“Film is an Empathy Machine, Poetry is a What Machine?”

I keep coming back to our in-class exercise prompt Wednesday: “Film is an empathy machine, poetry is a what machine?” I really didn’t grasp it then (“reverse-engineer code,” what?) and I still don’t know, but that question still bugs me.

I might be off the mark entirely, but the only real answer I can come up for that- what poetry can do where film, prose, painting can’t as easily- is capturing and naming the nuance of stream of consciousness. I feel poetry comes close to representing half-thoughts and emotions that you don’t fully have a grasp on in that moment, something indescribable that you have to come back to later and process/preserve in a vignette or a collage. With visual mediums it’s difficult to express a stream of thought itself, you have to dance around it. The artist/director is forced to show the viewer the something concrete, outward expressions, the secondary manifestations, the shadows cast, and a lot thought is lost in that. Music is much better at conveying emotion, but the lyrics often have to be sheared down to fit the rhythm. Prose is also incredibly effective for illustrating that stream of thought, but it often dips into poetic devices in doing so. And going back to our earlier discussions, I remember when asked “who are your poems for?” most of the answers were along the lines of “for me alone.” The poem for the author alone, is, as far as I’ve seen, a tool for catharsis and processing- capturing streams of thought. And I feel like this tendency is partly the result of the form- Dr. Smith said earlier that poetry is the most economical art form- you can write poetry on the subway, it takes very little relative effort to craft a poem, and it makes use of the potential of language to easily show things diegetic elements alone couldn’t.

Is that off the mark entirely?

Cadence & Presentation

As an introduction to found poetry, Professor Beltz-Hosek made a poem out of the back of a pack of Sticky Notes. She cut up each sentence into lines, and what surprised us all is that it didn’t not work. Breaking the lines into the kind of rhythm and cadence we associate with poetry, and the words themselves felt different.

That exercise had led me to think about poetry as presentation, not just wordcraft. I think, despite how minimalist the format of the printed poem is, we still impart an air of power and reverence that comes with the written poem. This is why, I feel, spoken word poetry gets so much flak in popular culture for being “awkward.”  The change of the format removes that air of reverence, at a surface glance it isn’t how people imagine poetry, it’s someone speaking in a tone that isn’t how they’ve seen people usually speak before.

The inverse of this is also true- people will almost always look over beautiful word craft and form when it appears in places we don’t associate with poetry. I’ve seen people respond to very banal posts online and say, hey, wait a sec, this is poetry, you wrote this in iambic pentameter. I feel like it’s only when we see markers of certain presentation do we think “Oh, I’m reading poetry” and begin to look at the words as more than just information to be skimmed. Cultivating found poetry and making blackout poems train us to not just skim, but to train our poet’s brain to pick up phrasing we may have missed. Online poets and on Twitter or Instagram get around the problem of skimming through how they present their format- they’ll scatter the words across the screen in a way you only see in poems, or they’ll put a sunset background on the words, not to fit the theme, but to communicate to the reader “this is not a post, this is poetry.”

Interaction between text and reader

One of the things I’ve started thinking about for my work here is the structure of poems- not the placement of words on a page, but how the reader interacts with the poem itself and how the poem informs the reader. Kyle’s pieces on metacognition got me thinking of the poem as a one-sided communication- you read a poem- it speaks to you, but you cannot speak back. It elicits a response in you, it may change you, but the poem itself does not change. It is static, it is the same no matter the circumstance, context, interpretation or reaction. You cannot change the poem, like you could change someone’s mind in conversation.

Our in-class prompt asking who the audience of our poems are brought me back to that thought- I write poems for me, not for an audience, but as self-reflection, to process, to preserve fleeting snippets in text. But these poems are not for me, they’re for the workshop. So how do they need to change to speak to an audience? Poems can absolutely be for myself alone, but I want to try push the form to it’s maximum potential- to take the reader into account. Taking this kind of structure- the relationship between the text and the reader- how could the content of the text could reflect that structure? If my poems are static but inform the reader, what kind of form would best make use of that structure to amplify it’s meaning? Could a poem be something like an instruction manual, a map, a recipe?

I want to avoid nostalgia for this same reason- nostalgia itself is difficult to capture in any medium, and it’s specific only to the poet/narrator/individual. Even if I were able to convey the beauty of whatever I was nostalgic for, the elements of that nostalgia would be so specific to me that any reader wouldn’t be able to relate. I feel like I need to make my pieces universal at their core.

“What Got You Into Poetry?”

What really got me into poetry in a meaningful way was as a tool of self-expression. I love to paint, too, but it’s very difficult to express or explore certain ideas in painting. You can capture emotions, symbols, poses, but it’s very difficult to explore ideas any further without an explanation. I got into poetry because it’s a lot easier to describe very lofty, abstract ideas and build on them, explore them in a very compact way. In high school we had a great English teacher who led a poetry unit, and I remember that was my real introduction to poetry beyond just half-scribbles. He introduced us to a lot of older poets like William Blake, and that set my expectation from the beginning. Because of that my idea of poetry going in was that it should be a silent music- I remember disliking very blunt poems because they didn’t have the musical quality I assumed they should have to be “good.”  But I learned better soon, and as we read more and more varied work in that class I dropped that pretension. What changed is that I realized that the content is so much more important than the sonic quality, that the symbolism, the art of the words makes poetry more than rhyming alone. Back then I also had no idea that poetry could be cathartic, a tool to process events, and that aspect really let me get into writing. The fact that you could write about your own experiences, not just distant, impersonal truths let me drop the artificial rules I’d fabricated for my own work.

One moment I almost stopped writing poems was after my high school teacher tried to have us read the Odyssey, back when I still thought all poems had to be musically lyrical. It was presented to us as the classic of classics, the metric by which all work was judged, but it was so dense and cryptic I couldn’t read it. I almost gave up then, before we branched off into contemporary work.

Inspiration from (not-words)

One source of source of inspiration for writing I’ve found,  surprisingly, is Twitter. Sometimes people will write or share very short, very abstract, outlandish jokes, to stick out other posts, and those end up being incredible in syntax, they must carry enough power and weight to grab your attention. People began compiling them before they’re lost in the mix: dumb snippets like “tell me the name of god you fungal piece of..” that are obviously jokes, but still carry weight. But Twitter people will often share snippets they find anywhere. I remember, someone had shared a photo of a church sign that read like “I want to be so full of Christ that even mosquitoes will say ‘there is power in the blood.’” A bunch of ads, or billboards are also potent, they have to give the same impact, with the same short space. Each word carries multitudes.

                I find a lot of inspiration from surrealist and abstract paintings- the texture of brushstrokes, blending colors, the implications of shapes and contrast inspire me, I try to capture that same “texture” in words, I guess you’d call it. Cubist paintings especially have a wild shape, I want to try and make my writing feel the same.

                One source that always inspires me, but I can never really capture well is the geometry of mindsets, the relations between people and perception. I always try to imagine thoughts and feelings and impulses as physical things. How do they interact? What symbol represents this type of mindset, what is gratitude shaped like, as an object? What motion/texture does it have?  I haven’t run out of this as inspiration yet, so it must not be completely bankrupt.

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.