Scattering the Pieces of an Image

One thing I struggle with in my poems is to have a sense of urgency to one image – or have an image that tells a story and gets across one very specific feeling. In a lot of the things I write, one specific image isn’t central even when I want it to be, or the wordiness of the rest of the poem overshadows the images themselves.

Something my friend and fellow poet Evan suggested during a workshop was to read David Roderick’s collection The Americans—and he specifically pointed out this short poem in the collection:

Dear Suburb,

Just once I’d like to come home
to find that you’ve scattered the pieces
of a saxophone all over my bed.

Looking at the pieces of the poem, it’s a bunch of different things – a letter to a suburb, a claim of frustration, the want for destruction, something about music, etc. But all together, in the one short stanza, it becomes something else entirely. I’ve been trying to emulate this kind of thing in my own poetry, but can never quite get it—I’m historically terrible at writing very short poems and being able to make them meaningful, but referencing Roderick’s writing has helped me start to assess the necessary pieces needed to make the images pop. What is it about those individual parts that, when read as one, make them transcend into a very specific emotion? Why the saxophone specifically? How would the image have changed if it had been a violin scattered on the bed? Did he stress about the kind of instrument for as long as I’ve thought about certain words in my poems?

This poem, like the ones I’ve been struggling through in my writing, exists in a series of poems titled Dear Suburb, as well as in the collection itself, which has made me start to wonder if images change when presented alongside other poems. If we had read Pound’s Metro Station immediately after reading Whitman’s Song of Myself, would Pound’s image have become something different, or is the image such a perfect objective correlative that the feeling it represents remains the same regardless of the environment? Is that something we should strive for our images to be, something that can remain the same regardless of what happens around it?

I’ve been muddling through all of these questions in the past couple weeks (and months, even) as I’ve examined the central images in my poem, or the lack thereof. I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on whether it’s helpful to break the image down into pieces, or if our interpretations of image based poems change depending on their surroundings!

Verb Repository

 

This past week I’ve been thinking about two things, both related to words. The first is Pound’s defense of small words in poetry, and his argument that simple language can be effective language when handled correctly. The second thing was Richardson’s stance on using strong verbs, something I don’t think often enough about in my writing. For this reason, I decided to compile a list of short and (hopefully) image-provoking verbs to combine both these trains of thought.

Alert, attach, auction, babble, balk, barf, baste, bathe, bellow, bleach, blind, blot, bolt, burnish, cajole, caution, chide, clip, coast, coil, comb, counter, covet, crochet, croak, cycle, dam, deal, decay, desert, deter, dial, dive, drill, drone, dupe, dust, dye, earn, elope, emit, expel, extol, face, falter, fasten, fax, fence, file, fire, floss, flower, fret, fry, fume, gag, gather, gild, glue, grease, grow, growl, grunt, gurgle, gush, hammer, harness, heap, hoot, hover, hum, hurry, ice, inflate, infuse, inspect, irritate, iron, itch, jab, jeer, jest, kid, knell, knit, knock, knot, laminate, last, level, lick, list, loan, linger, lisp, mail, mar, mend, meow, mix, mop, mutter, nag, nail, nap, nest, ogle, oil, paddle, paint, paste, pause, peck, pelt, pester, phone, plant, pry, quilt, retire, rock, sack, sail, savor, scrape, seal, shriek, shrug, singe, ski, slink, slow, smoke, snarl sneeze, snicker, snore, sow, spark, squirt, stammer, stamp, strain, strum, sway, swoop, tame, tear, thaw, toast, tow, trim, trounce, upstage, usurp, vacuum, venture, vouch, wallow, wash, weave, wink, wrap, Xerox, yellow, zest, zero, zincify, zip, zone.

 

 

The Language of Poets and Philosophers

While reading the piece on image by Philip, I found myself thinking of something my German professor said on the first day of our 101 class a couple of years ago—That German is the language of poets and philosophers.

Philip discusses images behind individual words, but something he forgets to do, and something I see a lot of people within the English speaking world forget to do, is to look at the image/s brought up by the sentence as a whole. While languages such as German put strenuous rules on individual words (e.g. gendered nouns, various cases), English compensates for its lack of gender and cases by forming a very strict sentence structure: Noun, verb, preposition, possible second proposition, object—e.g. “he went to the store.”

German, on the other hand, has only one grammatical law: That the verb must be in the second place of the sentence, with the subject right beside it. So while in German it would be grammatically correct for me to say “The store went the man to,” English-speaking people would likely assume I’ve just had a stroke. In English, we put most of our emphasis on the subject—“the man went to the store.” While this more common in the German language, it is equally correct for me to put that same amount to emphasis on another part of the sentence—“the store went the man to.” The latter sentence forces the reader to look at the store first, thereby subtly altering the image behind the sentence in a way the English language simply cannot do, and thereby embracing a certain amount of creativity and meaning the English language lacks.

Learning About Yourself Through the Image

After class on Tuesday I began thinking about the comment one of our classmates made about my poem. Specifically the line “hands folded over bellyfolds.” She said that she interpreted it as a representation of self-consciousness, and that’s what I intended for it to be at the time I wrote the poem. It surprised me how such a direct image was interpreted as something more abstract by most of my classmates, when in fact I intended it to be exactly what it said. A girl with her hands folded over her stomach. Usually this position is taken in instances of discomfort or impatience, and I wonder if as poets we tend to think about a phrase so thoroughly that we forget its simpler meaning.

But what this comment sparked most of all were thoughts about how an image can teach me about myself. Because, yes I intended the image to be a representation of self-consciousness, but I had not thought about my intentions until my poem was being workshopped. And I would not have been able to put my intentions into the exact words our classmate did. Which means that even though subconsciously I was aware that the image represented self-consciousness, I was not consciously aware until someone pointed it out to me.

Which brings me to my main point about how the images we write in our poems, transcribed through a personal lens, are representative of ourselves. Why have I seen this image in this specific way? Why am I describing it with these words? What does this say about me, my mental/emotional state, my past, my present, and the life I have led? And finally, why is this image wanting to come out in my poem? What does my writing want to tell me about myself and the way I see the world? Our writing in general, knows us better than we know ourselves. Through it we are able to see ourselves and evaluate those things which we seem to deny or be blind to.

So this girl, with hands folded over belly folds is important because she reveals to me a part of myself I deny, that is a girl who is self-conscious and who feels the need to fight against that. And that’s part of why I love writing because through it I learn about myself and heal.

What kind of music do you make?

The reading for today’s class, Rachel Richardson’s “Learning Image and Description,” sparked a newfound interest in sound for me. I have always noticed that in order to make a poem resonate well with its audience, the sound and momentum of the words must be in sync with its message. This is something that I’ve always been in awe of when hearing poetry. At slam poetry shows, I would be so in tune with the poet’s emotions because of the way that the poem sounded (although of course much of this also lends itself to the fact that the poet is performing.) But even in a poem that is meant to be read, rather than performed (the latter is subjective), like Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird,” we can hear sounds as a bird takes flight. The depth of what it means to be  caged bird is pronounced because of the way that the flutter and breeze in its flight create a melody.

I’ve been looking into how to improve this in my own poetry. I ask myself questions, “Must I be a musician to write poetry?” Rhythm isn’t something that I’ve ever been good at. Two left feet have haunted me my entire life. Only recently, enlightened by the culture of places I’ve been to, have I been able to properly whine, capturing the tick-tock of the reggae. Before I only imitated. How can I produce the same success in my writing?

Perhaps with some writers it is just natural. A sort of vomiting of utterances and emotions that fall upon the page in the form of a tune. Do you guys have any thoughts and advice? Richardson mentions that the images in poems work because of their music: “Do they make music together? A percussive rhythm, an alliterative lull, an onomatopoetic evocation?” But how can I better form these images through music?

Touch

Touch by John Godfrey

The gauntlet puts on weight

and I climb into its thumb

which balances and then teeters

and thuds against my nose

and I see stars forever having

forgot aspirations of diligence and method

whatever was the retreat in research

and pursuit in gravity of something

to do while resting in geological sleep

where to touch is to be felt by nothing

 

I think to understand “Touch” by John Godfrey, a reader should know a little bit about the daily life of this poet: an HIV clinician and nurse, Godfrey has seen much of his life through the perspective of his patients, which reflects strongly in his poetry.

Whether or not this piece is a direct commentary on working with HIV/AIDS patients, I think that this lens was probably influential in writing this poem that I believe says a lot about isolation and feelings of helplessness. In the first two stanzas, the dual usage of “gauntlet” adds an immediate heaviness to the poem, especially since the speaker must climb into it, losing his balance in the process. This is an image of isolation and desensitization, since the gauntlet is armor and a separation of people and their touch. The poem immediately and almost jarringly shifts from a micro to macro perspective in the third stanza with talk of the stars and what the speaker sees as both “forever” and “forgot”—these epitomal signs of hope are to the speaker also harbingers of forgotten methods and confusion. This confusion and listlessness is emphasized even further in the fourth stanza where research, a thing of “gravity”, is surrounded in the sphere of retreat and is in search of an elusive “something”, showing a lack of purpose. The gauntlet separates skin from skin and person from person, touch meaning nothing in this impersonal interaction. The phrase “geological sleep” for me echoes throughout the poem—a sleepiness and absence that is something reminiscent of hollow dreams, and through this phrase we really feel a sensory and emotional disconnect.