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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Congenital" by Amy McCann -- Verse Daily, March 12, 2014

from West Branch (Fall 2013)
poem found here

First lines:
Inside every heart
slumps the same


exploring structure


An interesting poem here, worth exploring.

And since I'm thinking structure, I have the sudden thought to stop and look at that sentence what I just typed. Not everyone may have thought about why that sentence uses a comma. The reason is because it is a list of adjectives: the poem is (1) here and (2) worth exploring. This may be pointing out the obvious but it is worth the pointing out so as to take it to the next step. A less sophisticated writer sees the need for the comma because of the rules of grammar -- or, more likely, an intuitive understanding that a comma is used in such sentences. But a more sophisticated writer does not look at the comma, but looks at the underlying relationship of words: it is a phrase that links two adjectival phrases to one noun. What is the difference? The first is technical mimicry; the second is seeing the medium.

But back to the poem.

Let's start with lines. The lines here read mostly as two beat accentual meter (two stresses per line, number of syllables irrelevant). That is, up until the last stanza which is three beats per line. Though, there are a couple of lines that do not quite work, as in the eighth stanza:

inflames the slack-winged
birds, our half-mast
tails slapping the base

The issue arises in that the natural reading of the second line is "BIRDS, our HALF-mast." The natural tendency of English to iambs (or trochees, if your of that theoretic ilk) -- in conjunction with the syntax of "half-mast" being used as an adjective -- prompts the next line (the expected noun) to start off with a stress, an event which has already occurred in the first two lines. Because of it, the natural reading of line 3 is with three stresses.

inFLAMES the SLACK-winged
BIRDS, our HALF-mast

The reverse event -- a closing stress and syntax prompting an opening unstressed syllable -- occurs earlier, in stanza 5.

we deSERVE yet
can NEver reENter.

So for me the question is prompted as to whether it is by accident (or by ear as opposed to attention) that the poem is primarily two stresses per line, and if, in fact, the poem was actually structured more by the length of the lines than by that of which the lines are made.

Though, the exploration can not end there. Is it possible that phrasing is the guide for the lines rather than stress? Quite possibly, and such an observed structure does create some interest ideation, as with stanzas 3 and 4. First 3:

Our paradox: carrion
that carries on,
tomb that mushrooms

Seeing the general idea of line construction as phrasing gives added viability to the conjoining of "our paradox" and "carrion" even though "carrion" is syntactically part of the phrase of the next line: "carrion that carries on." The line-as-phrase idea also works to give a bit more concealment to the internal rhyme of "carrion" and "carries on": if the two phrases were in the same line, the rhyme would be much stronger, possibly resulting in the line sticking out in a poem which mostly keeps its aural effects somewhat subdued (that is, it runs in brief through the lines rather than in long emphasis or by being punctuated by end-line rhymes). For example, look at the sounds in stanzas 6 and 7:

Our central distortion.
Our sweet-weakened
teeth, long toiling

in fiel
ds, our orphaned
forever—tended then
of fruit. A blush

There's a lot of wonderful sound play going on in this poem, but little of it tries to call attention to itself. (Notice how most of the vowel sounds in the poem are lax.)

But back to lines and phrasing, and stanza 4:

to coax its stone
aside, and inside
gauze, deflated,

The joint play of (1) sounds and (2) the broken phrasing in play with (3) the by now semi-established idea that lines are based in part on phrases combine to make for some interesting line play. Though, when you move from looking at the lines of the poem to looking at the syntax and semantics of the poem, the line break at "inside / gauze" is brought into question. (I will return to that later.)

Which brings us to looking at the structure of the poem from the deeper side, as with the above aside. Irrespective of the guiding principle of line creation -- whether it was based in stress count or based in phrasing or based in the pop-poetic technique of thin-column left justified -- the success of the poem ultimately does not lie in the application of form or technique but in the resulting, organic whole of the poem: which includes all the other parts. That is, following sonnet structure does not justify a poem that disfunctionally mixes metaphors (the whole) or that has bad grammar (other parts).

As such, when examining the line breaks not merely from the formal aspect of what idea of line the poem might be using but from the organic aspect of how do the lines function as a physiological part of the poem as a whole, I must ask the question: Do the lines as crafted serve the text of this poem to creating the best possible poem? The answer, to me, which speaks my first response to this poem, is no, it does not, and for two reasons. First, on the aural side (and more intuitive side), even though there is a degree that the phrasing naturally breaks up into short lines, the subject-ideation of the poem is one that for me is betrayed by the bappity-bap rhythms created by the quick coming line breaks.[FN] That is, for me, the short lines are fighting a poem that wants the reader to think not in short spurts but more slowly, more in the manner of something that "mushrooms to coax." Which is something I do not think can be demonstrated (at least, not in a blog post). So I will leave it as a statement which you can explore and test for yourself.

[FN] In response to the counter, "You are supposed to read the phrasing of the text across the lines not according to the lines," I have the simple and obvious reply: "Then why did you write the poem with lines? If you want it to be read like a paragraph, write it like a paragraph." If you cannot justify the lines, then you cannot justify the lines.

The second reason: I believe the short lines are working (if unintentionally) to hide flaws in the poem's text. To show this, let me re-write the poem in longer phrasing. (My point here is merely to set up a demonstrative tool: in no way am I saying that this is "better.")

Inside every heart slumps the same silk-fleshed fig
bitten in the first lost garden.
First relinquishing skin.    —?? [FN]

Let me stop there. "First relinquishing skin." Compare the reading of the text as written above to the reading of the text in the structure of the poem:

Inside every heart
slumps the same
silk-fleshed fig

bitten in the first
lost garden. First
relinquishing skin.

Do you see how in the original poem the short lines give a strength of legitimacy to the phrase "First relinquishing skin" that is wholly undermined when the text is written out? Do you see how I say the short lines are working to conceal the problems with the wording? The phrase is echoing the previous phrase "first lost garden." But if it was meant to syntactically parallel the first phrase it fails. The resulting wording -- "the same fig bitten in the first relinquishing skin" makes little if any sense. The semantics are rather jumbled: "same" and "first" do not work together here as they do with "first garden" because "first" in the former case is pointing back to the fig rather than out to a location. In honesty, while I generate an idea from the phrase "first relinquishing skin" when it is taken out of its semantic context (in fact, two ideas), within the whole of the poem I can not make it work. But, I argue, the short lines help to conceal that problem by chopping up the flow.

[FN] I have often thought it would be very useful to use something like chess notation in commenting on poems. Though, I wonder how many people who recognize it withought me having to explain it every time. I might try it out some. Also, for those who did not know, it is generally considered that calling the forbidden fruit an apple is a European influence on the myth. A more regionally apt choice is a fig.


Our paradox: carrion that carries on,    —! (I love that bit)
tomb that mushrooms to coax its stone aside,
and inside gauze, deflated, suggests the grave we deserve
yet can never reenter.

Notice the faulty parallelism between "carrion" and "tomb." The syntax and more so the semantics do not work if you take out the middle connect the parts:

Our paradox: tomb that mushrooms to coax its stone aside

(The syntax is something easily fixed, but I am taking it as written.) The problem lies in that while it is easy to connect the selves of "our" with the biological thing "carrion," it is difficult at best to connect the selves of "our" with container of a "tomb." The faulty parallelism is exacerbated when the "tomb" bit moves from the tomb as a thing to the tomb as a location and to within the tomb, to the deflated gauze, which is an excellent idea but is not something to me terribly paradoxical. An empty tomb is not the same as carrion that carries on: the latter is a negative image, the former is the positive. While the whole of the tomb bit tries to come back around with the last idea of the "the grave we deserve but can never reenter," which does kind of parallel "carrion that carries on," it falls short in that "carrion that carries on" is more an idea of a life that cannot reach death rather than a death that continually returns to life.

And there is yet one more difficulty: the syntax. As written, "inside" does not link to the tomb but to "gauze": the syntax of the text gives us a list of two elements: (1) a tomb that mushrooms and (2) the place inside deflated gauze. The lines should be written with commas:

to coax its stone
aside, and, inside,
gauze, deflated,

It is actually a fairly serious grammatical error (one that cannot be justified through claims of "poetic license" because bad grammar creates a false reading). Yet, it is something that, again, becomes partially concealed -- as with the bad parallelism above -- by the imposing rhythm of the short-burst, rat-a-tat lines.

This is a fundamental aspect of writing and reading short lines: it naturally fragments the text. If the lines are not being written with attention to the underlying structure of the text, the usual result is that the short lines will dominate the text and force a rat-a-tat reading upon the text whether the text wants it or not. Of course, in so many poems that I see, that dominance serves the poem well by concealing the difficulties and problems within the text of the poem simply because the rat-a-tat lines make it more difficult to read the text of the poem.


Let me move on to a different point of the structure of the poem: the repeated use of "our" phrases:

Our paradox: carrion
Our central distortion.
Our sweet-weakened / teeth
our orphaned / forever
Our compass / slagging south.
our appetites.

Rather than make any detailed arguments as to their use, I just want to make comments, and let you explore the points as to their strength, validity, consequences, etc.

I like: that the first one is established with a colon, not only because it gives potency to the grammatically demarked phrase "our paradox" but also because one of the uses of a colon is to introduce a list.

I like that the second appearance -- "Our central distortion." -- is likewise marked off with a period.

I like that "our central distortion" directly echoes in meaning "our paradox" (i.e., "paradox" and "distortion" are denotationally related).

But, I don't like that the next iteration is so different a train. In fact, "our sweet-weakened teeth" is so different that it creates for me a jarring bump in the reading: I am saying out loud Whoa, whoa, whoa! Where the hell did teeth come from? While the surface structure of the repetition has been continued, the underlying ideation of the phrases has wholly changed tracks. Yes, I can see the connection: "sweet-weakened teeth" can be considered synecdochic to the idea of the "distorted" whole. Except I do not read "sweet-weakened" as anywhere at the same degree of power as that found in the paradox of "carrion that carries on." It is too weak an idea. "Sweet-rotted," perhaps? Also, how am I supposed to work the idea of "teeth toiling in fields"?

I like the phrase "our orphaned forever" in how it creates an interesting resonance with "our paradox: carrion that carries on." Though, within the context of the poem as a whole, the more I think about it, if death does not come, is it "forever" that has been orphaned, or "death"? (Also, shouldn't it be "tending then bereft of fruit"?)

I like that after "our central distortion" it is not until three "our"-phrases later that there is another likewise truncated phrase. There is created a rhythmic development: it starts off in a semi-truncated introduction of the motif (using a colon), which is repeated in a wholly truncated phrase (using a period), which is then repeated in expanded phrases, even with the fourth phrase being within the sentence, not at the beginning. But then the iterations returns to the base, truncated form. Wonderful use of structure syntactic structure to create a musicality within the text. (Though, I would argue, its musicality suffers for the short lines.)

I like how, after that reappearance of the truncated form of the "our"-phrase the poem closes with two more short, verbless phrases, the first equally as brief. Nice following the rhythms which the poem wants.

I don't like that while the surface structure related to the "our"-phrases has some nice crafting to it, the actual text itself makes les and less coherence as the poem progresses. (I mean "coherence" not only in the sense understanding the text but also in the sense of the unity of the text.) I have no faith that, nearing the end of poem, the poem understands where it is going ideationally (and believe, again, the staccato lines are helping to conceal it). Let me write out the closing statements as I was doing above, so you may explore it yourself:

Our central distortion.
Our sweet-weakened teeth, long toiling in fields    —? (semi-colon better)
our orphaned forever—tended then bereft of fruit.
A blush inflames the slack-winged birds,
our half-mast tails slapping the base of our spines in migrant flight.
Our compass slagging south.
Sour glint of bile.
The pinch of gilt-belated reflex—
diapered by our appetites.

Notice the shift in voice and modality at "a blush inflames": suddenly there is action in a poem that up to that point was wholly statement. (And there is never again action.) Notice the shift in ideation: "carrion that carries on" created the idea of pointless existence, yet "migrant flight" very much inserts the idea of purposed and purposeful destination. How can a bird's tail slap the base of its spine? The bird's tail is the base of its spine. Doesn't the word "gilt" create a positive idea that also does not belong in the poem? (Is it in the poem because of its aural echo with glint, without attention to its meaning?) How am I supposed to connect migratory birds with diapers? (Is it not mixing metaphors, and clumsily?) And, in truth, I am not at all sure what to do with the last stanza, mostly because the poem as a whole has lost control of its ideas. I have to ask myself, how else did the poem get from the fig of the Garden of Eden to diapered birds except through loss of control?


Final statement: the skeleton of form and structure is never success unto itself, it is only part of its poem. The success of a work can only be measure by the whole, not the parts. Which is better said from the other side: think the whole when you are thinking the parts.


I've given a quick look about to see if I could find an example or two of a poem with two-beat lines whose lines are well crafted. Derek Mahon's "Tithonus" is a very usable comparison, though I don't see it on line. If I stumble upon others I'll add them on.

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