Poetics of Trauma

It might be a little late in the semester to be wondering about where to generate poetry from, but in a quick move to generate a few more points in the positive, I’ve been wondering about the transformation of trauma into poetry.

It is my guess that this stems from my recent experience at a Trump Rally.  While I was allotted more than double the magazine’s word limit, I still don’t feel all right.  The reader needn’t worry, though, this will not be a post about Trump.

Gregory Orr, a poet and critic who is largely influential to my understanding of poetry wrote Poetry as Survival this has interested me ever since, but has taken a backseat in composition in the frantic heat of trying to produce what I think a workshop will dig.

Maybe this is all wrong.

Orr accidentally killed his brother in a hunting accident when they were boys, and uses poetry as a stay against that misery.  If that’s not ripe grounds for poetry, I don’t know what is.  The problem is, where then do I get my material when the most vaguely traumatic thing I’ve beheld is a blonde lunatic moan about Mexico?

I am not unattuned to strife in this world, but I frankly hesitate to write “worldly” poetry or something that envisions another people’s trauma.  It’s not my story to write, and if I were to write it there’s a higher chance that I’d like to gamble on that I’d be writing it from the entity causing the trauma, since historically, my demographic has seen the least and dealt the most.

It’s going to bug me, and I’m willing to wager that there will be at least one poem in my portfolio that deals with traumatic affairs, but its level of success remains to be seen.

Fever Dreams and Robert Lowell

I’ve been interested by one of the two modes of poetry that is brought up in class.  That of Robert Lowell: why not tell what happened.   I think mostly because in my poetry, I struggle to tell what happened— too often getting lost in an blind attempt to create beauty through cerebral language and fancy romantic predictable style.

It should be noted, however, that my essays often get bogged down by spending too much time telling what happened.  But when a poem can convey a precision in story or scene, there’s a lot more room to play with language.  One of my favorite poems of all time is “Skunk Hour” if you haven’t read it recommend it.    In the spirit of not unintentionally violating copyright law, I’ll examine three non-sequential stanzas.

The season’s ill–
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.


One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull,
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.


only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.


Okay! The first stanza is the poem’s third and seems to establish the first few pangs of anguish that crescendo toward the middle before we are left with the revoltingly dignified image of a mother skunk and her flock of kittens.   We know it’s the dead of fall, signified by the loss of the summer millionaire and red fox hill.  The poem weaves a nautical thread throughout, a nine-knot yawl, is a boat capable of traveling nine-knots , not a particularly fast boat.

He manages in our second stanza to revert the observant narrator who notices things like missing millionaires into a voyeuristic creep.  But look how beautiful the language is.  It’s something like make out point that shelves the town, it is  nautical and naughty, exactly how it happened and deeply confessional.  That confession points to a sickness that subverts the narrators authority, but Lowell’s mode of telling what happened ensures that we don’t doubt the exactitude of it all.

The last stanza I’ve included includes one of the best phrases to read in poetry (in my opinion, for whatever that’s worth) read everything after the colon in one breath and just about as quickly as possible. The phonetics at play are almost too pretty to talk about with clunky metaphors.  Just read them and tell me that’s not good poetry at play.  And, the keen observer coming home after a late night in Geneseo can catch a skunks marching along to the beat of all our trash. Hammering home telling what happened.


Go read the whole poem.

What Kind of Music is Your Poetry?

Last week I typed out a frantic post equating poetry and essay in a highly convoluted and not particularly articulate manner.  This week I intend to do the same, but plan to add an extra layer of pretension by suggestion that above all, I’d like my poetry to be the music of Mozart.  I say this knowing full well that my essays (in my belief and for what it’s worth) come out as rock ‘n’ roll: jagged phrasing, subversive language against The Man, and a voice akin to a shotgun’s blast.

There’s an element of formal balance to Mozart’s requiem mass that I’d like to be able to emulate in my  poetry.  He knows all the rules and how to use them but bends them to his will.  There’s subtlety and rolling thunder between each well punctuated cadence.  Each movement advances the theme while simultaneously distinguishing itself from the last.

Each phrase is inventive and actively gorgeous in both rhythm and sound.  The prescribed Latin text of the mass is reflected in the sound, the equivalent of form as an extension of content, I suppose.

I don’t necessarily think that this means I should align myself with “The Tradition,” I think that’s a dangerous game.  The idea of following another dead white guy should, frankly, be avoided.  Any viewing, of Amadeus tells us that the royalty often disregarded performances for having too many notes, for being too radical or obscene. This sort of appeals to me.  The balance of tone, the precision of effects.  The rests and swells and reinvention of something that everyone already knows.

I don’t know if this makes sense to everyone.  I’m not sure that it makes sense to me.  Music and poetry aren’t the same thing, music passes moment to moment as the composer decides.  Poetry can choose words that read a little quicker, but we can choose to re-read lines and read them at our own speed.  Symbols can be misinterpreted and rhythm might be missed by imperfect punctuation. But turn on the record and the sounds sound the same to everyone—even if they might not sound as pleasurable.

It is here that I have to ask, what kind of music is your poetry and what would you like it to be?


Poetry from Essay

In the classical meaning, an “essay” wasn’t some assignment teachers doled out like tic-tacs, but a simple attempt to prove something.  It translates into English as “to test” or “to try.”  The simple distinction across eras being that essays were meant as thought experiments written down, not just a thesis and three body paragraphs on a theme in The Great Gatsby. 

I consider myself an essayist in the classical terms, pretentious as it may be.  It is here that the reader might begin to ask my place in a poetry workshop.  I, too, have asked that of myself.  Having looked at everyone’s poetry now—even in the context of  a whirlwind—I belong (in the pedagogical terms) in the turkey class of poets.  Certainly not the mighty Eagles, not even the fair-minded Bluebirds, no, the turkeys. With their foolish gobbles and strangely formed bodies. But even turkeys have some merit, we eat them at Thanksgiving, their feathers were useful for fletching, and they’re rather fun to blast out the sky with a shotgun—plow!

And yet in some convoluted way, it seems to me perfectly reasonable that a poem could be an essay (though an essay not so much a poem). An attempted articulation of self on page, a testing of verbal invention in lieu of logical consistency could certainly fulfill the tenets of “trying” while chasing away solipsism in a way a traditional essay simply cant.  Poetry allows us to sort of leap over the wall of self, essaying demands it stay within the boundary of it. It is that ability that hope to gain from a poetry workshop, so that my essaying might become stronger.

Form, Szirtes, and The Artistic Pursuit

To front-load my argument and answer the question, “how does form matter to my poetry” as quickly and bluntly as possible, allow me to not only quote Szirtes, but do something wholly unnatural for me and agree with Robert Frost.
Szirtes writes, “Frost’s notion is not about effects as such. For him it is about naturalness, the assurance that no damned quack-doctor of pretty phrases is going to put one over on him.” Pretty purple phrases might sound nice, but the lingering question of what work does it do haunts anyone with a background of poetic criticism. I believe it was David Foster Wallace quoting an old professor when he said, “Good Art’s job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” There is great verity in such a platitudinous construct. There are ugly assumptions buried in those twelve words, but they are side-lined by the fact that an artist toiling under the guise of a rescue worker will be inherently more successful that one pursuing cash.

On the page, the formal elements not only reflect the content, but refract it in a way. If it’s axiomatic that form is an extension of content, then everything from how the words fall on the page to where the accents and punctuation goes not only deepens the content, but it provides a means with which we might view the poem in a new, inventive way.