing process (especially when nearing the end of a larger project): is my sense of direction and completion of the work at hand a sense of bringing to its fullness a successful creating (that is, the work telling me it is completed), or is it more a result of a willingness to be satisfied with something less than what can be accomplished with more work (that is, me telling the work it is completed)?
    Perhaps it is an even greater concern in shorter projects, which can be all the more deceptive. For, there, one also has to consider that which is the next turn of the card: the recognition that simply because something is finished does not at all mean that it is successful.

Imagine such a scene:

Speaker: "You know with actresses when they are play-acting sleeping in a film?"

Woman: (unsure of the direction) "Ummm, yeah."

Speaker: "That's you."

Woman: (confused) "What does that even mean?" Is that supposed to be a complement? Or are you pissed at me for something?

Which is my reading of this poem. I have no idea where it is trying to go because of the confusions created in the jumps from title to stanza to stanza, because of the failure of the poem to meld into a whole, and because of the lack of any real development of any of the ideas presented. Does the first stanza do anything with the last two? Or am I right in seeing it as either padding or the start of a development that collapsed into pop poetic conventionality?


Speaking of conventionality: does the first line escape it? Now, I love the work akimbo. It is nigh onomonpoietic. But it is a word that very easily falls into the phrase "arms akimbo" and "limbs akimbo" -- so much so, that that phrase feels to me trite, and I tend to delete it everytime I use it because the usage does not pull it out of that triteness.

Does it here? What if the line had been written elsewise?

She is sprawled akimbo

She is akimbo

She is all akimbo about the bed

She is all and akimbo

She is akimbo and all about

Not sure if anything is being accomplished there other than playing.


A little question, but one which should be asked (as reader and writer): Why are there commas in stanza 2 when the first stanza intentionally -- if not insistently -- refuses any punctuation (and, even, attention to semantic form)?


Finally: yes, the line "Your tresses spread over the bed's edge—" has a lovely sound sense to it. But it comes but four lines after the unattractive if not banal "Pads to the kitchen in her bunny slippers."


  1. How about, "Sprawled arms akimbo, she yawns and stretches..." and "Curled on a lush divan, she shrugs..." Just thinking of grammatical precision; the liberty ("poetic license") of poets to break the rules has been overly touted and might be overrated.

    1. Whatever its original purpose it's seems mostly now empty justification for an "everything goes" poetics -- which mostly makes for bad works. You have to understand the rules to break them -- and that doesn't mean a 'Harbrace Handbook' understanding. But you also have to understand the rules of the text being created -- which cannot be broken without doing damage to the work. (The exceptions proving the rule.)

      (Thanks for the comment.)