Tuesday, January 12, 2010

More poetry moves

Over at HTML Giant, Mike Young and I collaborated on a big list of moves in contemporary poetry. If you used to read the pshares blog, back in its previous, less "professional" incarnation, you know I've written about poetry "moves" before. I wrote (in reference to Alice Fulton's poem "About Face"):
I first read this poem in college and really loved that move, the sort of exposed revision. And I do think of it as a "move" now, though I'm not sure I did then. I guess this comes from having both read and written a lot more poetry and being able to recognize techniques and strategies as patterns. Realizing not everything is original and born of pure inspiration. Poetry is kind of like chess in that way: there are an infinite number of possible games, but experienced players know the classic openings and defenses and so on.
It was fun to flip through my poetry books and identify a bunch more moves. If you know me, or if you don't, you might find yourself on the list.

The other day I read a poem in the new Ploughshares that was chock-full of one of these moves, the "X of X" construction (as John Skoyles once phrased it). It's hard if not impossible to write memorable poems without using identifiable moves (all the better if they're of your own invention) but moves always run the risk of becoming tics, and I think this move is especially prone to that. It has the instant effect of making a phrase poemier (see "light bulb" vs. "bulb of light"), so it's easy to abuse.

Here's the poem (by Lisa Russ Spaar), which I can't really figure out. Some of these X of X's are just so outrageous. Is she joking? Emphases mine.


Out of a cinched sack of bones, the dog's half-cast
opiate eyes ask can't you hear the moths, pelting

the pear glass?
& then there is nothing else I can hear,
bulbs opal and ignited as felted anus-stars

of snow
spot the porch, blast the poplars:
the thumbscrew aortal pulse of Philomela.

Whose fork is this? my mother asked me, pointing to her cane
in the dark of the backseat last week. I was driving.

Probably one of the kids' I replied, they're always trashing
my car
, but truly they are the brillant canto of my antiquity.

I search her eyes, terrified for signs of pain.
She is light, and waits not for the flip of a switch.

Nor is my love portable, quick lick in the history of the world.
For her, do I get down. For her, my fork and cane.

Her other poem in the issue has its share too: "bathos of years," "my impatient turning off of the lamp." I mean, "felted anus-stars of snow"? "the brilliant canto of my antiquity"?? I don't know. It's so OTT it really is almost funny, but I can't fully bring myself to believe that's intentional.

What moves are you guilty of using and abusing?


  1. The two that jumped out at me in the example here were, likewise, "felted anus-stars of snow" (WHAT??!!#%*##@??!!) and "the brilliant canto of my antiquity."

    I don't refer to this kind of thing as "moves," though that may just be my own preference or custom. Just regarding the poem you've given here, to me the real issue with it is that it has little real content, it's mostly just a shiny tick-tock machine made out of moving parts. (Or "moves," if you like.)

    I tend to prefer poems in which I get some sense of the compelling reason the poet wrote it. I don't get a lot of that in this poem.

  2. Wow, "felted anus-stars of snow" is risible, but I don't see anything to indicate it's meant in jest. Spaar is fond of the "__ of __" move in better poems too, like "clerestory of sky" in a nice poem whose title I can no longer recall ("War Widow" or something similar, with a Civil War setting).

    Nice list at HTML Giant. Covers a lot of my moves as well. Others in my post you've already seen: http://www.steveschroeder.info/2009/06/moves.html

    And a few more (sorry, too hurried to cite examples of most of these after the first one):

    -Percentages / Fun with Facts and Figures:
    "70% of pound animals will be euthanized.
    94% of pound animals would be euthanized
    if given the choice."--Ben Lerner, "Mad Lib Elegy"

    "Fact: Maps are only 87% accurate.
    Also fact: I am approximately 87% ocean.
    Depending on how you look at it,
    we are either surrounded by water, or water
    is completely surrounded by us."--Danielle Aquiline, "Autobiogeography"

    -The "If by X you mean Y" reversal and similar constructs. A more snarky version of 1a/b that started the list.

    -Breaking the stanza pattern with a one-line final stanza.

    -A long list of items, with "and" between each item rather than commas.

    -A last line that doesn't repeat the first line but could logically cycle back with the first line being read again after it.

    -Childhood phrases/games/tropes applied to adult situations where they don't theoretically belong.

    -Visual rhymes of words that don't sound so much alike.

    -Deliberate misunderstanding or misstatement, especially of a "lesson" or "moral."

    -Leaving blanks or similar blacked out spaces for words.

    -Malapropism for simultaneously humorous and enlightening effect.


  3. Awesome additions! We arbitrarily capped it around 40 but I probably could have gone into the hundreds.

  4. "felted anus-stars / of snow" is pretty much WTF, and her reveling in the "X of X" pattern is no doubt regrettable, but I'd argue that the last two here--"the flip of a switch" and "the history of the world"--are something else: cliche. Another move, one which may or may not produce appropriate irony, but another move nonetheless.

  5. I agree. Cliches. Which makes them not even funny instances of X of X, whether she was knowingly using them as cliches or not.

  6. cliches can be good though. not in this case, but when used more smartly.

  7. I think that's true theoretically, but usually cliches just bore and annoy me. Can you name some examples of smartly used cliches?

  8. Brillz, Elisa. "Felted anus-stars" = my new favorite phrase. You just gave Lisa Russ Spaar a whole new world of PR. In a good way?

  9. Yeah, I'm wondering how many of the poets I called out have Google Alerts. :)

    I'm also wondering what kind of search traffic the phrase "anus-stars" is going to shower on this blog.

  10. EKF once pointed out to me I seem to make a lot of comparisons in my poetry, writing about one thing in terms of another.

    Also I guess one of my major moves is writing in series. The Victor poems, the Lines poems, the Auto-Collaboration poems are examples.

    I started a series of reverse apostrophes (objects talking to humans), which I guess is its own move. I think this is what Louise Gluck was up to in The Wild Iris.

    I wish I could pull a Bob Seger and have some "night moves" in poetry.

    As seen above, puns are also a bad habit of mine. I think Chris T took this move to the extreme with his infamous box/butthole poem.

    What about internal rhyming? Is this a move?

    What about reading moves? Moves that poets make when the read out loud? My pet peeve is when people pause obnoxiously long at the end of each line.

  11. well, this brings up my own personal #1 move, which is to imitate all of john ashbery's moves and call it a day.

    (see what i did there?)

    in interviews he's talked about how cliches are just another way that humans communicate and so why not include them in poems.

    dan chiasson in a review of ashbery's collected poems '56-'87: "In a famous exchange with the poet Ann Lauterbach, Lauterbach exclaimed, "Oh, Mr. Ashbery, I love clichés," to which Ashbery replied, "And they love you." Clichés and stereotypes are Ashbery's expressive unit. Cliché was originally a typesetter's term for those plates devoted not to individual letters but to phrases so common that a slug was molded for them. Cliché is language that has been repeated so often it becomes infinitely repeatable. It "loves us" because it is inevitable; we "love it" as a way of mastering, by ingenious bricolage, the language that saturates us anyway."

  12. I love the etymology of cliche.

    Cliches mostly bother me when there's no irony or awareness surrounding their use .. when it's just lazily using inherited language that has no effect anymore.

  13. Which of course is never the case w/ Ashbery.

  14. Poems like this one make me feel almost certain I have a learning disorder of some kind. A severe one.

    I tried writing a 42-line poem today using each of the moves you identify as one of the poem's lines, but after about line 12, I couldn't keep it up. Still, it was a fun go. I'll try again tomorrow, or should I say "morrow of to." No, No. I should not say "morrow of to."

  15. I meant to type 41 moves. Although you do have that 1a and 1b thing going on, so it's kind of 42 moves.

  16. Ha, let me know if you succeed in jamming all 42 into a poem!

  17. i don't know, if i wrote "felted anus-stars / of snow" i would feel pretty good about myself. and who knows, maybe she saw this


    and waxed poetic...

  18. If you wrote it, you'd find a way to "make it work."

    I just did your request post on Facebook!

  19. I went to my poetry workshop today and was all, "You are doing move #38 from Elisa and Mike's list in this line here" and "Oh, that's totally move #3 from the list right here. See?"

    I can't say this made me the most popular workshop member in my group. But I would not be the most popular regardless, so whatevz.

  20. Ha! Yeah I can't see many people appreciating being called on their moves in a workshop. But it's time to own up to our dark art.

  21. have we just destroyed poetry?!?! (yeah right)

    is the [purposeless] "x of x" move the most transparent example of hollow "poetic logic?"

    (sorry, i mean logic of poetics)

    will all these questions and more be answered in the next episode of batman?!?!

    it's really funny to me that people are interpreting these moves as cliches or "don'ts"

    all of the poems i picked to "cite" from are in a txt file i keep in my documents folder called "good poetry.txt"

  22. yes, it's weird, i think people are seeing the list of moves as a put-down of those moves, not as the 'book of magic for boys' or the course in bellydancing that it is. i mean, sex ed never discouraged anyone from getting it on. or?

  23. also, x of x i think comes very much out of american poets' appreciation of translations of spanish poetry (incl. lorca) where x of x is a happy linguistic accident, not as ostentatious/haute-sounding as it does in english. spanish speakers please let me know if i'm wrong.

  24. It's kind of a Rorschach test. Some people approach the list neutrally/appreciatively (I'm actually surprised that most people, at least most people who commented, seemed to fall into this first camp) whereas others feel defensive about it. But I echo Mike's statement that it wasn't at all meant to be a list of don'ts -- if anything, a list of be-carefuls, as in, don't go thinking you invented this shit.

  25. Chad Reynolds, your series poems are great ... many first-rate poets have done them: Guillevic comes to mind as an exemplar——

  26. Bill Knott,

    Thank you. I'll look into Guillevic.


  27. "X of X" has deep roots in our language.
    it used to be called a KENNING.


  28. The "X of X" move (in one incarnation at least) apparently really pissed off Pound. From his essay "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste":

    Don’t use such an expression as “dim lands of peace.” It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.


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