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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"One Little Good Thing About it" by Patricia Smith -- Poetry Daily, March 26, 2014

from Southern Indiana Review (Fall 2013)
poem found here
 

First lines:
We wanted shredded silk on our job-greased heads, poised
to be dramatically kinked by several versions of migration

 

shifts in subject (with a footnote on rhythm)

---- minor change, March 27, 2014
 

There's a couple points to bring up with this poem. For one, up until the end of the poem it mostly holds a six beat accentual meter. When that meter falls apart (mostly at line 11, "Across town . . .") it feels like, to me, the poem is losing control.[FN] I'm not at all sure what "migration ghost" means, and really can't make anything of how "migration ghost" could kink. (If "migration ghost" does have a direct meaning, I'd love it if someone let me in on what it is.) (Just to say, I like "rippling rivers on each foot," so it's not that I'm opposed to that more surreal imagery.)

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[FN] It is not sufficient to say "I wasn't paying attention to rhythm; it was an accidental thing." You should always be paying attention to rhythm — that is what it is to have a poetic ear. A sophisticated reader will be paying attention to rhythms so as to enjoy the sound of the text. And when you set up a rhythm — whether intentionally or by accident — and then suddenly ignore it, it will either sound jarring, clumsy, or like a failure of attention. Which ever the result, it sounds sloppy. Also, "paying attention to rhythm" does not mean you have to be writing in meter: free verse still has its rhythms.
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"We yearned beauteous" -- a wonderful sentence, perfectly set up by the sentence before, perfecting establishing a forced point from out which the next sentence can flow in a (slightly) new direction. Both rhythmically and ideationally the defining sentence of the poem, against which everything else is set, even "us soldiers in Chicago's war." (Though, for me the "red wounding" line is too heavy handed, even too cliche an appeal, and clashes with what was before then a more subtle presentation.)

But then there's the two lines about Richard Speck. Primarily, you should notice -- not only you should notice as in "look at this" but also you should notice as in your should develop your ear so you hear this in reading or rereading -- that there is a complete shift in focus.

Notice every sentence leading up: "We wanted . . . We wanted . . . We yearned . . . Mama's bathed our" etc. Then, the shift to "Richard Speck argued with his face." It's jumped to a whole different narrative line. Even when the "us" is brought in the focalization is no longer from the "us" but from Richard Speck: "[he] planned to ignore us." The action has completely changed.

I cannot see how this cannot be called an error in the poem. It's a jarring jump, which would be alright if the poem intended to wholly shift the action for a sustained time. Except it doesn't. It weakly tries to frame the Speck lines within the "us" with "to ignore us," and then jumps back to the previously established "us" focalization but to a line that I cannot make connect to the Richard Speck line.

For me the ideation is completely disjointed. How is Richard Speck's one day of murders keeping the "us" from getting clean? What does Richard Speck's day of murders have to do with "soldiers in Chicago's war"? The only thing I can come up with is maybe media attention? But then is the poem saying the "us" identities as "soldiers in Chicago's war" is wholly dependent on media coverage (and not self-identification)?

For me, the poem completely falls apart at the Richard Speck lines. It abandons the "us" focalization for a new focalization that has no clear relationship with what's before, and presents an idea that has no clear relationship with what's before it. And then the poem seems to try to save itself with a final, didactic line that fails to pull it all together (if not increases the confusion). In fact, I would argue that the poem is better poem if one would simply cut those last lines. Or even better, cut the last three lines and develop more the energies between the two ideas "We yearned beauteous" and "soldiers in Chicago's war."

And considering pop-poetic conventions, that last line very much looks to me like a conventional, last-line "let me make a profound-sounding, summing statement" rather than a considered and integrated final thought. (Ask yourself, do the first ten lines of this poem need some concluding thought? To me they're woking quite fine on their own.)

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