I’ve been using the words “poem”/“poetry” and “song” quite often in my poems this semester, and I’m not sure if they’re warranted, but I’ve just been thinking about what a poem is, what poetry is, their relation to sound and song (all loaded terms).
Because the Winter Olympics were hosted in Pyeongchang, South Korea this year, I’ve been revisiting Yuna Kim, as an admirer of her skating that combines athleticism and artistry. Rewatching her 2014 Sochi free skate, I realized this is poetry to me: Astor Piazzolla’s “Adiós Nonino,” her command of line and sound, and her communication of emotion to the audience.
When I was much younger, figure skating played often on our television because it was one of the few programs my parents didn’t need English to watch, like golf or the weather. I preferred figure skating to golf: the white expanse was refreshing compared to the heat golfers seemed to suffer. My friend, though, tells me she doesn’t get figure skating because it’s just spinning on ice. It’s also jumping, and stepping, I want to joke, but to be honest I didn’t “get” golf, and I don’t really “get” figure skating, either (also, bad joke). I’m just a fan of Yuna Kim, of Yuzuru Hanyu, of Winnie-the-Pooh bouquets being hurled by the dozens at a performance’s end (all donated and cleaned by volunteer skaters). I couldn’t distinguish a flip from a salchow, but I don’t think this lack of knowledge hinders the experience. The only necessary conditions, I suppose, are that a skater must engage with their compositions, part of what makes figure skating such a subjective sport, and an audience willing to receive. Does the same apply to a writer? As in Gephyromania, a poem can reject a reader expecting an outstretched hand, but at least in the contemporary sense of “success,” a writer, like a figure skater, hopes for an audience. But every writer writes for different reasons, and each might want a reader to get something different from her work.
If asked about the one thing I want a reader to get out of my poems, I’d say “a feeling,” as vague as that sounds (though I wish I wrote more with my head). It doesn’t have to be an emotion; perhaps it’s only palpable as a hum. I would like to generate something, whether a thought or a reaction, even where moments elude meaning, and there are many, many times words elude me. . . After all, that is why I write. Another impetus a moment of having been moved.
Reading Megan’s comment on Abby’s post “Emotional Frustration in Poetry” reminded me of a question I’ve been turning for some time: Can you divorce meaning from words and still evoke emotion? I work primarily from/with narrative. I wonder if a poem purely driven by sound can evoke emotion or communicate “a feeling.” I think so. Sound is music, and music to me is a prime form of communication. My last workshop poem was an exercise in lineation and sound, but I still depended on narrative. My problem is that I’m still learning to unlearn how to read poetry. As hard as I try not to, I still ask “What does this mean?” Learning to consider what expectations a poem sets up, whether it is trying to be understood or experienced, what its commitments are, as we’ve been asked to consider during workshops, has been helpful in guiding my readings.
Music does evoke something in me that sometimes words can’t (going back to my reliance on meaning), as others have articulated here on the blog. But I love the muted charm of a page, how it can mask something loud and immediate. There’s also immense validation in being able to control one’s voice and narrative, especially when control seems to be the furthest thing from grasp.
Listening to a song for the first time is undeniably an experience for me. I don’t pay as much attention to lyrics as atmosphere—actually, how many of us listen to lyrics? I remember talking to my friend once about how I loved certain lyrics, and she thought that was interesting because they weren’t her focus. After the melody is somewhat familiar, I listen for lyrics—or, sometimes, the lyrics stand out so well even with a melody, or the lyric and melody complement each other in such a way that I can notice both. I wonder why, then, when I read a poem, experiencing it is often interrupted by a desire to understand its content. Maybe because I am unattuned to the “melody” of it—its rhythm/meter, its chewiness? Or because my priority is emotion?
As a writer, I think there is a lot to emulate from Yuna Kim. Her command of sound, which she conveys entirely through the instrument of her body. This is not a workshop focused on the line, but I aspire to write lines as lithe and tight, as languid and controlled and containing multitudes, as hers on the rink. To become more attuned to a poem’s needs and purpose at each moment. To illustrate a convincing, compelling persona. When asked during her practice what kind of athlete she wanted to be remembered as, she answered “Although I haven’t given it much thought, as I have said in the past, I want to be a skater who moves the audience.” What a privilege it has been to witness her seventeen years’ craft.