I had never considered how spacing might affect a poem until this class: my creative writing teacher was not very experimental, and emphasized rhyme scheme and syllable count more than stretching the medium itself to any kind of new technique. I was enthralled at the use of spacing everyone in class used- almost none of the poems we work shopped had a conventional format.
I feel silly, never considering how the spacing itself would have a massive affect on the poem itself. My highschool class had always focused on the deeper meaning, not the format itself. “It has to mean something,” my old teacher said. Any kind of experimental format never entered the conversation, but he wouldn’t oppose it. I was aware of it, of course, but never used it.
I noticed, when I read the poems we work-shopped, how spacing and line breaks added emphasis that italics couldn’t. I noticed it adds real weight, real emphasis apart from each other. I’m ecstatic our class is so creative, experimenting with the format of a written poem more than just meter, rhyme scheme, or metaphor. Feels like an essential aspect we’ve found to mess with in poetry- stir up the old formula, mix it up and keep it from getting stale. I’m hyped to see how far we can push this.
This is only tangentially related to poetry, but I have nothing else interesting to say this week, so here we go. Joseph North has predicted the death of the liberal arts (including poetry) as we know it unless it becomes commercially viable. Let me elaborate.
In Literary Criticism; a Concise Political History, Joseph North opens with a startling truth. In the past forty years, literary studies have shifted entirely from critical to scholarly analysis. He says this is because of our slow shift to a free-market economy, and because base informs superstructure, (because our economy affects our culture,) we have fundamentally changed as a people to better suit the economic machine. This is why there’s been a massive pressure in recent years to shift to STEM careers instead of the humanities and the arts. Why our own arts program here at Geneseo was slashed only a few years ago. The arts and humanities as we know them aren’t easily profitable, so they’re not widely praised as important. (Remember the starving artist trope.) Literary studies has shifted from didactic revelation to more historical analysis; not a force to change culture, but one to churn out information and facts that can be more easily monetized in textbooks. I fear poetry may follow suit unless it finds a niche in consumer content. It may have already: Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey has found incredible commercial success in the past couple years, even landing a spot on the New York Times #1 Best-Selling list. If the base decides that, like Kaur’s work, poetry is commercially viable, then it will be kept around in future generations. If not, it may follow the path of our own art department. Non-existent.
Subtlety and mystery have always been tools I’ve been fascinated with. The best books I’ve ever read have always employed mystery as a tool to draw me in, and allude to a hazy web of implications and connections. What’s fascinated me about these is that, rather than enthrall the reader with detailed, multi-faceted characters, lush settings, or skilled prose, a skilled writer can capture the audience by not showing. It seems antithetical. We’re taught in workshops that we need to fill every aspect of our writing with detail. Why, then, does a lack of information become so enthralling?
I realized the answer when we work shopped Limbo Beach. The poem was an exercise in syntax, not mystery, but I had still been intentionally vague. I realized that simply leaving out detail wouldn’t have that same effect as mystery; it was too vague, too subtle, nobody knew what the hell was happening. I knew what it was about because I had that mental image in my head, and simply hadn’t explained it. That’s because mystery needs subtlety in final purpose and intention, not setting, detail, characterization, or basic premise. The end result of Limbo Beach was brief vignette that felt cut short, not compelling. Mystery should inspire awe and intrigue, not confusion. We’re hard wired to seek out everything we can’t know about, but if it looks like there’s nothing there in the first place, we won’t search for it. Time to edit.
Sound has always been at an arm’s length. Before this I only painted.
The fundamental gulf between art and sound is so deep that they are complete polar opposites in almost every way. Sound is flowing, formless, fleeting and transient. It moves on regardless of your processing of it. And then it’s over, gone. A painting is silent, unchanging, tangible, concrete.
I have never picked up an instrument, and you can tell from my poems. The syllables in a line are never the same, rhyme scheme is a fleeting hurdle. Meter and melopoeia are absent. I don’t know much about sound, and it shows.
Overbearing visuals and antiquated didactism are what I need to break away from as a crutch for lyricism. There is a delicate balance between these two gulfs, which we would just call good poetry. As much as I’d like to walk away from sound entirely, it’s difficult when poetry itself is rooted in spoken verse- and just an extension of language. Our idea of poetry, too, is inherently musical. The word itself conjures rhyme more than insight or epiphany. Language as a auditory medium will gravitate towards melody, the same way visual art gravitates towards what is pleasing to the eye. Turning away from sound for didact would contradict the medium.