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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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Monday, July 21, 2014

"A Way" by Rosanna Warren -- Poetry Magazine

from Poetry Magazine (July/August 2014)
poem found here

First lines:
She said she sang very close to the mike
to change the space. And I changed the space


an exploration post


No one theme here, just exploring what is offered by the text.


Let's begin with the first sentence. To write

(1) She said she sang very close to the mike to change the space.

is not the same thing as writing

(2) She sang very close to the mike to change the space.

is not the same thing as writing

(3) She said, she sang very close to the mike to change the space.

For clarity I'll modify it slightly:

(3) She said, I sing very close to the mike to change the space.

The difference between (2) and (1), the addition of the "she said," changes the focus of the sentence. Sentence (2) is a statement of fact that does not in itself go beyond that uttered fact. The function of such a sentence is only to present the fact to the reader. However, with the addition of the "she said" — and, importantly, without any comma marking the rest of the sentence as dialogue, as in sentence (3) — the content of the sentence is moved in focus from a mere fact to a fact connected connected to the actor: that it, the fact of singing close to the mike is brought within the domain of the speaker.

It is made personal; it is given personal interpretation. Without the "she said" the reason for the singing close to the mike will only imputed to act from outside the singer. Yes, it is presented by the narrator of the poem, but without the presence of the speaker herself in the sentence, the narrator is imposing a "reason" upon the action.

Add the "she said" to it, and the event and its coupled reason become personal. It even gains a direction: there is no reason not to read the sentence as

She said to me she sang very close to the mike to change the space.

as though the singer has told the narrator a secret, a mystery; an important thing, passed on not in the realm of public abstraction but in the quiet realm of intimacy. "She" said something meaningful to the narrator, so also something meaningful to the reader and to the text.

Add the idea of quotation, which appears with the comma whether there are quotation marks or not, whether or not the text is modified as I did to look more like a normal quotation, and there is added to the sentence the scene of the event. It is no longer merely an idea that has been passed on, it is an idea passed on in some certain place at some certain time. The focus of the sentence has shifted from solely the idea of the reason to the narrative event of the telling of the reason. Were the poem to begin like this, it would have to make an effort to relate that time and place to the time and place of the primary event of the poem. (Though there are many ways to do this, not all of them geographical or temporal).

With the poem starting out like this it establishes "changing the space" as the motivation behind the events that occur afterward, without adding into the poem any unnecessary elements (as with using quotation grammar), and making it personal to the narrator — personal even without the opening sentence needing to have been said directly to the narrator. Written as it is, the sentence is already, at the start of the poem, part of the narrator's psyche. Making it a quotation would have set the idea up outside the place and time of the event of the poem, and the poem would have to work to bring it in. Writing it without the "she said" would make the statement brute fact, and the poem would have to add the work to make the idea personal. But with the sentence written as it is written, the poem starts off in perfect sync with its intentions.


That is, the first sentence is already interacting with the second sentence.

And I changed the space / by striding down the Boulevard Raspail at dusk in tight jeans / until an Algerian engineer plucked the pen from my back pocket.

Just to say, for those who may think to the contrary: there is nothing grammatically wrong with opening a sentence with a conjunction: so long as the conjuction is working to the purpose of a conjunction, establishing a relationship between what comes before and what comes after. Here, the "and" is conjoining the ideas of the first two sentences. It could also have been written:

She said she sang very close to the mike to change the space; and, I changed the space by striding down the Boulevard Raspail at dusk [etc.].

As a single sentence there would be the semi-colon because the two halves of the sentence have different subjects: semi-colons are used to conjoin independent sentences into one sentence and one thought. Using a comma would create the idea of a list; but in that there no place where a list is generated — or can be generated — the grammatical fault — and more important the stumbling for the reader — would be glaring.

It might be possible to use line breaks, perhaps in conjunction with other manipulations, to connect the thoughts without using either a period or a semi-colon — which is to say to establish the styntactic structure through grammar created through the structure of the poem. For example:

She said she sang very close to the mike
          to change the space
          and I changed the space
by striding down the Boulevard Raspail

Though, such is wholly out of the bounds of this very prosaic poem. But writing it that way does bring to the fore the action of the first two sentences. The second sentence establishes the material elements of the scene of the poem: that of the narrator intentionally picking up a random person on a walk. The first sentence establishes the psychical context: the narrator intentionally picking up a person unlike anyone they would normally consider picking up to the purpose of change.

To note, while there is nothing technically wrong with the "and," there is not really anything terribly right about it either. The sentences could have been written without it, and to me with stronger effect:

She said she sang very close to the mike to change the space. I changed the space by striding down the Boulevard Raspail at dusk in tight jeans [etc.].

It is difficult for me not to see the "and" as superflous, not unlike the many "and"s I must seek out and delete in my own editing. (Not always successfully.)


Now, there is a point in that second sentence that works against the first: that is with the word "an." That phrase specifies a particular, which clashes ideationally with the psychic motivation of picking up a random someone established within the first part of the sentence ("And I changed the space by striding down the Boulevard Raspail at dusk in tight jeans until": a description of a fisher casting out a line.)

The problem gets lost when the sentence is pulled out of context, so let me explain in detail. The poem opens on the idea of "changing the space." The second sentence is describing how, specifically, the narrator "changed the space." The construction of the second since is: "I changed the space by doing the following": she put on sexually enticing clothing, she went out at dusk, and the walked up and down the boulevard until she caught an engineer. If you say that "an Algerian engineer" is not meant to be part of the "by doing this" phrase, then, because of the construction of the sentence, you also have to pull plucking the pen out from the "by doing this," which means the entirety of the wisdom of "change the space" ends at walking a street at dusk in tight jeans: not exactly the daring-do implied by the idea of "changing the space."

The problem in no small portion lies in the overly extended sentence syntactically pulling under the umbrella of "until" things that do not belong there: specifically, just who it was that plucked the pen.


(1) And I changed the space by striding down the Boulevard Raspail at dusk in tight jeans until an Algerian engineer plucked the pen from my back pocket.

(2) And I changed the space by striding down the Boulevard Raspail at dusk in tight jeans until the pen from my back pocket was plucked by an Algerian engineer.

Sentence two moves "an Algerian engineer" out from under "changed the space by" (the "by" of how she did it) to under "was plucked by" (the by of who actually did it). There occurs to me another possibility:

(3) And I changed the space by striding down the Boulevard Raspail at dusk in tight jeans until some Algerian engineer plucked the pen from my back pocket.

Changing "an" to "some" decreases the existence of the Algerian engineer as a specific person, which does work to solving the issue. But it still fails in that it continues to end the "change the space by" phrase at "until" and so continues to leave the actual pen plucking (and thus also the important pen) out of the "changing of space."

Now, it might be being thought: what about the "the" of "the pen"? Is not that also specific? Yes, it is. But it is to a particular end: by using "the" it gives specificity to what need not at all be real (i.e., it is irrelevant whether there is really a pen in the pocket). When the narrator says "plucked the pen" it is the same as narrator saying "until he 'plucked the pen from my pocket' . . . . if you know what I mean (wink wink nudge nudge)." As well, the specificity works to maintain the strength of the intentionality of the event: she was going to walk the boulevard with one purpose — to change the space — and was going to continue walking until someone plucked that particular pen from her pocket.

In contrast to that, the too soon specificity of the "an" fails the ideational flow and creates a clash. Though, of course, to say "the 'an'" is really to say "the 'an' in the context of this particular construction":

She said she sang very close to the mike to change the space.
And I changed the space by striding down the Boulevard Raspail until an Algerian engineer plucked that pen from my back pocket.

(Read nothing into the line breaks: I am only making it easy to read.) One simple change: "plucked that pen," pushing the person doing the plucking into the background, making the offered particulars of who did the plucking unimportant to the purpose of the sentence, which is that the pen was in fact plucked, that the narrator was successful in the first step of her attempt at changing the space.

To say, I find the string of prepositions in that sentence to be clumsy. It is an out of control sentence, by most any measure. After the effective first sentence, it reads like laziness on the part of the writer (and, indeed, decreases the value of the first sentence).


The next sentence is a speed bump in a 55 zone:

As if you’re inside my head and you’re hearing the song from in there.

First, I find the contruction clumsy, strung out and wordy not unlike the previous sentence. And after the previous sentence I lost my tolerance for verbal laziness. Why not

As if you’re hearing the song from inside my head.

Does that not carry the same thought? Are not the words "as if you're inside my head" in the original wholly carried by the single word "inside" in the modified?

But even more to the sentence's detriment, there is the clash in the sudden appearance of the "you." The nature of the scene has changed. In the second sentence — and in the rest of the poem as there is no "you" anywhere else in the poem — the engineer is always intended to be an impersonal "anybody": whoever it was that happened to pluck the pen. Which, from the opening of the poem, seems the point of the event. By shifting to a "you" it is no longer picking up a random person, which works against the whole of the rest of the poem. It is no longer impersonal. In fact, the "you" directly clashes with the later phrase "the story didn't slide that way though there are many ways to throw oneself away": which is another (ungainly written) statement of the impersonal — non-intimate — nature of the encounter.

But then — now that I'm talking about it — does not the poem make a radical shift in ideation at the phrase "to throw oneself away"?

The poem opens

She said she sang very close to the mike
to change the space. And I changed the space

Though, more accurately to say, it opens:

The whole trick of this thing . . . is to get out of your own light.

And yet the encounter comes to its ideational climax at "there are many ways to throw oneself away," and the poem as a whole comes to its ideational heart with an implied comparison of the narrator with "trash along the riverbank"? Yes, there is in the penultimate sentence the "like": the singer shredder her voice but her song was "like" an Appalachian artifact. And then the next sentence opens with a seemingly parallel "like" — trash along the riverbank" — which would lead one to think "trash along the riverbank" is describing the song. Except the end of that sentence is "through which the current chortles an intimate tune": the trash is not the song; the trash is making the song. So the perceived parallel between two near-in-appearance "like"s is false. It is the narrator who is trash along the riverbank.

So then one might say, "but that is the point of the poem, that you must self-destructively (in a wholly negative sense) throw yourself away to find your songs." That may be the idea of the second half of the poem but is not that of the first. Again:

The whole trick of this thing . . . is to get out of your own light.

That is a statement of guidance offered by someone who has walked the path previously, an idea followed up by the opening sentence: "She said she sang very close to the mike to change the space." By the end of that sentence, the idea of "changing the space" is one of positive action, of the idea of knocking oneself out of one's comfort zone — which is the very idea carried by "striding down the Boulevard . . . until." I can find no way to make the opening of the poem read "you need to 'throw yourself away' and become nothing but 'trash along the riverbank.'" Nor can I find a way to see the described encounter with the engineer to be something that is destroying the narrator. Yes there is the sense of "throw your old self away" carried in the thought, but become trash? Does that idea — and notice that that idea gets what is arguably the most imaginative attention of any moment within the poem — at all interact with "the trick [. . .] is to get out of your own light"?

But I digress; back to the "you."

I see no reason why the "you" sentence needs to exist in the text at all. The shift to second person is not sustained by the rest of the poem — in truth it is violent to the rest of the poem. Not only in person but in ideation: as said, it clashes with the anonymous nature of the pick-up. Also, what "song" is being referred to? There is no song offered before that. Indeed, the idea established in the opening sentence of the poem is that the "changing the space" must come prior to any song.

On top of that, it is a trite sentence offering an empty sentiment that does not play at all with the rest of the text. (Nor do I think the sentence is saved by assuming that "you" is meant to the "she" of the first sentence: that only makes it all the more confusing.)


What of Apollinaire?

I found the reference online without much effort so I think nothing of the fact that it would not be commonly known. It refers to Apolinaire's poem "Le Chanson de Mal-Aimé" (or, "The Song of the Poorly-Loved" as translated by Robert Shattuck in Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire, as is the below). The pertinent stanza:

The flaming lyre of June's sun
Burns my fingers' tender skin
Tuneful and sad delerium
I stray through Paris's loveliness
Without the heart to perish there.

(The original is italicized.) The back story to the poem — also gleaned online and from the essay opening Selected Writings — involves the relationships of Apollinaire with women, especially his first, Annie Playden, an English governess he knew while he was tutoring (which he began doing at the age of 18). Long story short, the deeply passionate affair with the strikingly beautiful Annie was cut short when her religiously conservative family sent her away to the U.S. never to be seen or heard from again. So, it is the story of an intense love lost.

"Apollinaire burned his fingers [. . .] but I had lost my pen." Is that a "but" conjoining? If we read "I had lost my pen" to be exactly what the narrator was hoping to happen — that is, symbolically, she changed her space — why is it in a "but" relationship to the Apollinaire tale? After all, much of Apollinaire's poetry — including the very highly regarded (what a silly phrase) "Chanson" — was inspired by Annie and other heartbreak. As such, it is when Apollinaire burned his fingers that he had "changed his space": so should it then not be "and" conjoining the ideas?

Apollinaire burned his fingers on June's smoldering lyre . . . and I lost my pen."

A statement of success (though I am not at all sure why she "lost" her pen; I thought it was her intention that someone would take it from her.) Except, the relationship offered in the narrative here is not one of heartache. The encounter is and remains essentially anonymous — at least as presented. There is nothing solid in the text to point to a deep relationship; in fact, there is nothing to say the encounter lasted more than an afternoon (and, possibly, evening) — which in truth seems surprisingly unweighty in a poem that wants to get to "Like trash along the riverbank" etc. Apollinaire burned his fingers — and found his voice — in heartbreak. The narrator pulls it off with a sex-less one-night-stand with a man with whom she has nothing in common.

There is another way to read the sentence:

Apollinaire burned his fingers on June's smoldering lyre
but at least I had lost my pen."

— though, if that is what was intended, it really should have been said. Even with this, however, there is still the problem of the near trivialness of the encounter as described. The symbolic nature of her pen amounts to little within the narrative — unless you can find something in the abstract phrase "though there are many ways to throw oneself away" to turn a scene that in its description is nothing of import into something of import. In truth, that "there are many ways to throw oneself away" is doing a lot of work in this poem, when it comes down to it. Though, that also is lazy writing, asking the reader to fill in the blanks — or, in this case, almost all the emotional content necessary for the poem to get to where it wants to go.

To be honest, I even difficulty with the appearance of a somewhat obscure literary allusion in a poem that has already — and with some effort — established itself to be working within the context of Marianne Faithful. Perhaps there is a connection between Faithful and Apollinaire? If there is, it should be made apparent, somehow, within the text of the poem. (Again, there are many ways to do such a thing without having to be explicit.)


Final sentence:

We understood / nothing of one another over glasses of metallic red wine.

This should stand out to the reader on its face an incorrect syntax. And it is . . . on its face. But look what it does.

It turns the "understood" into an action word. It gives "understanding" intentionality:

We understood nothing of one another; we wanted to understand nothing of one other; we did not want that situation to change.


We learned about each other over glasses of metallic red wine.

We understood nothing of one another over glasses of metallic red wine.

Same construction, giving "understood" the same action found in "learned." It is my favorite moment in the poem.


Let me here and quickly bring in the last post and Barfield's two axes of verse—prose and poetic—prosaic. If you notice, in the above I describe the writing of the poem only in terms of sentences, intentionally doing so. There was never a need to refer to a line, per se, from the poem: after all, it cannot be denied, the poem is entirely prose in its constructions (sometimes not well written, sometimes creative). I can find no real justification for the lines being broken the way they are, at least not a justification consistent throughout the poem. I ask two questions:

The first: Is there any need for this text to be a poem? That is, Is there anything gained, outside of creating the appearance of being a poem, by the text having line-breaks? Would it have been better written as prose? Would the idea have been better served written as prose?

(It might be possible to argue that, if written as prose, many of the problems I see in it would not have come to be.)

The second: Was there ever any reason in the above for me to speak about "lines"?

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