Monday, March 1, 2010

The Poem and the Idea, Part 5: The Pushed Idea

Another approach to the idea-driven poem: Take a small or inane idea, seemingly worth a throwaway line at best, and push past the wall to explode it into a full poem. This is an exercise in imagination and it risks, of course, amounting to nothing more than an exercise in inanity. But the seed idea, if taken seriously, can sprout all kinds of interesting baby and off-shoot ideas.

The below poem by Ariana Reines (reprinted in the new Gurlesque anthology edited by Lara Glenum and Arielle Greenberg) starts with a rather inane idea. It's a poem in the voice of a mini-mart located inside a dog. WTF, right? It's easy to imagine the first line ("I am a mart in the dog") being a random line in a non-sequitur-driven poem, less easy to imagine it remaining central, at least without the poem devolving into mere absurdity (not that there's anything wrong with absurdity). Here it is:

I am a mart in the dog and look, here’s some merchandise. I am a mart in the dog. Aye.

Being a mart in a dog is like being a world: overstated.

Do you know what love is if you are a mart in a dog. You sell Hoodsies and cigarettes and lotto tickets. You are real.

Do you know what a dog is if you are trapped inside of him.

Everything is part of something.

I am part of something because my life is so stupid.

Being a mousse made of stars in the night that I want to feel is being too because I am gluey like a girl.

I even am a girl. Wow, fuck me.

Being a night inside of the mouth of a loved boy. Red black and shiny teeth with a tongue. The word of a loved boy has sense.

In a mart where there are newspapers and burnt coffee all the night long, bic pens in a jar, scratch tickets and pornography, everything’s ok. I am not the nice man in the mart I am the mart itself, which is inside of a dog who would love me by instinct except he doesn’t know I am inside of him and a mart isn’t an I.

Infinity has got to become mine so that I can know which way to turn, so that I can know in what direction something like morning is breaking.
The poem is absurd, to be sure, but it achieves its spikes of surprise and flashes of profundity (and a couple rather dumb moments, I admit) by pushing the idea in unanticipatable directions.

I think this poem is risky, and not (just) because it includes the F-word. It risks being detestable. A certain kind of poem is not detestable, it's too harmless and inert to offend anyone but the most determined to be offended. It risks only being boring. This one, I can see some people really getting pissed about.

More and more, I realize, I'm interested in the realm of the polarizing. I like plenty of things that everyone else likes, but I'm fascinated by the love-it-or-hate-it zone. I'm not even sure how much I like the above poem. I was very struck by it the first time I read it. Being striking is a feat in itself. The second time around I found it less rewarding; I had the urge to edit it. The third and fourth times, it mostly won be back again. I respect it. But I think I grok it a bit too much to be in awe of it. That Jon Woodward poem still sort of awes me. How did he do that?


  1. I kind of like the poem, although I think those things work best when they feel like where the writer lives, and not an exercise, and this feels a bit like a project to me.

    But that may just have been reading your intro.

    I'm not sure about offense, but I know what you mean by inertness. I've had this thing lately about the State of Poetry Today pushing us towards overly perfect onesies instead of a group of poems that work as an internal dialogue for the writer. And when everything is perfect, a book of that stuff can feel kind of flaccid. Don't know.

  2. Interesting. I actually feel like "perfect onesies" have gone out of fashion. Which is too bad, since I think it's the mode I tend toward, or did at least in my past ~5 years.

  3. Maybe they have. I suspect your grasp on poetry fashion may be more current than mine. This is just a reaction to reading a lot of recent poetry books. But naturally they'd probably reflect the fashion of 3-5 years ago...

  4. I love this (this poem + your post about this poem). You're right about the absurdity, but you can also read every stanza as the internal vs. the external, so it seems both crafted and silly ad-libbed.

  5. Thanks Leigh! And I agree -- the idea has real content even if its manifestation is silly. You can read it as a grand metaphor (systems within systems) if you can take yourself seriously while doing it. Why not?