Since Carey McHugh’s visit, I have been thinking about how she titles her poems. This entire semester, I have had difficulty titling my own poems. I like that Carey included where she got her poem titles in the back of American Gramophone.
Earlier, I posted about phrases I like in other languages, but I think English phrases are equally inspiring. I see English phrases as potential titles or first lines for poems, and have found a nice master list of phrases on Wikipedia. I hope I can use more of these phrases in the future for a title or a jumping off point!
Opposite to Carey, however, I usually write the poem first and then find a title for it. This seems backward, but I think it works for me. If I start with a title and then write, the poem rarely relates to the title by the time I am finished.
Where to you get your titles from? Do you choose a title or write first?
Part of what interests me about foreign languages is that there are some foreign words that exist that have no English equivalent. However hard we try to define these words, we will never be able to explain their meaning with a single word. This prompt is in part a response to our writing exercise on translation. Here are some word examples, the language of origin is in parentheses:
mokita (Kilivila): truth we all know but agree not to talk about; the elephant in the room.
mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan): a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other will offer something that they both desire but are unwilling to suggest or offer themselves.
komorebi (Japanese): the interplay between light and leaves when sunlight shines through trees.
culaccino (Italian): the stain left on a table from a cold glass of water.
pochemuchka (Russian): a person who asks too many questions.
yuputka (Ulwa): the phantom sensation of something crawling on your skin.
If you are stuck writing a poem, consider one of these words as a jumping off point! How might your poem convey the feelings behind one of the words? Are there any possibilities for narrative? Have you experienced any of these words but never found a way to describe them?
If you use this prompt, let me know if it worked for you and got you writing! I would love to read the final product!
I am working off of Jay’s post from last week. Photographs are also a huge inspiration for me, and I love that Jay shared the link with us, it will definitely help me in the future.
One of my favorite places to write poetry is in art museums. Whenever I get the chance to visit the Met in NYC, I bring a notebook with me, find a bench, and sit for a while.
As an alternative to writing about a photograph, find a painting that you like or you find compelling and write about it. Below is my favorite painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich. I find there are a number of stories waiting to be told in this single painting.
Since painting as a medium is so broad, I find searching by art period is easier and less overwhelming. What kind of poem would you produce after looking at Dada? How about Realism? You get the idea.
This past weekend, I attended a reading in Hudson, NY for the poet George Quasha. He read from his book Glossodelia Attracts: Preverbs. Before you look it up, the words “glossodelia” and “preverbs” are not words found in the dictionary. “It’s something I made up,” Quasha said before he began reading. This would be a common aside throughout the reading. I became frustrated with these interjections. The definitions themselves didn’t seem to add anything to my overall understanding of these poems. I wished that he would let the words speak for themselves.
This theme of defining words for readers has arisen a few times during our workshop. I believe that definitions aren’t necessary. They speak to a lack of trust and confidence in writers to let the readers form their own understanding of the poems. Therefore, once the poem is on the page and shared with the world, I believe it is fair game for interpretations.
Word definitions can be constricting. I hate that a word or group of words should possess only one meaning. Words are meant to be versatile! A few classmates and I agreed that when presented with an unknown word, we understood its meaning based on its sound or the way it was spelled before we looked up the meaning in the dictionary.
Quasha’s definitions for his words confined me to a strict (and quite frankly, boring) interpretation of his work. I found myself dissatisfied with his preset prescription of his poems’ meanings. I have spoken to a few readers who have asked, “Is this what the poet intends? Is my reading how it is supposed to be read?” To which I say, there is no right or wrong way to read a text. There are infinite readings of any poem, and ultimately, I disregarded Quasha’s own definitions of “preverbs” and “glossodelia” in place of my own.
I read a poem recently, titled “Four Hinterland Abstractions,” by Ray Young Bear, and published in The New Yorker a little over a month ago. It is choc-a-block full of things, things I loved and things I didn’t understand.
Let’s think about the word “hinterland” to start. According to research (Wikipedia), a hinterland is “the land behind,” as in, the land behind a seaside town or port. In the first of four parts, the speaker describes a truck that “tipped / over on the interstate / somewhere”. The speaker says “this valley / was sculpted by the once lovely / wings of a vulture”. Here, the hinterland is not literally the land behind a body of water, but the land that was left behind.
This theme of ancestry and history continues in the second part, where nighttime fireflies compel the speaker and his children to “place ourselves / beside the weeping / willow grandfather”. Here, the mention of children and grandfather in the same stanza accentuates the generational quality of not only family but our lives on this earth. I love the way the above lines are formatted. The verb “weeping” and “grandfather” seem to go together in my mind, and on first reading I ignored the word “willow” by accident. It seemed to personify the tree, and was well done on the writer’s part.
The third part of the poem was the most confusing to me. It was more abstract. I got caught by the lines “a winsome / ghost that’s awash in green / & yellow pulsating colors”. What does this mean? How does it relate to hinterland?
The fourth and final part was also beautiful. The speaker meets a man, possibly a young soldier “wearing boots covered / with ochre grains of distant / battlefields”. The battlefields are the hinterlands, the far away place. The soldier “reached down / & crushed several into small / clouds,” only adding to their place in the background of the past, while he stands in the foreground, the present.
Dan Albergotti’s poem “Bad Language” drew me in with its first line, “We fear to speak, and silence coats the night air.” I love when writers use such phrases. They are immediately effective because I can relate to what the speaker is saying. I have experienced such a silence, one that I become drenched in, enveloped, encased.
I love the vulnerability the speaker reveals: “Don’t leave me alone with self- / knowledge.” I often feel the same way. I think often writers cannot express their feelings except in writing, but even in writing we experience insecurity when others read what we have to say. How then can we tell others our desires? “Understand me,” the speaker says. Is this is a plea or a demand? With the complications of language the speaker illustrates, I like to think it is both.