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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

"Pelicans in December" by J. Allyn Rosser — Verse Daily, 9/13/2014

from Mimi's Trapeze (U of Pittsburgh Press)
poem found here

First lines:
One can't help admiring
their rickety grace


an exploration of poetic structure


Fortune smiled on me and gave me a poem right after my last post that might prove an interesting exploration of poetic structure and poetic ideation ("poetic" being in the sense put forward by the last number of posts, as opposed to "prosaic"; as "organic"; as aesthetic as opposed to nomic; as creative as opposed to representational).

What I want to do first is trim down the poem to its core structure, to the basic statement. For this poem is of the nature of something not infrequently seen in pop poetry: it consists of a core structure, one that is not terribly complex, which is flushed out (one might say "made poetic") through description or modification of the elements of that core structure.

When I pare away those modifications, I find three basic statements.

1. One can't help admiring [the pelicans'] grace and feathers.

2. They pass in silent pairs.

3.a. The wind tips them into a wobble,
3.b. like old couples arm in arm on icy sidewalks,
3.c. mildly surprised by how difficult it has become to stay dignified and keep moving.

Nothing should be surprising, there, structure-wise, since the poem is constructed of three sentences. What may be surprising, though, is the nature of those three sentences. The second is simple and straightforward. But the first presents what cannot avoid being called an odd pairing.

"Do you like my new blender?"
"Yes. I can't help admiring how easy it is to handle the bowl, and the purée button."

What do the two have to do with each other that they merit being conjoined by an "and"? Am I supposed to read it only as a list of the admirable parts of pelicans in winter? But then, a list of only two things? The problem is complicated by the sentence as a whole:

One can't help admiring their rickety grace and old-world feathers like seasoned boardwalk planks.

There is an ambiguity as to whether "like seasoned boardwalk planks" applies only to "feathers" or to both "feathers" and "grace." That ambiguity is created in no small part because "feathers like seasoned boardwalk planks" falls flat for me, so I want to look beyond "feather" to find some life. "Feathers like planks": I can get that: the simile transfers the quality of stiffness from "plank" to "feathers." But "feathers like boardwalk planks"? We've now modified the word "plank," which means the reader has been clued that the idea being transferred to feathers is no longer one general to planks but now one particular to boardwalk planks. At that point, I have no idea what to do with it. Add the word "seasoned" and now the quality of the simile is something not general to planks, not particularly general to boardwalk planks, but specific to seasoned boardwalk planks. What that quality might be is beyond me.

It might be argued that "seasoned" links to the idea of "old," and "boardwalk" links to the setting of the walking pelicans. Which is true. Those ideational energies are being created. But that does not free the simile from the more basic problem of what is being generated as regards feathers by the phrase "like seasoned boardwalk planks."

Now, there is a connection between "rickety wings" and "old couples," which works well. But by having "grace" and "feathers" conjoined by the "and," that idea of "rickety" cannot help but be passed onto the more immediate "feathers." But that creates yet another clash:

One can't help admiring their rickety grace and feathers like planks.

The two ideas clash, and not in a good way. They have rickety grace and yet their feathers are like planks? Seasoned boardwalk planks should be able to be called rickety; when they can, the idea of grace is not what accompanies it. End result is that the opening sentence is a mash of ideas that forms no coherent unity, and wholly because of the third and fourth line. Ask this question: are those lines at all necessary to the poem as a whole? "One can't help admiring their rickety grace": though a rather pedestrian statement, it leads directly into the third sentence. But where does "old-world feathers like seasoned boardwalk planks" lead us?

Recognize that that question – and the whole of the above – necessitates maintaining the context of the whole of the sentence. The phrase is conjoined to "rickety grace." If we move the phrase elsewhere, we discover a new potentiality for it:

wings'-end feathers like seasoned boardwalk planks stretching

I change "fingers" to "feathers" for the obvious reasons. There is something interesting generated, but it still does not cleanly work because generally boardwalk planks are neatly aligned (thus my cutting the phrase off before "from fingerless gloves," which emphasizes the splaying). Though, you do sometimes see non-commercial or private docks built with intentional or unavoidable irregularity in the alignment and spacing of the planks. If that latter idea was being developed by the poem, if the scene was developed to create that idea, or if the simile in association with the wing feathers was expanded to develop that idea, there might be something interesting going on.

In brief, then, I see that first sentence as at best a poorly structured sentence containing (and mis-structured in part by) a poorly conceived simile. What is interesting to notice (though I am not sure if everyone will see this) is how the line- and stanza-breaking of the poem works to hide that bad sentence construction. Having the space between the two parts of the list, before the "and," creates a false separation between the two elements of the list. That the two lines of the second stanza are broken at the "like" creates even more visual independence for the stanza. We are doubly prompted into reading "and old-world feathers / like seasoned boardwalk planks" independently of the first two lines. But the grammar demands that we link them, so reading the lines in such a way is mis-reading the opening of the poem. It is to me an example of how line breaks in pop poetry are often used to conceal bad phrasing and bad syntax (most likely even from the authors themselves).

The core of the second idea is the very simple "the pass in silent pairs," which functions to create a sensuously-oriented idea that sets up the final thought. "One can't help admiring their rickety grace" is an abstract idea, and it is given sensuous grounding with "they pass in silent pairs." We can see the connection by tying the three statements together:

One can't help admiring their rickety grace, as they pass by in silent pairs, like old couples arm in arm.

The problem comes with what accompanies the core idea of the second sentence:

They pass in silent pairs, as if a long time ago they had wearied of calling out.

The sentence contains a shift in subject. Compare:

They pass in silent pairs, as if a long time ago they had wearied of calling out.

They pass silently, as if a long time ago they had wearied of calling out.

Notice how the word "pairs" changes the focus of the the main part of the sentence? They pass how? In pairs. Yes, they are silent in their pairs, but what is dominant is that they are in pairs. In the second sentence though, how do they pass? Silently. You should be able to see, now, the subject shift created by the poor sentence structure:

They pass in pairs, as if a long time ago they had wearied of calling out.

Another solution would be to create a list:

They pass in pairs, silently, as if a long time ago they had wearied of calling out.

In that structure, there is created a flow: "pairs" connects to "silently," "silently" connects to the "as if." All three are modifiers of pass, so all three have equal weight. Because of both the flow and the equal weight, there is also created a fainter connection between the "as if" phrase and the earlier "pairs" and without the clumsy shift in subject. Though, I am not sure that connection would want to be made in this poem, because "wearied of calling out" creates the idea of calling out beyond the pairs. You don't "call out" to the person you are paired with, you call out to people beyond your pair.

There is another problem with "wearied of calling out": it contradicts the end of the poem.

They pass silently, as if a long time ago they had wearied of calling out, like old couples mildly surprised by how difficult it has become to stay dignified.

In the end of the poem, if the couples are quiet, it is because that is how dignified people (or pelicans) act. In the second stanza, however, they are quiet because they are weary of crying out. To say they are weary of crying out is to say that their normal state is to cry out. That idea is in direct contradiction to silence as dignity.

What do I think is going on? I'm jumping to my conclusion before I get to the third statement, but this is the place to set it up. The poem, to me, speaks of having been written through to points of attention. (1) The poem is structured around the core idea as outlined above, metaphorically linking pelicans in winter to old couples. (2) That structure is "developed" by adding modifiers to the separate elements of the core statement. But those modifiers are linked not to the poem as a whole, but only to the element that they modify. As such, you end up with a structure like drawings hanging from strings tied one after the other to a horizontal string.

Yes, the images connect to the core idea, the base line, and so there is that structure holding them together (if often tied with unattractive knots, knots that can twist up the line of the primary string). But there is nothing tying the individual modifiers themselves into an organic whole, and as such, they float independently of each other, and could very well clash with each other in such a way that they could not be themselves conjoined together except through the intermediation of the core statements. The poem asks to be read in a manner not unlike a display of pictures drawn by a kindergarten class: you follow the line to the first break, look at the first picture, then return to the line to follow it to the next picture. Though, you are not supposed to ideationally link the pictures outside of the superficial "they are all drawn by children from the same class." After all, it is poor form to compare and contrast the drawings of small children, they all tried their hardest.

Let's take take that into the final thought, the largest, most exploded thought. To remind you, this the the core idea:

3.a. The wind tips them into a wobble,
3.b. like old couples arm in arm on icy sidewalks,
3.c. mildly surprised by how difficult it has become to stay dignified and keep moving.

First, if we consider the basic statement (remember: it is presented in one sentence within the poem), there is another subject shift. Why do the pelicans "wobble" like old couples? In 3.a. it is because of the wind; but in 3.b. it is because they are on ice sidewalks. There are two phrases within the sentence vying for control of the same idea.

The wind tips them into a wobble.

They wobble like on icy sidewalks.

It is, again, poor sentence construction, and also poor ideation control.

But let's move through the whole of the extended sentence, which accounts for two-thirds of the poem. Starting at the beginning:

The wind tips them, their ungainly, light-brown weight, into a prehistoric wobble,

I really like that side-step that moves the object of the sentence from from "them" to "their weight." I love the use of "light-brown" as an adjective to weight. It serves the basic purpose of helping to create descriptive materiality to a poem that is centered upon a visual comparison. But it works also in strengthening the role of "weight": not as describing the physical measurement of how much something weighs but as a slanted synonym for the substance of the pelicans. Though, I see no purpose to or gain from the word "prehistoric" what-so-ever. Also, is it not a very problematic word to use in a poem that compares pelicans to old couples? With that comparison in the poem, the word gains a slightly pejorative taint.

More simply, though, is "prehistoric" at all necessary to the poem? Yes, it pairs with "old-world feathers," and perhaps it can be applied to pelicans. But the heart of the poem does not lie in the physiological heritage of pelicans, it lies in "old couples arm in arm on icy sidewalks." As such the word "prehistoric" has no real place within the poem. It is but another arbitrary picture tied to the string.

Moving on:

wings'-end fingers stretching from fingerless gloves,

Yes, if the coloring of the birds was such, perhaps the larger feathers at the end of the wings could be so described. But, again, what benefit to the poem? It creates a very heavy focus upon the feathers at the ends of the wings. Is that focus necessary to where the poem – and in the more immediate structure, the sentence – is going?

No. It is a digression from the structure of the poem, which was, returning to the above, a narrowing from a broad, opening statement about pelicans to a focusing upon the metaphoric comparison to old couples "mildly surprised by how difficult it has become to stay dignified." Are old couples normally marked by wearing fingerless gloves? How do fingerless gloves play into the wobbliness, or the efforts of dignity? Can it be said that there is a clash between fingerless gloves and dignity because one might too readily associate fingerless gloves with the homeless?

But wait – what of that idea? Could the idea of "fingerless gloves" be used to say the old couples are not only old couples but homeless (or at least low-income) couples? That is an interesting thought, and there is some energy toward that to be found in the final phrase: "and the quietly lodged complaints." But I think that's where it ends. There is no hint of the idea in the phrase that brings the idea of people into the poem:

like old couples arm in arm
on icy sidewalks, careful,

careful, mildly surprised

I cannot read that as not anchoring the metaphor in the age of the couples to the exclusion of anything else. Let's make a more direct consideration of the value of the digression:

The wind tips them, their

ungainly, light-brown weight,
into a wobble,

necks slightly tucked and stiff,
peering forward and down,

like old couples arm in arm
on icy sidewalks

Removing the two lines complete greatly tightens the flow of the poem (which is usually an improvement). There seems to me nothing gained to the energies of the whole of the poem by the lines; they are only clumsy digression, one that gets in the way of connecting the statement "into a wobble" with the development of the physical characteristics of that wobble: "necks slightly tucked and stiff, [etc.]," which in turn leads directly to "like old couples."

Those two lines, though they are rather direct description of the pelicans, are the place where the metaphoric linking of the pelicans and the old couples finds its sensuous energy. Notice how the idea points both forward and backward in the poem:

The wind tips the pelicans into a wobble,

necks slightly tucked and stiff,
peering forward and down,

like old couples arm in arm on icy sidewalks

It is an excellent construction. What I dislike about it is the word "like." But want to set that aside for the moment while I return to the sentence, and the final eight lines of the poem. I am going to visually restructure the poem to break separate it into its constituent ideas. Personally, I think "careful, careful" is unnecessary, and a break in the style of the poem in that it changes voice. Who is saying "careful, careful"? Why are they saying it? Is it the same voice that is saying "The wind tips them"? It is a subtle question, so I leave it to you to answer it for yourself. (Again, the context defines the answer. To me its hinting at catastrophe clashes with the slightly humorous sound of "mildly surprised.") Seeing no other need to the words as regards my point, I will leave them out.

like old couples arm in arm on icy sidewalks, mildly surprised by how difficult it has become to stay dignified and keep moving

even after the yelping gulls have gone;

even after the scattered sand,

and the quietly lodged complaints.

I am not one hundred percent sure what to do with scattered sand. It is possible there is something that boardwalks or docks do with sand that directly involves pelicans. More likely, though, the scattered sand exists to give traction to patches of ice, and lacking reason to think elsewise, that is how I read it.[FN] But, irrespective of the meaning, or, more so, whatever the meaning may be, how does the phrase relate to "mildly surprised by how difficult it has become to stay dignified and keep moving"?

[FN] There is no problem if there is, indeed, with boardwalks or dock communities, a habit of scattering sand that has something to do with pelicans. To say there is a problem with including such in a poem is to say that no one is allowed to make any references in a poem that ninety percent of the possible readers will not immediately get, which is ridiculous. (Though, if such were in a collection, as a reader I think it is fair to want a footnote or endnote explaining the line. Inquiring minds want to know, and what.)

Pay attention to the idea surprised at how difficult it has become and how it relates to the three phrases offered in explication:

surprised at how difficult it has become even after the yelping gulls have gone;

surprised at how difficult it has become even after the scattered sand

surprised at how difficult it has become even after the quietly lodged complaints

Taking them one at a time:

Even after the yelping gulls: fits very well, because one can see that – if we take the poem from the people-side – dignity is a much easier task when you are not in the midst of noise and motion of the crowds of a boardwalk in the summer. As such, there is indeed a little humor in that with such an obstacle removed the old couples still find difficulty in staying dignified.

Even after the scattering of the sand: again, if it is sand spread out against the ice, then it is something done to aid walking, to aid against the ice, so something that would fit the humor that, even with the removal of a wintry obstacle, there is still difficulty maintaining dignity. Except: it has already been stated that one of the reasons it is difficult to maintain dignity is because they are walking on ice. Do you see how the confusion between have the source of difficulty being the wind or the ice comes back into play? There has been created yet another conflict in the ideation.

Even after the quietly lodged complaints: this one is a complete reversal of the sentence. The poem goes for a zinger last line, but does not recognize that that last line does not fit the syntax of the sentence as a whole. The syntax is "surprised how difficult it has become despite an event that one would think would make things easier." How do "quietly lodged complaints" make things easier? They do not. The phrase makes the sentence that contains it syntactically nonsensical. Which, once pointed out, should be so obvious it needs no further comment as concerns the issue. (It is as blunt an issue as pointing out a stray comma.)

Besides, I would much rather move on to that "like" that I dislike so very much.

As I hinted at in passing a few posts ago, there is something about similes in their common usage that I do not like. To me, most of the time, when similes are used, they are revealing a laziness on the part of the writer. It is an easy construction that too often serves as ersatz phrasing for something much stronger if albeit more difficult to execute. That is not universal; and, what I am exploring in my own reading is where it is that similes are best used as similes. That is, in what poetic constructions do similes work best. It is entirely but a question right now. Perhaps one day I will have enough observational evidence to speak upon it.

Here, however, I believe that that "like" speaks – if not creates – the general weakness of the structure of the poem. For the structure of the core ideas of the poem is one that relies upon a simile. But what if we kill the simile – and with it much of the phrases called into question above – and go for direct metaphor?

The simile is set by that opening phrase, "One can't help admiring." To me any such phrase carries its own neon sign that says "I have no real purpose in this poem." It should be obvious: it leads off with that "one"; but, that "one" has no life in the poem once that first sentence is over. By using such a construction, you are establishing a context of: "being viewed by an indefinite but nonetheless present observer." You have put a person into the text, and that person deserves to be present throughout the text. When that person serves no real purpose in the text, such phrasing speaks to me of lazy or unsophisticated writing. It is the kind of thing that a poet may write to get the energies going in a draft, but cuts out once those energies are in motion. And that "one" should have been cut out of this poem, because it is, in the end, irrelevant to (if not distraction from) the central energies of the poem.

So, let me try a condensing of the poem. I am going to bring the title into the poem. I will also leave the text, at this start, as prose. Because of that I am leaving in the "like."

The rickety grace of pelicans in December, passing in silent pairs, the wind tipping their ungainly, light-brown weight; necks slightly tucked and stiff, peering forward and down; like old couples arm in arm on icy sidewalks, mildly surprised by how difficult it has become to stay dignified and keep moving even after the yelping gulls have gone.

What is the central energy of that text? To me there are two energic clusters: (1) the motion between "pelicans" and "old people" through the physical description (as described above); and (2) the phrase "mildly surprised how difficult it has become." That is what we want to anchor the structure of the poem. And, I want to get rid of that hobbling "like." Plus, using line breaks as part of the structure of the poem (rather than as arbitrary breaks) will permit eliminating some of the smaller words that serve mostly grammatical purposes. So let me try this:

The rickety grace of pelicans in December —
passing in silent pairs
     winds tipping them,
     their ungainly, light-brown weight wobbly.

     Necks slightly tucked,
     stiffly peering forward and down.

Old couples arm in arm on icy sidewalks —
mildly surprised by how difficult it has become
     to stay dignified
     to keep moving
even after the yelping gulls have gone.

I could even go further and increase the metaphoricity, lessening the division between the first and the third stanza:

The rickety grace of pelicans in December —
passing in silent pairs,
winds tipping them,
their ungainly, light-brown weight wobbly;
necks slightly tucked,
stiffly peering forward and down;
old couples arm in arm on icy sidewalks
mildly surprised by how difficult it has become
     to stay dignified
     to keep moving
even after the yelping gulls have gone.

They are different poems from the original poem, yes. So I want to limit my comparison only to what I discussed above: how much of the original poem either had no connection to the poem as a whole except to the single knot that tied it to its place along the string? How much of the original poem created ideational conflicts or confusions in the poem. While they might have been creating description, etc., they were not aiding what is the center of the poem: the wonderful, metaphoric comparison of pelicans and old couples in winter. (More and more I love that "even after the yelping gulls have gone" line.) In my attempt, I tried to let the central energies of the poem decide what belongs and what does not belong and prompt possible means of structuring. Do I see weaknesses in my go at it? Yes, of course; and, I leave them there on purpose. Because what will be most beneficial is not the substitution of my version for the original, but your comparing of the two, and what you might learn from that comparison for yourself, out of your own reading and structuring of the poems.

Though, perhaps, I have succeeded also in giving demonstration to that quality that is so common in pop poetry: the use of description, simile, metaphor, etc. as though that in itself was being "poetic"; when, under examination, too often the "expanding" of the core idea does not actually develop the core idea, which is what makes for sophisticated poetry writing. Anyone can string modifiers along a line; but can you use them to develop the energies of the heart of your poem?

Perhaps, also, if I may move deeper into the culture of pop poetry: might this be evidence – and but evidence, not proof – of how the contemporary culture of poetry has a tendency to focus on what a poem is about loosely, ignoring the actual execution of the poem? After all, the core idea here is a good one. But the execution of making of a poem out of that idea leaves much to be desired. The poem is not its core idea: it is itself in its own being, in both its ideational and material aspects. Poor structuring, poor control, poor execution, makes for a poor poem, however brilliant the core idea. Indeed, such writing dismantles and debilitates that core idea.


You might have noticed the oddity of the apostrophe in "wings'-end fingers." Only it is not an oddity; I see it is poor grammar – which is not to say it is "against the rules," it is to say it is bad structuring. There is no need for the apostrophe. The hyphen does all the wanted work. Alternately, the apostrophe does the work of the hyphen. It is one or the other, not both. Though, here, only one avoids ambiguity.

wing's end fingers

With the apostrophe coming at the start of a three-word noun phrase, it points the phrase to be read as having a two-word noun:

wings' [end fingers]

That also creates the strangeness of what an "end finger" might be. (I can see the phrase being used in passing to make strange an alien in an sf work. "Wait. What? What did that just say? 'End finger'?") That is the very reason you use the hyphen:

wings-end fingers

There is no need for the apostrophe and it should be left out. The hyphen does the work of making "wings" a modifier of "end." (Not to mention, it is easier to say. Which in itself makes me wonder why the apostrophe was left there.) You could also write it as

wing-end fingers

which, grammatically, might be more to the norm; after all, it is "fingers" that wants to carry the plural, and that plural will extend to the wings themselves. (You say "reach out with my finger-tips" and not "reach out with my fingers-tips" even though there are both multiple fingers and multiple tips, no?) Aurally, I think I prefer "wings-end." Actually, I'm flipping and flopping on it. It would take a little baking for me to see if the ideationally superfluous 's' could stand.

(Which all goes to show, very often the most productive path to figuring out a syntax or grammar issue is to compare your text to other examples.)


As a humourous, final remark, I had to run a find/replace on the above to correct every time I used "penguin" instead of "pelican."

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