What Poems Ask of Us

One of the things that struck me this past week was our analysis of There but for fortune. I noticed that the poem itself was incredibly straightforward and blunt, but our analysis assumed that the poem was a multi-faceted metaphor, with layers of symbolism and multiple different meanings. There but fortune is different from the most of the poems we’ve looked at in the past- it tells events just as they happened, with little room for conjecture. 

That’s not surprising, our training as readers has always been to look for the deeper meaning. We have been taught to vivisect text under a microscope and pluck out what’s there. We expect everything to be a mystery wrapped in an enigma, unraveling layers of surrealist metaphors, and that’s justified, all the poems we’ve read have done that with few exceptions. Our poems have always asked us to solve them like puzzles. So I’m not surprised when we would confabulate when faced with something so straightforward, so blunt, so immediate transparent and bare, our only reaction can be “What am I missing here? What does it mean, and why can’t I see it?” 

Of course, none of the interpretations are wrong. There is zero objectivity in poetry. Sometimes, a poem is just asking us to bear witness to an event, an emotion, to glimpse something we have never experienced.

sung lyrics vs written poetry

I’ve been listening to a lot of music for inspiration, and I’ve been thinking about how poetry and song lyrics are tied together, yet so different. Rythym in poetry needs to be carried by the meter- the words themselves need to have a consistent pattern in emphasis and release that create a rhythm where there is none. Music does the same thing- but with an underlying beat and rhythm, the lyrics need to conform to the beat. 

A lot of pop songs, I’ve noticed, resort to simpler and repeating lyrics to do this. It’s difficult, to have a song that has no repeating lyrics and still conforms to the beat. It adds that extra layer of difficulty, and I’m blown away by artists that can pull it off and have their lyrics still sound good. But, the song has roughly four mins to kill, the artist might as well repeat the same word or phrase a couple times to emphasize the beat. You can see this, when you look at written song lyrics versus heard. There’s an incredible amount of repetition. 

A lot of experimental songs get around the incredibly difficult meter and rhyme scheme by using partial or internal rhymes, along with lyrics of a similar syllable count. R&B is interesting, in that it uses the same repetition as pop songs, but it gets around the meter constrictions by just changing inflection to fit the rhythm. Most electronic music forces the lyrics to fit to the beat by chopping them at the needed intervals. This is all generelization- each genre, artist, and even song will approach this problem differently. It’s impossible to narrow down each method without creating millions of sub-genres within sub-genres. 

The written word, however, gets around this by not having any beat to conform to, but presents unique opportunities as a visual medium. The words are the same- but the medium changes everything. You can’t use shape poetry in song, and it’s incredibly difficult to convey tone through written words without resorting to sheet music. 

[i have zero music experience so this is all very interesting]  

Shape Poetry

I was inspired to try out shape poetry when our class turned in poems with unconventional formats- I had always used the done-to-death format of a flat wall of text . The idea that words should reflect what they mean isn’t new at all, but I’ve never tried it before and I’m still spit-balling ideas even after writing Eye of Time. I was looking for inspiration during drafting, and came across the shape poetry of E. E. Cummings. I’m sure you all are familiar with his work: it’s plastered all over the web. Here’s “A Leaf Falls on Loneliness.” 

Image result for falling e e cummings

Here, Cummings uses a vertical line to denote the falling of leaves to the ground- as the the leaves fall, the words fall with them. It’s a beautifully simple poem that is also a profound turn away from the timeless  format. 

There are a lot of ways you could take more than just circles or vertical lines. Imagine, poems in the shape of an infinity symbol. Poems in fractal shapes, or even poems made from word clouds- like those ones you see in graphic design- to reflect chaos, disorder. I’ve seen a few word clouds that use shapes to convey a person or object- and the words in the cloud give them supplementary meaning while the shape itself gives the poem context- much like a title traditionally word. I think calling word clouds poetry is a stretch, but the format would lend itself incredibly easily to the workshop. What does bother me, though, are the examples of shape poetry I found while researching this that didn’t try to use the format to say anything. Shape poetry that just constructed the outline of a cat, or a boot, or whatever. They looked nice, sure, but I felt like the authors could have done more to stretch that incredible idea further. 

Y’all Should Read McCormack and Morrison

McCormack’s The Road and Morrison’s A Mercy are great inspiration for poetry, as well as great examples of affective prose that force the reader to take the same state of mind as the narrator. They’re novels, not poetry, but both have such vivid prose, that they evoke the same emotions.  The Road, especially, isn’t very interesting plot-wise. However, his fluid, dream McCormack does this be describing character action without punctuation, in blunt, dry, run-on sentences. But, he intersperses this with enough adverbs to make it feel colorful and vivid, and suck you into the narrator’s mind. The text itself isn’t a model for poetry- it’s much more blunt and dry than the poetry we read in class. But it is a great lesson in getting your readers immediately immersed through nothing but words. 

Morrison, too, utilizes the same method to enrapture her readers. However, her prose is much more vivid while utilizing the same affective techniques- while still from  a third person perspective, we get a direct look into the character’s head and are thus immersed. What’s interesting about Morrison’s prose is that she easily code-switches based off the character’s state of mind. Morrison’s prose devolves into run on, nonsensical sentences as the characters Rebekka loses her grip on reality. Morrison’s entire syntax changes, too, as she switched from character to character. Each narrator has a distinctive voice, you can tell from the syntax alone. There’s an illiterate woman, Florens, who has a narrative nothing like I’ve seen in conventional liturature. It’s incredibly compelling. 

Anyway, these are very inspiring works. Great for getting me think about narrative voice, code-swiching, and engaging the reader, which are all vital to poetry. Hope these help. 

King on Inspiration

There’s a Stephen King quote: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” It’s a quote meant to quell the frustrations of writer’s block- that if you should simply sit down and do it, that you shouldn’t wait for inspiration. It’s a sentiment I agree with- there’s a trope of the writer with no material, who never actually writes. That “just get it done” attitude is needed for giving writers the agency needed to just get it done. But at the same time, I feel like inspiration won’t arrive just because you sat down to work. That doesn’t cure writer’s block, it doesn’t give you ideas, it won’t make a great work appear, suddenly, in front of you. For me, at least, I need to be thinking about a project a lot before I can just sit down to write. I think that’s an important distinction- you can’t wait for inspiration to find you, but at the same time, just sitting down to work isn’t the cure-all either. I need to be actively thinking about it and working on it for a while, then inspiration comes, eventually. It’s not guaranteed, then, either. King’s mantra isn’t a magical remedy, but he’s not wrong, either. 

Mixing Spacing Up

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.

Joseph North on the Monetization of Writing

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.

Intrigue

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.

 

Painting isn’t great poetry practice.

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.