Articulate Arguments

Maybe I’m just not that argumentative, but argument(/persuasion?) never occurred to me as a motivation for writing poetry before. Well, that’s not entirely true. I think we’re all always trying to argue, if not justify our or our speakers’ point of view, emotions, and experiences. Articulation is what I always thought the ultimate goal of poetry was, not that an argument can’t be articulated (that may be the only thing an argument can be).  It’s up to the reader to let my words in, where as arguments command entry. Arguments came to me as secondary to the content, probably because I thought of arguments as content. But, now looking to things like Through and sonnets, I think of arguments as a form that works beside the content rather than behind it.

All this ties into our discussions of politics. I think politics boils down to interaction of ideas using people as the medium. Ideas only matter if we share them, after all. But I’m not so sure the people part is so necessary. It may be more akin to the interaction of ideas through language. In that sense, poetry is just an interface for ideas to collide as much as presidential debates or dinner tables.

That being said: if arguments are a form, then politics dominate content even if they lack content.

Politics still scares me some, though. Mostly in the sense that politics (more so than general arguments) is rhetorical/can be refuted and that there’s more to the world than language. Feelings can’t really be refuted and language is only a tool for description. Language is more like a container than its contents. Rhetoric scares me. Rhetoric is using language for language’s sake; it takes a step past interaction into the realm of persuasion. I don’t really want to change anyone’s mind. Politics is such a weak force compared to experience. So, I’d rather deal in experiences. Language interests me insofar as it communicates experiences, not so much in the ways we use it. I’m still interested in politics because of its ubiquity, but I can’t see it as anything beyond a means to an end. Language is such a funny thing, still; it’s the best way we have to communicate ideas, but by that same token its the very thing that muddies ideas. We’d be perfectly articulate without the need for language, but we need it and we have to deal with it.

This one was felt like it really rambled, but maybe that helped my argument in a hyperbolic sort of sense?

Thanks for reading.

Through, Syntax, Page 44, X.

I’ll think I’ll talk all little on one of the poems that really stuck out out to me in David Herd’s Through. On page 44 in the section “Syntax,” the poem “X.” really pushed me into a head space preoccupied with the concept of space.

While the poem itself is intelligible as a whole, I read it more as a series of couplets, tercets, and a single quatrain woven together to form two stanzas. The separations don’t have many visual markers as punctuation (like many of the poems in “Syntax”) as the focus is more on the arrangement and relationship of ideas rather than forces that, even unintentionally, divide. We’re left to sift through the syntax.

Some of my favorite portions of the poem are:

“I leave the following message

  It is not ok”

These two line start the poem. The mix of formal urgency and a low, everyday response establishes the poem’s logic that can flow in and out of contexts in the single flourish of a line break. My reading of the couplet implies a colon after “message,” but it could be that “not ok” describes the message rather than comprising the message. The ambiguity and subsequent over reliance on the syntax lets the complexity play.

“Dear Jurisdiction –

  Your conduct

  Has become

  Deplorable”

This one’s a letter (it even follows a reference to waxwing birds in the line prior that are named after their resemblance to wax seals on old letters). The use of “Jurisdiction” as the pronoun to which the letter is addressed reinforces the formality discussed earlier, but also supplants a small absurdity in addressing an authority in such curt, politically charged means. On that note the diction (which is the root word of “jurisdiction” meaning “law” and “saying,” which I highly doubt is unintentional), “deplorable” as a word has taken up such radically different connotations following the 2016 US presidential elections that the irony of the four lines, while formally, come across as funny and mocking. Also, the notion of a jurisdiction as an area of which the power of law is exerted is so central to the idea of space identified earlier.

“Here

  Like houses

  Shall comprise an area”

This one is my favorite. The tercet, mentally and on the page, just takes up so much space at the very end of the poem that it just can’t be ignored. But “Here,” standalone, carries so much weight and fully occupies the space it establishes in the tercet, stanza, poem, and higher concept of places, spaces, and areas as something physical. And it plays so well off of dear jurisdiction from earlier, the other stanza-ender.

“X.” occupies and justifies the space it takes up on the page, in our minds, and in the world. Either despite or in tandem with the charged diction in terms of high and low, etymology, or politics, it doesn’t take a direct stance and teeters so carefully on the spaces of outrage and the mockery of outrage.

 

Just a quick note: the poem also references a writer (and professor of poetry and poetics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver) named Steve Collis who, from severely limited research, also uses language and poetry to address socio-political issues. He probably writes in the same vein as Herd if Herd’s speaker holds him in the same regards as he does his associates, the waxwings. I think I’ll look into him more.

Also, the conversation with between this poem and the other “X.” poem on page 31 and 32 is quite something.

Thanks for reading.

Paper or… pixels?

I’m just gonna pose a question and give my answer since I can’t think of any good segues.

On what medium do you write poems?

All the talk on form, paper receipt rolls in class, and my compulsions to eavesdrop on conversations in workshop (we’re all writers here; we all do it) just had me thinking. Paper and computer screens take up two very different forms. Paper is tactile and takes up physical space, while digital words don’t. Granted, poems can be typed and printed out and will always clear at legible (probably). I think I’m more concerned with the process by which poems take up their first iterations, their first forms, though.  Does it start out handwritten or typed up? Does that change how we write the poem? Does it change the end product?

Personally, I prefer writing things on loose-leaf, but typing is just quicker, easier to change, and easier to adjust things as I go. I find writing poems using my hand brings me to a more content focused part of my brain as the words just flow out, but I cross things out, add carrots, draw arrows, and mess the whole thing up until it gets messy. My handwriting doesn’t do it any favors either—I do this thing where my lowercase “h”s flatten out so they look like “L”s on the page, which I’ve noticed for a few years now but I can’t seem to shake it.

The transition to typeset is an important step if I do begin in pencil, maybe even more than the initial writing. The poem actually becomes something, it finds a concrete shape I can play with rather than just draw pictures declaring my intention to play with the shape on college rule.  I try my best to convey formal choices, but conveying and applying are two different things. On paper, it’s an idea; on screen, it’s a poem.

It may be a relatively simple question I’m asking, but I think the genesis of a poem’s form can have lasting impact on how it matures. So, how do you write poems?

Thanks for reading.

More than one way to scan a cat

I have a confession: I kinda really like scansion. From past experiences with poetry, I always felt meters and feet and stress were the drier elements that the old traditional people at the poetry headquarters forced new poets to learn. Stiff, formal scansion just didn’t jive with my image of hip, newfangled free verse. And maybe I’m just bad reading a room, but I never get the impression that scansion is anyone’s favorite to go over. I’d be happy to hear that I’m wrong, though; just about every one of my posts on here is about how past me was wrong about something (including this one).

My intrigue is morbid, probably. Scansion feels like a dissection of a poem, which, for those who haven’t dissected anything before, requires the specimen be dead. Scansion kills the poem in that sense, takes the life out of it until it’s bludgeoned down to a couple slashes and semi-circles, but it’s also the reason we can cut open and learn so much about a poem’s sentence structure and form.

But that may also be a reason why some people don’t enjoy it as much. Not necessarily weaker poems, but ones that don’t take stress and meter into such high account may seem like all the guts and gross parts of a frog, for instance, have rotted out leaving only a sweet-sounding goo behind. Those types of poems tend to outshone by poems that incorporate stress and meter centrally to the poem, maybe the frog’s leg muscles still twitch with a little shock.

I love understanding how mysterious things, like poems, are able to be so… so poem-y and lean on itself to create something worth more than the sum of its words. I love doing that with all sorts of things, even things like frogs. I mean, I could look at my hands for hands for hours and have an existential exploration of how we’re all just a series of self-sufficient pulleys and levers between our muscles, bones and tendons. On the other hand, I can see how this kind of incessant mechanical thinking can maybe go to far and outshine the actual content. I can’t make a fist without thinking about the weird stringy tendons controlling my fingers like piano hammers.

With all this in mind (and believe me I have a lot of this in mind), scansion can’t be a way to diagnose how good or bad a poem is, it merely identifies a pattern in a poem. It’s a tool (I think I’ve come to same conclusion that most techniques are tools in most of blog posts, but every time it feels like a revelation to me, maybe it’s a crutch). And like all tools, we’re welcome to use it at our own discretion. I just think it’s fun to take a scalpel to things. Anyway, I have to go stare at my hands some more.

Thanks for reading.

Math is hard

Can we talk about numbers? Yeah, yeah, It’s nobodies favorite, but I think we can agree everything has value, mathematical or otherwise.

I can’t seem to jump the gap in how certain numerical stanzas can inform form, whether it’s in terms of stanzas, lines, meter, word count, etc. The numbers-as-form method just doesn’t come naturally when I write something out “organically.” I have to go in with, say, a quatrain in mind or it just won’t coagulate for me. I don’t hear meter when I mash keys.

The only conclusion I can even remotely grasp at is that getting a feel for the numbers and patterns just follows the fundamentals in the form of intuition. Hass says the patterns “come alive… intuitively and out of sight,” but I just can’t resolve how numbers and sound resolve one another for myself while I’m writing.

Maybe I’m just reading into things, but I can’t help feeling like the numbers have to come in after, in revision, to chip away at the content while it’s dry, not mold it while it’s still wet. It could be that’s just how my brain works.

But I could just have some assumptions I’ve never really questioned before regarding stricter forms revolving around numbered patterns and, to a lesser degree personally, stress. Is a tree root that grows along a sidewalk’s seem any less natural than a root that grows of its own volition. I don’t think so. But that begs an even more complicated question for me: Can a vine grow into the shape of a sidewalk naturally? I mean, theoretically it could if that pattern was advantageous somehow, but I can’t see how that would be if the sidewalk wasn’t there. Even then, the roots end up breaking the sidewalk anyway.

I don’t think my analogy is very strong, but it’s reflective of my thought process at least. The idea of concrete (haha) forms like numbered patterns just doesn’t compute in terms of organic form for me. I guess form should/will always take the most advantageous path to expressing its content (like everything else in this world does), but how can we, as poets, be so certain of its shape without an initial design or eventual hindsight? And what else is revision besides applied hindsight?

It’s frustrating because it feels like poetry is stretching me in two directions, one commanding me to do what feels right, the other telling me to fit a certain structure. Of course those two aren’t mutually exclusive, but they never seem to line up for me. I can only assume the overall goal is to write a poem with intricate structure that still feels organic. Again, that comes down to fundamentals as far as I can tell. Or it all could be trial-and-error and I’m twisting myself in knots over nothing. But if there’s anything I’m getting out of poetry at this point is to not ignore my emotions, and express them in the best way possible. If only I knew what form “the best” takes. At this point, I feel like I’m rambling and circling around an answer I’ll never reach and I hate it. The worst part is I don’t know how to reflect frustration via the number of lines in a stanza. I just don’t feel like an effective poet when I write without thinking about everything all at once.

Thanks for reading.

The naive poet and erotic poetry

Okay, so this may get a little personal, but I feel like reasoning through a topic that always leaves me a little perplexed: eroticism.

Poetry has a history with this subject and we’ve read a few poems that wandered into the erotic realm (Sam Sax’s “Lisp,” for example), so, I guess, this blog is as good a place as any to get down and dirty. In the other class/workshops I have been a part of whether it be fiction or CNF, the erotic was something we only acknowledged when it showed up. We never fully embraced it, it wasn’t something we actively sought to integrate, in my mind. Maybe university classes just aren’t the right forum for it. Personally, I felt a similar way. It’s just a technique that conveys a high degree of intimacy, but, in my head, always seemed to be just over the edge, never quite hitting the mark.

To be frank, I’m kind of scared to tackle erotic topics in my writing. I don’t think I’m a prude, but maybe sex has just never been something I openly discuss. I’m fascinated by it, though. I haven’t actively sought out erotic literature or poetry, but from what I have read, it feels like it falls into two camps: the explicit and the implied. The explicit is, well, explicit. The erotic becomes an image. The implied at least tries to be more subtle using clever metaphors or something equally contrived to evoke the shadows of sex (i.e. eruptions as ejaculation, flowers as vulvas, or “the little death” coming to imply an orgasm).

For some reason, I resent both of these approaches. The explicit approach is powerful in stirring the physicality, but it makes me pull away from the speaker/narrator/I. I agreed to consort with your mind, not your body, I find myself thinking. It’s not that it’s vulgar or forced; it’s just forceful.

The implied sexual innuendos feel like they don’t have the courage to bring the image to completion (I know I’m doing the very thing I’m rebuking, but how could I not). The physical and pointedly emotional is left in some ethereal state without delineating the nuances its playing on, something I just don’t find satisfying.

Boy, am I hard to please. But, miraculously, I think “Lisp” was excellent. The reason why, I believe is the fact that the erotic in that poem is a symptom of the wider context. The poem is about the speakers identity, of which his lisp and his sexuality are inextricably linked, specifically in an orally fixated way. We engage with his identity. There’s a logic. If the sex is extraneous, like anything so personal really, it can’t possibly hold any weight for an outside observer. Without the logic (I’m gonna do it again) it just comes off as masturbatory, only serving to engage the writer. But I do need a bigger sample size.

Maybe I’m wrong, though. Perhaps, the erotic can equally create distance as it does intimacy. I’ve accepted that a relationship between reader and writer is fundamental to writing in general, but maybe I just have to accept a personal core tenet may not always be tenable. Sax may be confronting and barring people just as much as he welcomes them in.

Sex isn’t that special. The erotic is a tool and technique like anything else, probably.

Thanks for reading.

A to B and back again

A little paragraph that stuck out to me in this week’s reading in A Little Book on Form (specifically the “How Free Verse Works” chapter) was when Hass recollects a conversation with Stanley Kunitz on formalized ways a “poem moves.”

I’ll just rip the band-aid off quickly—I like logic. I like things to have a natural progression to things. I may be out of bounds here, but I think poetry is probably the most liberal when it comes to how much “logic” is required. I don’t begrudge poetry for being as open ended as it is (in fact, I welcome the discomfort), but formal organization structures are a particularly tantalizing idea to me. So, I think it’ll be fun to try and come up with a few more examples than Kunitz or Hass give. 

To refresh your memory, Kunitz introduces three movements: a straight line (A to B…), a circle (A to B to C… to A), and a braid (A to B to C… to A to B to C… to ABC) that twists around itself each thread lines up. Hass gives a few more suggestions: pointillism (A B C…) with its unstated connections, and a list (In Hass’ words, “A A A A A”). That brings the total to five, but I don’t think anyone but, maybe, Kunitz would care if we pushed passed that.

My turn. Here are a few more suggestions:

  • A poem without movement or as I like to call it “the Loner” (A), a single idea, image, or thought that stands on its own. Maybe all the movement’s in the words of a single line.
  • A poem that starts somewhere other than the beginning that I call “the Wildcard,” messing with our sense of chronology and logic (Maybe it goes backwards, D to C to B to A, or some other order, C to A to B to D).
  • A poem that doesn’t go anywhere, “the Joker” (A to A to A to A). It’s pretty similar to a list, but there may be movement in on itself unlike a list ,or it could just be repeating itself (that’s movement, I guess).
  • A poem that intentionally skips steps in the movement, “the Executioner” perhaps (because it’s chopped up, A to C to E).
  • A poem that… and I’m all out. I’m sure there’s an indefinite number of movements out there, but my brain is already in knots from coming up with these other four.  Anyone want to try for some more?

That’s nine.  Between the great minds of Hass, Kunitz, and myself, I’m pretty satisfied with that.

To new beginnings

I’m going to do something a little selfish with my first blog post and just ramble a bit about how I currently feel about poetry. Hopefully, this will serve as a baseline for myself, a point of reflection for my future self, and maybe I’ll have a good laugh about how naive I am come the end of the semester.

To be the teeniest bit more precise, I’d like to take this time to riff and philosophize a little on what I’m fairly certain will be a common thread for all our poetry discussions: “Form is never more than an extension of content.”

Let’s take a logical approach because why not? There are two terms here that we have to piece together definitions for: form and content. Form, to the best of my knowledge, is the shape of something. How something looks, in other words.  Although visual appeal on paper is extremely important (after all, you can’t read something without physically looking at it), I tend to fall in a more metaphysical space with how I feel about form. When I hear the word, I picture a blob, amorphous and malleable, in my head. It’s like an imagined collective physicality I apply to the words on the page. Form is the shape of an idea in my mind. Writer’s carve out sections with diction or syntax or grammar, splash color on it with color-laced words like lobster or lily pads, bruise it with punches and lashes of punctuation or line breaks, and, lastly, mold and hold together with the fine hand of craft. I like to see form when I write. I like to make people see form when they read my work.

I was hoping to add a lick of conflict to whatever this is by disagreeing even if just for the sake of making this post more interesting, but I can’t really. Content is just the substance that makes up that blob. If your content’s clay, the form better be sculpted. If your content’s stone or ice, the form better be chiseled or cracked. If your content’s your own body, punch yourself square in the jaw and put you back together with your poetry. Or subvert my expectations! Take control of your content, make your form submit, and force readers to see your content in the form you want them to see.

Now, I just have to wait twelve weeks to see how my thoughts develop. But this post is a nice, little seed, I think.