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A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

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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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review: Poetry Magazine (Oct. 2015) – Part III: Corey Mesner, Katie Peterson, Rae Armantrout

The October 2015 issue of Poetry Magazine can be found here.

links to individual texts:
Corey Mesler, "Let the Light Stand"
Katie Peterson, "Autobiographical Fragment"
Katie Peterson, "A Citizen"
Rae Armantrout, "Asymmetries"
— headers to the sections are also links to the texts


the other posts in this series


 

pop-poetic convention and clothesline verse

– some editing Apr. 3, 2016

 

In this post, part three of the survey of the October 2015 Poetry, I will examine four works that all are written in the same pop-poetic convention. I will start with what comes next in the Table of Contents, Corey Mesler's "Let the Light Stand." After, I will reach ahead but a touch and bring in the two works by Katie Peterson, "Autobiographical Fragment" and "A Citizen." Then, I will back up to the passed over Rae Armantrout and pick up the first of her three contributions, "Asymmetries," which varies enough from the norm to offer an interesting fourth example. The other two works by Armantrout will be taken up in the next post. Since I will look at the texts one at a time, I will use headers to mark the beginning of each examination.

 

"Let the Light Stand"

Corey Mesler's "Let the Light Stand" is written to a convention frequently seen in contemporary verse, something I call "clothesline" verse. All four works examined in this post are written to this convention to one degree or another.

Clothesline verse is verse that reads as though the various phrases, clauses, and sentences of the text were merely pinned to a line, with little more connecting them into a whole beyond that they are strung one after the other in the same text, in an order that often seems to have no more consideration than perhaps the casual impulse of grouping together the socks presently exposed on the top of the pile of wet laundry. Such texts are usually still based on the same linearity as is most unsophisticated verse. They derive their "cleverness" by removing to one degree or another the narrative thens: instead of the text running "A then B then C etc.", the reader gets only "A B C etc." with the ostensible belief that the line upon which the A, B, and C are strung will emerge as some kind of connecting subtext or implied content. Usually, however, the only implied, connecting thread is that the text follows the very commonly seen convention. Which is the nature of convention: success lies not in the text and its ideation, but only in that the text follows the convention, which is to say the text merely mimics the properties of all the texts previously written to that same convention. Sometimes other means of connection (than narrative thens) link together the parts of the text: aural, logical, grammatical, ideational, etc. Usually, however, the result is the same: the text remains little more than a string of moments that fail to make up – except for through the appeal to convention – a whole.

Defense of such works, when I have seen non-trivial defenses, are usually based in appeals to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E or such writers; though, that defense tends to end at that appeal. When it does go farther, the argument usually seeks legitimacy through critical works such as Ron Silliman's "The New Sentence": an essay that is most telling in how it struggles to stay continually focused on the moment of the "new sentence" while avoiding entirely any confrontation with the resulting work as a whole.[FN] Clothesline verse these days, however, rarely show any of the considered experimentation of the verse Silliman was exploring, and are wholly and entirely the repetition of the repetitions of the convention. That full cloth appeal to convention as a measure of value is why such works tend to fail as verse in every way except in their performance of the convention; which, in turn, is why they tend to come off, if one but look past the convention and actually read the text, as ideationally empty, often as poorly composed language, and usually as badly constructed verse.

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[FN] In the same vein, see also my post on this blog on Lyn Hejinian's My Life.
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Before any other consideration, let's take a moment, this being the first text, to look at line breaks. Ask: Is there any justification for the line breaks in "Let the Light Stand"? Given the breaking of the first five lines,

Let the light stand for nothing
but illumination. Let
the naked man and woman
out for air. Let the curtain hide
only another side of the
curtain.

I do not believe you could find any rationale behind the construction beyond that of "I like it that way," which is not a rationale at all. The "Let" in line two is enough on its own to create doubt as to the depth of consideration within line breaks. This work seems entirely but a text with narrow margins: itself nothing more than a pop-poetic convention. Indeed, that "Let" would be an immediate clue for me as to the nature and quality of the work as a whole. But, I need not even go that far. The first sentence

Let the light stand for nothing but illumination.

is ample warning of what is to come, if you can but recognize the pop-poetic nature of it.

Since line breaks and lines are of no real consideration within the text, let me restructure the poem in a more natural manner, as a list of statements. Read it once this way, not as printed.

Let the light stand for nothing but illumination.
Let the naked man and woman out for air.
Let the curtain hide only another side of the curtain.
Let the food consumed be consummated.
Let the consommé be a dish.
Let the dish into the bedroom because she is there for the cat.
Let the cat be cool as Miles.
Let it all happen again if you can.
Let it happen again if you can.
Let the first word spoken during intercourse be the only definition you require.
Let need be need.
Let love be need also, if need be.
And let it all happen again because it can.

There is a rhythmic melodicism to the statements. The stress count of the first four are 7,6,7,5: a construction in the nature of the various derivations of ballad rhythm. Listen to the rhythm of the lines this way:

DAH ba DAH ba DAH | ba DAH ba DAH ba DAH ba DAH
DAH ba DAH ba DAH | ba DAH ba DAH ba DAH
DAH ba DAH ba DAH | ba DAH ba DAH ba DAH ba DAH
DAH ba DAH ba DAH ba DAH ba DAH

LET the LIGHT STAND | for NOthing BUT ilLUMiNAtion.
LET the NAked MAN | and WOman OUT for AIR.
LET the CURtain HIDE | ONly aNOther SIDE of the CURtain.
LET the FOOD conSUMED be CONsumMATed.

(Granted, the third line is a clunky, whether it's meant to be counted stresses or not.) Here's the question: why hide this behind arbitrary line breaks? Short lines and arbitrary breaks hide the bad in contemporary verse as I often point out; but, they also hide the good. What possibly is gained by breaking that up into lines so short and random that the lines work against the rhythms? It is presumptuous to offer an answer, but it is, most likely, "because that's what poems look like today." That is: that is the convention.

Again, the answer is not that makes for good verse, but that is the convention.

The whole of the text has a noticeable aural form. There are aural clumsinesses here and there, yes. I find it unfortunate that Mesler did not pay more attention to the flow. Rhythmically, the lines set up for a potentially aurally pleasing read.

However, thin-columned text primarily serves to hide flaws. And, here, the flaws are many. I will walk through the statements.

Let the light stand for nothing but illumination.

That's a fairly trite construction, the stating of "let A stand for A" using two different words. It's an unfortunate start to the poem.

Let the naked man and woman out for air.

This line has potential, without changing a word. Only, nothing is done with it. Instead, we simply move to the next statement in line.

Let the curtain hide only another side of the curtain.

"Another"? That would mean there are more than two sides to the curtain. It should be "the other." Question: can this statement be connected to the other two? Not that I can see. The man and woman are outside: the curtain is an entirely new thought.

Let the food consumed be consummated.

Another new thought, that presents really nothing more than a dead pun. One which is followed by another.

Let the consommé be a dish.

There is a "play on words" going on here, yes. But it goes no where. It's dead. It's a lame joke. Even the three words being played on offer nothing to the work as a whole. Indeed, they create silliness. Compare:

Let the food consumed be consummated.
Let the food be consummated.

The text is saying "let the food that has already been eaten be consummated": the chosen use of the adjective narrows the subject from the broader "food" to the more specific "consumed food." Which is, to be honest, kind of gross once you start thinking about it. And with

Let the consommé be a dish.

we have again "Let A be A." There is no appeal to thought on behalf of the reader, there is only appeal to the conventions of pop poetics.

Let the dish into the bedroom because she is there for the cat.

That's a really bad pun.

Let the cat be cool as Miles.

And that's as trite as can be had.

Let it all happen again if you can.

And now we have a move to the abstract, which is a pop-poetic, conventional cue that the text is moving into its faux-philosophical conclusion. It's good that it arrives here, because it feels like after the last line the text had no where to go and no creative energies to get there even if it had somewhere to go.

Let it happen again if you can.

Pointless repetition in an effort to look clever. Note, when examining the text from the aspect of aural properties, above, the repetition works to benefit within the rhythms of the flow of the entire text. But, ideationally, following a series of silly or trite lines, the repetition falls flat, like the suspense-marking gesturing of the inept assistant of a bad magician. Repetition as such is usually used to create emphasis, but what emphasis can be placed on something trite, something that has been seen a thousand times before?

Let the first word spoken during intercourse be the only definition you require.

"Intercourse": another cue to the faux-philosophical ending (and another bad pun with "course"/"dish"). This sentence is so pop-poetic it reeks of its own shallowness. This alone would have been enough for me to reject this work for publication.

Let need be need.

Hopefully you see how this says nothing. There's nothing established thus far to give this meaning beyond the absolutely banal statement of identity: "The cat is a cat."

Let love be need also, if need be.

Creating the faux-philosophical moment by contradicting what has just been said, coupled with another trite moment, the ", if need be."

And let it all happen again because it can.

No worries, in that this is entirely a convention driven text, it will definitely happen again, because it can.

Hopefully this shows the nature of clothesline verse. The sentences do not build on each other. Yes, perhaps associations can be made between sentences near to each other, but they exist only for that moment. Is there anything in the punning of consumed/consummated/consommé that moves beyond that moment in the text? Can you see how the flaws and vapidity created by the punning emphasize that it never was intended for anything to move beyond that moment in the text?

Clothesline verse simply strings together sentences, and then appeals to the reader's familiarity with clothesline verse within pop poetry culture and its performance of the conventions for the reader to consider it a successful text. The hope is for this:

"Oh, look, Margaret! It's doing that thing what where the sentences come in that way."

"Oh, how very clever of it, John."

"Truly it is, Margaret."

"It must be clever poetry then, John."

"That is how clever poetry is made these days, Margaret."

"Very clever, indeed, John."

Except it's not.

And be sure you understand: that is the purpose of conventions. It saves the reader from having to think about the text itself. The reader sees the convention; the reader recognizes the convention; the reader need not expend any more energy. [Or, in context of this series of posts: the editor sees the convention, the editor recognizes the convention, the editor need not expend any more energy.] Conventions function through and more importantly permit passive reading: a conventional text does not want you to read closely. It only wants you to see the surface.

A moment of clarification as regards the central thesis: situation here is not merely that this is an ideationally dead text (though, it's energy levels are near flat-line). This is poorly written verse. First in that the lines are broken up entirely against the play of their sound, to no apparent purpose whatsoever outside of achieving a two-inch column. Second in that the sentences themselves are mostly appeals to convention, are merely mimicking, are not given enough attention to escape being bad verse. There is very little demonstrated control as to word choice. To all appearances, this text took ten minutes to write, which never makes for something publishable. And if a text looks like it took ten minutes to write, editorially speaking, does it matter how long it actually took?

Why then is this in Poetry? Because it reads like and looks like contemporary pop poetry. I would be surprised if the editors gave any deeper thought to the text beyond the very recognizable surface details: thin column of text, check; follows some conventional form, here clothesline poem, check; has some "poetic" hooks, here the anaphoric "Let" and some punning, check; has a faux-philosophical ending, check.

Let's quickly go to our next text, jumping ahead in the table of contents to Katie Peterson's "Autobiographical Fragment."

 

"Autobiographical Fragment"

When the first line ends with "every" flapping about in the breeze it's already fairly certain the line breaks are going to be mostly arbitrary. I say "mostly" because the final line is performance of a pop-poetic convention: a brief final line that visually marks the the faux-philosophical ending. To me it feels like the lines were under the rule of "don't let a line end with a period" – except, again, for setting up the closing, faux philosophical statement. See if you can find reason for where the lines are broken. Ask this question: are any of these lines written, or are they only broken off? The two lines that might be said to be written are the last two. And, if the text were written with attention to writing lines, it would be very possible that the last two lines would still be the same. Would they then be governed by the same, pop-poetic conventionality? Possibly. That the text closes with the faux-philosophical statement rather pushes the line construction toward conventionality. But in a differently written text the lines themselves might not look so conventionally broken because all the lines preceding would be justified in their own construction. When the first seven lines of the text as written seem a brief paragraph arbitrarily broken up, it is difficult to read the last two lines as having been written and not broken. However, if the lines demonstration thoughtful consideration in their construction, that weakness in the last two lines would probably not be nearly as visible.

This text is another piece of clothesline verse, though the length of the sentences may work some to conceal it. If, however, you trim down the sentences, it becomes a bit more evident.

In those days I began to see light under every basket
Light came through the rafters of the dairy
Understand I was the one underneath the basket
I was certain I had nothing to say
When I grew restless in the interior, the exterior gave

Five statements – more if you include phrases within the sentences – strung along a line. Same basic convention; though, here, there is some attempt at bringing the sentences into an ideational whole. However, under examination, that whole appears rather frail.

Proceeding through the sentences/phrases,

In those days I began to see light under every bushel basket,

In what days? Time is never a element of text elsewhere.

light nearly splitting the sides of the bushel basket.

Notice the grammatical error: "every bushel basket" requires the plural "of the bushel baskets."[FN1] Then there is the clumsy (and unnecessary) repetition of the complete phrase, "bushel basket." There is also a semantic issue: if the light is "nearly splitting the sides" of the baskets, then should not the light be in the baskets and not under them? It is worth noting how the text is forcing the visual: normally, if you were to picture in your head bushel baskets in a shed or barn, most likely you would picture them mouth up. But, because of that, if the text said "in the basket" and not "under," then you would have the visual idea of light sitting in the bottom of the bowls of the baskets. Which is fine with the idea of the light splitting the baskets, but does not at all work with the later "I was the one underneath the basket." They are flipped over. So the sentence here, at the start, tries to force the visual into the baskets being mouth down by using the inadequate "under." Why is "under" inadequate? Because if the light seems to have a materiality strong enough to "split the sides" of the baskets, wouldn't it not, if it were "under" the baskets, flip them over? knock them off? push them up into the air and away? Light does not carry the notion of body. Consider:

There was a cup.

The natural visualization of a cup is to visualize it mouth up, it's normal pose. Indeed, when you come across a description of a cupboard in prose, the writer will usually speak overtly if the cups are mouth down, and not speak anything at all if they are mouth up.

There was light under the cup.

The natural impulse is to imagine a cup with light coming out from under it. A light has no volume.

The mouse was under the cup.

Now the cup is upside down, because the volume of the mouse leads you to invert the cup. The point here is that the natural reading is to imagine baskets mouth up, as such,

In those days I began to see light under every bushel basket

reads naturally as the light under the cup. Rather than try to justify the line – which is to say, "well, it can be read this way, so it's ok" – ask instead why wasn't the line originally written to avoid the confusion.

In those days I began to see light under every, flipped, bushel basket, the light nearly splitting the sides.

Not that I'm saying that's a perfect solution (in a very problematic text-as-a-whole). It's far from it. But why leave the text where it is semantically clumsy? That's bad writing.[FN2]

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[FN1] It could be a typo on the part of Poetry. Though, considering what follows, there's not enough reason to expect it to be a typo.

[FN2] Indeed, sometimes it is not the resulting text that speaks of bad writing so much as the lack of attention that is evidenced by the problem present in the text.
**************************

The next sentence starts

Light came through the rafters of the dairy

which right off creates clashes in ideation. First the light was under the baskets, now the light is coming through the rafters. The normal reading of the phrase "comes through the rafters" is that of light from outside coming in. Better care with the wording was needed to fix the idea as being the same light as that under the basket – which I assume is the intended action. Only, even then, if the light was under the baskets, only "nearly" splitting the sides, how much, exactly, could get out and be seen shooting out through the rafters from the outside. And then, from the outside? How could it be seen from the outside if the narrator is under the basket? So then it is light coming down through the roof, which brings us back to the original issue of "light" coming from two places.

It's uncontrolled writing, and if it was written as prose

In those days I began to see light under every bushel basket, light nearly splitting the sides of the bushel basket. Light came through the rafters of the dairy

I think most any high school composition teacher would have marked it as poorly constructed and confusing.

The rest of the sentence gets no better.

Light came through the rafters of the dairy where the grackles congregated like well-taxed citizens untransfigured even by hope.

It's all over the place. Look how the focus of the sentence changes. It starts with the subject, "light," but then shifts to "dairy," which is doubly marked as important by the lack of the comma that makes the "where"-clause a restrictive clause, then "dairy" is supplanted by the idea of congregated grackles, which are in turn supplanted by the strained simile of "well-taxed citizens," which is then supplanted by the emotionally charged idea of "hope." What is the central focus of that sentence? Someone shoot that damn thing. It is un-defendable, uncontrolled, bad writing, nothing more. The clothesline nature of the piece as a whole is demonstrated in microcosmos through the strung along phrases in that sentence.

Granted, having line breaks that have nothing to do with the rhythms of the sentences or phrases does go far to concealing the running-all-over character of the sentence. Though, I am never sure: in such texts, do the line breaks work to conceal the uncontrolled writing from the reader? or did they work even to conceal the uncontrolled writing from the writer as well? Or is it, simply, bad writing through and through? That the questions can even be asked makes me wonder how this got past any editorial board.

The end of that sentence bothers me. Should there be a comma after "untransfigured"? Does the phrase "unstransfigured even by hope" even make sense? If I remove "even" I get

untransfigured by hope

which means hope was the cause of the unstransfiguring, no? So then wouldn't

untransfigured even by hope

be saying that many things 'untransfigured' the citizens, including even hope? I believe the phrase should be written

untransfigured, even for hope

Notice again that what was not written is as important in understanding the quality of the text as what was written.

Continuing:

Understand I was the one underneath the basket.

Notice that the phrase "I was the one" is misused in context. The construction implies that the reader (or the listener of the narration) was somehow already assuming that there was someone "underneath the basket," and the text is now revealing who it was. The statement would be acting clarifying from the unknown to the known. Only, we've already been told (1) that it was light under the basket, and (2) it seemed as though the light was splitting the sides of the basket, and (3) there was light coming in through (or out through) the roof, all three of which position the narrator outside the basket. As such, "I was the one" is flatly an error in writing. But this is clothesline verse: the effort is merely to string statements along a line; there is no effort toward the whole. You are as a reader not sopposed to think the text beyond the single statement (and whatever trivial connections exist with adjacent statements). So it should not be surprising when the next statement seems as abrupt in appearance:

I was certain I had nothing to say.

Was I expecting that the "I" should have had something to say? And, we again get that abstract cue to the coming, faux-philosophical, closing statement.

When I grew restless in the interior,
the exterior gave.

It could not have ended more characteristically of pop-poetic conventionality.

But, again, this is not merely conventional. This is poor writing. Writing that speaks not only of a lack of verbal sophistication, but of a complete lack of attention to what is being put on the page. (Again, if the writing reads as though written by someone with no writing sophistication, does it matter what sophistication does exist?) But, within the demands of pop poetry: arbitrarily broken lines mostly measured to length, check; follows some convention (clothesline verse), check; has some pop-poetic hooks (the aspect of self-referentiality, the sudden, quirky appearance of the 'I' in the scene, and the stock idea of "citizenry without hope"), check; has a faux-philosophical ending, check. Publishable.

A couple of quick notes before moving to the third text.

(1) The title of the poem includes the word "fragment." This does not excuse the bad writing. Though, it permits a bit of 'openness' in the text. For example, the opening phrase of "in those days" could remain an open, unexplained idea (if in a better written text). For me, "fragments" are most interesting when they speak that in their life, in their time of being pondered by their writer, they offered to the writer of the possibility of something greater. Only, that something greater never panned out (or was never pursued). To be an interesting fragment, it should speak of that never realized greater whole (whether it existed or not) while at the same time having some degree of identity to itself. None of this applies to "Autobiographical Fragment" because the text is so poorly written and disconnected it barely constitutes anything. Indeed, is there any reason to think this text a "fragment"? Is there anything substantially different between "Autobiographical Fragment" and "Let the Light Stand"? Now, the potentially damaging question: can you see how, once that thought occurs, the presence of "Fragment" in the title comes off as a weak attempt to explain away the weakness in the text? or, alternatively, as an attempt at a pop-poetic hook?

(2) If you had read the table of contents of the Poetry issue before coming to this text, you might have been struck by the appearance of the word "grackle": the last two works in the issue include "grackle" in their title. Indeed, "grackle" will appear at least one more time in the verse to come.

Now, I don't believe I would consider grackle a commonly used word in verse in the U.S. So let me ask this question: what do you think the odds are that the submissions for a single issue of a literary journal would include quality works by three different writers all using that same word? The coincidence would be so remarkable that if I were an editor I would consider not publishing the works together simply to avoid false implications. Let me ask another question: what does it say about a journal when the editors consider the use of the word grackle as substantial if not clever reason for including a not-at-all-well-written work – I use the singular because we have not yet gotten to the other "grackle" texts – in their issue? Am I too far off base when there comes to my head the idea of children editing a visual arts journal and going "ooh, let's pick pictures with cats in them!"?

 

"A Citizen"

The second work by Peterson, "A Citizen," has a greater connectivity between its ideas than the two previous works, but is nonetheless written out of the clothesline verse mold. In seeing how the work is clothesline, it may also be seen how such verse is derived from the defining tendency of unsophisticated writing to attend to the moment and not to the whole. Consider this sentence from mid-way through the work:

My own state has a bear, so small and out of proportion to me that my life-line can cross behind it.

First, it is already stated that these are coins, so there is nothing new being presented:

The coin is so small my life-line can cross behind it.

Is there a coin so large that would not be possible? (Keep in mind that there is nothing with idea of a "life-line" that extends to earlier or later in the text.) The sentence asks the reader to ignore – or forget – the idea that was presented at the beginning of the work.

The government makes coins that size and shape so your hand can feel safe holding them.

Or, the correct diagnosis, the text itself has already forgotten what was presented at the start.

Even within the sentence itself we can see something of the clothesline nature of the statement. "Small," "out of proportion," and "my life-line can cross behind it" are repetitive.

My own state has a small bear.
My own state has a bear out of proportion to me.
My own state has a bear my life-line can cross behind.

They are strung together in order to give the sentence weight, even if only the weight of length. There is nothing here that gives the statement ideational strength within itself. It is empty, pointless; it exists to be stated but not read. Though, through the strung out wording and the albeit trivial appeal to the self and to metaphysical ideation through the use of "life-line," the statement makes effort to perform its own importance. It is a single item, built not to be exist in the weaving of an organic text, but to exist on its own, to hang from a clothesline.

The following sentences make pretense of connectivity, but it ends up little more than gesture. I repeat the above sentence to lead in:

My own state has a bear, so small and out of proportion to me that my life-line can cross behind it.
At last I do not fear that but feel proud the animal can sit in my palm so silently until I spend it.
And if I lose it, then it becomes even more quiet.

(A comma is needed after "last": removing grammar is not clever poetics if it makes the text unnecessarily more difficult to read.) Does "at last" have any valid reason to exist? or is it another incorrectly used adverbial phrase?[FN] "I do not fear that": fear what? Fear that the coin is smaller than the lifeline? which is to say fear that a coin is the size of a coin? Is there any source for fear in the sentences leading in that would justify the "At last, I do not . . . but" construction? The narrator feels proud that a coin sits silently? I cannot come up with any sensible meaning for that except that it is the kind of statement that one sees in pop poetry and this sentence is duplicating the construction. And it does it poorly – that is, poorly in terms of English not in terms of pop-poetic convention – as by the time "unless" arrives the sentence is semantically out of control. Again, the sentence shows neither attention to nor relation with what surrounds it. It was written simply to exist, with but minimal connection: the supporting, pragmatic clothesline.

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[FN] See the previous post in this series.
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And then there is the last sentence of the three, which is so silly as to be unjustifiable. That sentence alone should have removed the text from possibility of publication. Though, even before that,

On that, a diamond shines like a child's stilled top over a bird, as if the diamond made the natural world – bird, forest, state flower, sheaf of healthy corn, shining water – out of proportion in relation to itself.

That atrocity to English on its own should have brought about summary rejection. Once again we have bad prose – indefensible prose – hidden by line breaks.

As said at the start, it may be a little more difficult to see the clothesline nature of this text because the elements strung on the line can be larger than single sentences. But if we break up the text, the clothesline nature, the independent-statement nature of the text is quite apparent:

I wanted to be seen.
But who would see me?

I couldn't think of the name for anything but a flower.

The government makes coins that size and shape so your hand can feel safe holding them.

The pictures stamped remind us where we are, or how the landscape we live in connects itself, through common value, to a different place.

On this one, a spinnaker sails past a bridge.
On that, a diamond shines like a child's stilled top over a bird, as if the diamond made the natural world – bird, forest, state flower, sheaf of healthy corn, shining water – out of proportion in relation to itself.

I love this.

My own state has a bear, so small and out of proportion to me that my life-line can cross behind it.

At last I do not fear that but feel proud the animal can sit in my palm so silently until I spend it.

And if I lose it, then it becomes even more quiet.

Most still just have an eagle, so it is as if 30 eagles were passed over from one hand to another when the one charged with arranging things for his Savior's dinner arranged his Savior's death.

Heavier the yoke of heat in solitude.

A walk uphill does not feel manageable.

Who will see me?

It is the same kind of text as "Autobiographical Fragment" and "Let the Light Stand," merely with larger chunks.

Quickly as to the lines: That the sentence "I love this" is hidden within a line in itself should be demonstration enough that the lines were not written but broken. If the idea "I love this" was important enough to demand its own grammatical identity, then one would think that importance would also influence the crafting of the line which contained the phrase, whether the result was the phrase being isolated as a line to itself or not. Because it merely slides by as an entity on the string and has no influence whatsoever upon the construction of its containing lines is near definitive proof that the lines were not written but broken; and there is nothing in any of the lines around it that speaks to the contrary. The text is but prose broken arbitrarily into lines.

But, then, shall we? It has arbitrarily broken lines measured mostly to length. Check. It follows some pop-poetic convention: clothesline verse. Check. It has some pop-poetic hooks: opens and closes on same phrasing; John Hughes teen-age-angst-style statements ("But who would see me?"); stock social topicality ("government," "citizen," "my state"); stock religious reference. Check. Has a faux-philosophical ending. Check. And so it appears in Poetry Magazine.

 

"Asymmetries"

The clothesline nature of Rae Armantrout's "Asymmetries" can be seen in the repetitive, declarative nature of the sentences. The final sentence is a run-on, so I will break it at the "and":

I'm thinking about you . . .
I'm positive you aren't thinking about me . . .
I know and love the way . . .
But I don't know the man . . .
and I'm jealous of the attention . . .

Though, the clothesline aspect is somewhat hidden and even diminished a touch in that the text is only four sentences long (similar to "Autobiographical Fragment"). There's not much hanging from the line, so one can question whether it is indeed clothesline verse. The question to ask is whether the text finds legitimation through appeal to the clothesline convention or whether it seeks legitimation in itself.

Let's break down the sentences. (I think the previous three works serve enough that I don't need to speak to how the lines here also are broken and not written, how this is prose broken into lines. Though, it's worth noting that the lines decreasing in length in the manner they do is demonstration to the point. We've seen something of that convention already in "The Raising of Lazarus.")

I'm thinking about you and you're humming while cutting a piece of wood.

I'm positive you aren't thinking about me which is fine as long as you aren't thinking about yourself.

I know and love the way you inhabit this house and the occasions we mutually create.

But I don't know the man you picture when you see yourself walking around the world inside your head

and I'm jealous of the attention you pay that person whom I suspect of being devious.

The work is almost entirely abstract: indeed "while cutting wood" seems to exist only to give the text a moment of materiality. Without it, the work would be an example of the exact kind of text every creative writing teacher ever speaks against . . . . indeed, the exact kind of text that pretty much every major poet in the history of English verse speaks against at one point or another. But the question here is whether the text is appealing to the convention of clothesline verse for legitimation. We'll work backwards.

The central statement of the work is "and I'm jealous of the attention you pay that person." The phrase "whom I suspect of being devious" is something thrown into the mix at the last moment in performance of another pop-poetic convention. It is not until that last phrase that any thought at all is given to the person in the man's thoughts; the focus up until then is the man and his self-directed thinking. And that is the convention: a last second twist away from what has been the focus thus far written in the manner of a statement meant to evoke some psycho-emotional energy. Because of that "twist," however, because of the radical change in subject, such energy is never developed ahead of time; as such, there is no energy to be found, only an appeal through wording. It is, in miniature, what I call a "dead puppy" poem: a text about a dead puppy whose emotional energy is derived not from within itself but from an appeal that the reader will generally feel sad when someone talks about dead puppies.

So, dropping that added phrase, we have the core idea of: "I'm jealous of the attention you pay that person." The previous clause is

But I don't know the man you picture when you see yourself walking around the world inside your head

which uses a whole lot of words to say

But I don't know your imagined self

which is also to say it takes a very long to time to get to something mostly uninteresting, something which mostly serves as a set-up to the final clause. Simply:

I don't know your imagined self, and I'm jealous of the attention you pay that person.

The content is, still, only, the jealousy.

Now move back a sentence ("I know and love"). Its purpose is to set up the sentence that follows, the "but"-clause:

I know and love the way you inhabit this house and the occasions we mutually create. But I don't know the man in your head.

This sentence does work to the central theme of the text in that it speaks of the engagement between the narrator and the man in real-life, which sets up through contrast the jealousy of the attention paid to the imagined man. The drawback is that there is no materiality offered as to what real life with the man offers. There is only the contentually empty "I know and love." We'll hold that thought for the moment.

Step back another sentence:

I'm positive you aren't thinking about me which is fine as long as you aren't thinking about yourself.

which is a lot of words that really only restate the central idea: "I'm jealous of the attention you pay that person." It could be moved to the end of the text and have saved a lot of words on the page:

I'm jealous of the attention you pay that person, so don't think about him.

Which brings us to the opening sentence, which serves as scene setting to the entire piece.

I'm thinking about you and you're humming while cutting a piece of wood.

Though, "scene setting" gives the sentence more credit than it deserves. This is about as empty a stage as can be had. Cutting wood offers no ideational resonance with the rest of the poem outside of that the man is doing something that does not involve the woman. It is saying nothing more than "you are doing something without me," but throws in a material bone so the text does not come off as utterly and completely abstract. The opening phrase, "I'm thinking about you," is so purposeless it should just be discarded. Could not the scene-setting have been collapsed into a simple, opening phrase: "You are humming and cutting wood"?

Let's take what we've found and bring together all the rebuilding thus far. We start with the central idea

I'm jealous of the attention you pay that person.

and added to that the explanatory lead in from the previous clause.

I don't know your imagined self, and I'm jealous of the attention you pay that person.

We also added to the core idea the condensed phrase from second sentence, and bring it in here in the same place as we did above.

I don't know your imagined self, and I'm jealous of the attention you pay that person, so don't think about him.

The first sentence is scene setting. But one has to ask, outside of the attempt at creating a material scene, is there anything in

I'm thinking about you and you're humming while cutting a piece of wood.

that is necessary to the central theme? Obviously the narrator is thinking about the man or the jealousy idea could not exist. There is nothing about humming or cutting wood that adds any ideational energies to the text beyond the very basic idea of that the man is not thinking about the narrator. It comes off entirely as an attempt to avoid a wholly abstract text. The conclusion is that the first sentence is superfluous. Yes, it attempts to perform a scene setting, it attempts to get the text out of first gear. Only, the scene setting is trivial: nothing is done with it, as such, one has to ask if it needs exist. And the spatial function of narrator here/man there is not necessary to the central theme (or, it can be said, is already present in the central theme). So, the answer is no: there is not even the tiniest sense of the upcoming and central idea of jealousy in the opening sentence, which would normally be part of the purpose of scene setting: telling the reader the important things that need to be known at the start. If it doesn't go toward the whole, which ultimately means also toward the central idea, it's not important.

Keep in mind, that first sentence did not happen by accident: the words were chosen. If something were indeed done with the scene setting, if the idea were developed so, say, every material description of the scene in some way generated or pointed to energies of jealousy, then yes, the opening statement would have value, even if only that pragmatic value of first-line acceleration. However, as written, it does not. The text is an entirely abstract text outside of that quick and empty feint to materiality. Because of that, the text very easily condenses without loss to it's basic idea:

I don't know your imagined self, and I'm jealous of the attention you pay that person, so don't think about him.

This leaves only the third sentence to consider:

I know and love the way you inhabit this house and the occasions we mutually create.

As said, it does work toward the idea of jealousy by setting up a contrast. But, without any materiality, it is stating an empty contrast. As such, it is not establishing a contrast, and is only pointing out what would be obvious once the idea of jealousy comes around: if a person is jealous of B, then there must be an contrasting A (even if that A is 'nothing').

I am jealous of you for the dog you have.
I do not have a dog, but I am jealous of you for your dog.
I have a dog, but I am jealous of you for your dog.
I have a dog and I like it, but I am jealous of you for your dog.
I have a dog and I hate it, and I am jealous of your for your dog.

The only effect the third sentence has on the ideational development of the text as a whole is to clarify which situation applies: the fourth. Notice also the "but" that leads off the final sentence in the text works also to that end. Indeed, that "but" may be all that is needed to carry the whole of the substance of the third sentence into our condensed text:

I don't know your imagined self; but I'm jealous of the attention you pay that person, so don't think about him.

If we want to be really clear, we need merely add an internal phrase:

I don't know your imagined self; and I love our life together; but I'm jealous of the attention you pay that person, so don't think about him.

Which pretty much covers the content of the text as given. It is not paraphrase: it is removing all the empty words. It is also a fairly good demonstration of why every major poet in the history of English verse speaks against being too abstract in creative writing: because the abstract condenses into the basic ideas without all that much loss; indeed, usually without loss of anything necessary to the presentation of the idea. Would this be considered a good "poem" (however your broke up the lines)?

 
Asymmetries

I don't know your imagined self; and I love our life together; but I'm jealous of the attention you pay that person, so don't think about him.
 

It sounds like dialogue heard during a teaser for a Jane Seymour, Lifetime Movie Network feature. It's an interesting idea for a work of verse, yes. But can we say that the idea was given any real development in the text as found?

Which brings us back to the central question: Why then was the text written in the way it was? The likely answer: because it was written out of pop-poetic conventionality. It is a clothesline poem. It is written to look and read like a clothesline poem, and so written to look and read like pop-poetry.

And so we can close our look at "Asymmetries": free verse written with arbitrary line breaks? written out of pop-conventionality? has pop-poetic hook (the superadded last line)? has a faux-philosophical ending? Actually, here, it falls to a alternative convention: has dead-puppy appeal to emotionality? Check, check, check, and check. And so it is handed up the chain of the Poetry Magazine editorial staff. (Do they even read the works that come to their desks? Or do they just look at CVs and head shots?)

A final question to ask with "Asymmetries" is whether the text is bad or merely ideationally dead. It is an interesting question, though one whose exploration might be too subtle to stay within the bounds of this exploration. As far as verse goes, speaking of the material quality of the text, my answer is yes, it is bad. Any text that fails to write its lines, that merely breaks the lines, is a poorly written text. To me that is obvious. If a text was not paying attention to semantics (as with the previous two poems) or to grammar, it would be considered badly written. Why should that not apply also to the "verse" aspect of free verse? Considering the ideational aspects of the text, my answer is also yes, simply because it has to be one of the first things everyone who ventures into creative writing hears: you cannot let your texts be too abstract. The same warning applies even in essays: if the text is too abstract it loses its grounding and it becomes extremely difficult for the reader to follow with confidence (those last two words being very key words). It is a mark of poor writing. Indeed, it is a mark that the writer did not yet fully understand their subject. The same principle applies here. The decisions that lead to the execution of the writing of a text are part of the writing. If those decisions create a failed text, even if a clean text, then is it not bad writing?

Perhaps I am getting into unnecessary hair-splitting, so I will stop there.

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