Monday, January 25, 2010

The Poem and the Idea, Part 2: Diffuse Ideas

I feel that I may have created some confusion in last week's post about publishing the poem, not the poet, w/r/t "ideas." So I'm going to try to do a series of posts on the idea in the poem. (Coming soon, a post on the difference between ideas and abstractions, as requested by Brooklyn.)

Last week I cited a poem by Matt Henriksen composed entirely of overt ideas, just to show that it's possible, but not to say that it's the only or the easiest or the best way to put ideas in poems. (Matt, sorry I misspelled your name before; I was just reproducing the typo in Handsome.) The central "idea" of a poem doesn't have to be overtly stated at all.

Here's a poem by Jon Woodward that I first read on Verse Daily:

The janitor asked me how
to pronounce the creature's name
& I said salamander for him.

He looked at it on the screen
and I looked at him.

Slide your legs into its tail I said.
I can't he said as he did.
Dish your guts there into its cavity

of guts, I can't he said (manifestly untrue
for he did so). Mash the thing's
name and yours I said together into

that irreversible hole I know you keep
and he did & it broke over his face

& flowed, water from the earth,
I can't, I can't, he said.
Superficially, this poem is pure narrative description. He said this, then I said this, then this happened, etc., with no editorializing. But this poem is remarkable because it has an idea. You can't locate it in any one line; the idea is diffuse, it emerges from the poem. You can think of any number of dumb ways to paraphrase the idea (e.g., "Sometimes people say and even think they can't do something when they can") but there is no better way to express it than the poem itself. That paraphrase especially sucks because it turns the poem into a lesson; it's reductive and aphoristic and the poem is not. The poem is like Mexican magical realism.

I'm only really moved by poetry when it feels like a direct manifestation of thought. (Which doesn't mean it has to be "stream of consciousness" ... I don't know about y'all, but I can think in complete sentences.) This is why I'm often suspicious of forms -- they're a way to manipulate content to fit an established pattern. It's like, "I've got some poem content here, should I package it as a sonnet or a sestina? Sestinas can be nice*." However successful they are, forms always feel somewhat like an exercise.

So, can I preemptively but the kibosh on comments of the "But I don't like that poem" nature? Even if you don't like this particular poem (weirdo), you can see my point, right? If not, tell me why.

*Not true. Sestinas are always tiresome.


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  2. That's actually how Kathy and I wrote most of our formal collaborations. We'd pick a form and just let it unfold/devolve. I do think forms can be good fun, or beautifully done or whatever, I just rarely if ever find them *moving* -- they may technically be poetry but they're not the kind of poetry I love.

    Seriously though, I hate sestinas. They bore the pants off me! I like other repetitive forms (like pantoums) but why do sestinas gotta be so goddamn long??

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  4. In our lifetimes, songwriters, with their lyres, offer some of the best defenses for formal lyric poetry. See--no need to even hear, other than reading aloud--Leonard Cohen's "If It Be Your Will" (which uses the same "rhyme royal" scheme as Chaucer) at and Nick Cave's "Nature Boy" at

    In both cases, the strict meter and rhyme highten the meaning and create an occasion outside of daily conversation--the equivalent of a sacred space instead of a bar. At the same time, both of these are instances of what you're describing--prime numbers that cannot be reduced to a summary without losing their meaning.

  5. Hi Eric,

    I think of song lyrics as a totally different category from poetry...when I talk about what I like in poetry, it probably doesn't apply to song lyrics, the enjoyment of which, to me, are heavily dependent on my enjoyment of the accompanying music.

    I think there are effects (moves, if you will) outside of traditional forms that can "heighten the meaning and create an occasion outside of daily conversation."

  6. I'm not at all making the case for formal poetry over free verse, just suggesting that some of the best contemporary examples of formal lyric poetry might be overlooked because they aren't published and anthologized as poetry. I also agree that almost all song lyrics are missing something on the page, but I think of the two that I linked to as exceptions.

  7. i know, 39 whole lines!

    it's just like swimming--all you have to remember is: don't try to breathe while your face is under water.

    yes, that is the key to both swimming and reading long poems. ta da.

  8. but not even the sestina can touch the 65-line canzone!

  9. Man in poems like that I just end up scanning the end words.

  10. pre-reading-the-whole-thing-comment:

    this article in last weeks nytimes:

    (read the whole thing, totally fascinating, then come back)


    got me thinking about the concept of abstraction. defining it in an admirable compact tweet-sized definition, for replay by NYU freshman looking for a walk-on part in the art scene, to see if they fit in.

    a figure, i came up with pretty quick. but that seemed cheating, almost the same word, a tautology.

    a figure that represents. doesn't add much.

    a figure that represents an idea. going in circles. a figure that represents a synthesis of ideas.

    texted a lady grad student: "how would you define an abstraction?"

    "a concept stripped of specific characteristics," she replied.

    no less vague then my stabbings. it left me unsatisfied. though i liked mine better.

    ".. makes synthesis or generalization possible" she elaborated.

    and then examples. devilishly hard to come up with. union, i said. democracy (cheating from the sehgal article). happiness. anything. any word. she shot each down. i challenged her therefore to come up with an example. she drew a blank.

    that's where it's been left up to this point.

    so, yeah, looking forward to a full post on this.

    no, i didn't click on the link. sounded spoilerish.

  11. A poet who I think wrote a lot of poems in which ideas were a main motive force was W. H. Auden. Also, from time to time, T. S. Eliot (though much of Eliot's poetry was partially shrouded in a kind of spiritual angst that got lost grappling with religious dogma). I name Auden here just as an example.

    Another example might be the Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelof. And Kenneth Rexroth in some of his longer philosophical poems (for example, some of the passages in "The Dragon and the Unicorn" and "The Phoenix and the Tortoise."

    Then, to suggest some of the distinction between ideas and abstraction: a poet who wrote a lot in abstraction was Laura Riding. Also (gradually, later in life) T.S. Eliot, in Four Quartets for example.

    Alexander Pope and John Donne wrote poems that might be described either way.

    "Abstract" in my mind isn't an absolute concept, it exists relative to "concrete." A word that is more concrete tends to be less abstract, and vice versa.

    A rose, a whisper, a fingertip touch, a giggle, a teddy bear: each might, in the right context, evoke the concept "love." Though not necessarily the same "kind" of love from each of the things.

    If someone you've just met says to you "I love you," assuming that they're not behaving in a crazy or threatening manner (and I maybe shouldn't just assume that, life being what it sometimes it is, but anyway), one of the things you might wonder is which kind of love are they talking about -- do they want to give you a rose or a teddy bear?

    An idea isn't identical with an abstraction, but ideas tend to be, at least initially, abstract. (What color is thought? How many pounds does it weigh? Does it smell more like a piece of chocolate or a dill pickle?) An abstraction implicitly asked for concreteness to clarify it. A concrete thing may or may not (implicitly or otherwise) ask to be reduced to an abstraction.

    The word "awe" might be clarified, and probably enlarged, by the phrase "a hawk circling in air," but a hawk circling in air is, at least slightly, diminished by reducing it to the word "awe."

    Poems rich in concrete language can contain or suggest ideas, though most such poetry that I've read that's rich in concrete language brings forth ideas somewhat indirectly, by evoking them or subtly leading the reader to them, rather than by stating the ideas outright.

  12. Chris: I think of abstraction as the process of generalizing specific cases to a concept. So stuff like "freedom" and "love," yes, those are abstractions. (Think of computer science, dude!)

    "Idea" can be used as a synonym for abstraction, I guess, but that's definitely not what I mean. I'm using idea to suggest more complexity and completeness -- approaching a theory, if it's a sliding scale, but nothing that formal. It's a spark, it's thought-provoking in the sense that it provokes thoughts you haven't had before, it doesn't just trigger memories and associations.

  13. Elisa, thanks for using my poem, it made me happy to see it here!

    Let me make sure I understand your argument clearly: A poem is (ideally) situated somewhere on a continuum in between "abstract idea" and "huge, erect, cartoon cat penis (NSFW)."

  14. Jon: You're welcome. I love that poem. And yes, once again, you've nailed it.

  15. "Sestinas are always tiresome."

    I'm 'bout to quote that shit anywhere and everywhere I'm asked to list my "favorite quotes."

    "(What color is thought? How many pounds does it weigh? Does it smell more like a piece of chocolate or a dill pickle?)"

    The way I'm inclined to write these days, and like to read, I treat these questions with "sight and sound." Mainly sight. I'm not typically fussed with the other three senses- that's where things can start to unravel for me, as the writer, and me, as the reader.

    "I'm only really moved by poetry when it feels like a direct manifestation of thought."

    I'm only really moved by poetry when it feels like a direct manifestation of objective/observation. :-) I don't care what you -think- about what you're seeing. What you -think- about it (your opinions, emotional reactions, etc.) should be apparent in the details you leave in/edit away. I love that about poetry. I don't love coming to a poem where the poet has, I feel, unpacked all his thoughts and opinions and emotions. Then again, it doesn't take much for me to feel that a poet HAS done that. I'm probably not the best judge. I probably have a very short attention span for reading poetry, and I'm not empathetic enough to -want- to read what another poet has unpacked. Heh.

    I like that you're discussing this on your blog, and I appreciate your clarity. Good stuff. Thank you!

  16. "I don't love coming to a poem where the poet has, I feel, unpacked all his thoughts and opinions and emotions."

    I agree with that, but yeah, we may differ on when and how a poem crosses that line. I think you're basically saying "Show don't tell." :) My argument is not "Tell, don't show," so much as "Have something worth telling in the first place." I think.

    Thanks for reading!

  17. I do definitely agree with the "Have something worth telling in the first place." All my literary crushes (man-poets, mostly historical) have been able to do this beautifully. But we probably disagree on the "worth telling" part. Also, I read with my hormones. I'm ridiculous like that. :-)


    One of the most beautiful poems in the English language, imo!

    But probably the exception that proves the rule...

  19. why "the janitor"?

    and who's the narrator in relation to the janitor: a gradgrind studying for the test on his laptop?

    that's one way of getting rid of the working class: ram them into your cram——