Friday, June 28, 2013

Some new poetry ideas

OK so these aren't really "new" new (there are no new ideas, don't you know?), but these are some thoughts I've been thinking in the past few months.

1. Form as "Surface Tension"

This idea comes from a talk that Julie Carr did at Counterpath last month, based on her new book from Dalkey Archive, Surface Tension: Ruptural Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry. In the lecture, she talked about (with diagrams!) how surface tension works, like actual surface tension in, say, a bead of water. At a molecular level, it looks something like this:

Rather than risk explaining this all wrong, I'll just quote Wikipedia and we can blame any wrongness on the male youths of America: "In the bulk of the liquid, each molecule is pulled equally in every direction by neighboring liquid molecules, resulting in a net force of zero. The molecules at the surface do not have other molecules on all sides of them and therefore are pulled inwards. This creates some internal pressure and forces liquid surfaces to contract to the minimal area."

How is this relevant to poetry, you ask? Good question. Julie talked about the persistent idea that poems are made up of two kinds of "stuff": the surface stuff (language and metaphor and meter and all that fancy business) and the understory, as it were, the true "meaning" of the poem. If this is your theory of poetry, then you'll always be trying to translate the surface stuff into the other stuff, the "real" poem. But, she argues, a better way to look at it is with a surface tension model. In this model, there is only one kind of stuff (the language of the poem being the equivalent of water molecules), but there is extra tension at the level of the surface of the poem. Formal effects are not a different kind of stuff you put on top of the real poem to decorate it. It's all language, there is just more tension at the surface.

I've always (even when I was twelve, etc.) thought that the poem is the poem, there is no "other" poem, the sound and the meaning are one – but I LOVE this way of looking at it! It's such an elegant analogy. (Liz Phair reference because last night I was hanging out with some poets and none of them were familiar with Exile in Guyville and I felt like somebody's dad banging on about, I don't know ... a band kids don't care about. Or my mom assuring me that the Beatles were, in fact, more famous in their day than New Kids on the Block.)

2. The Minimal Takeaway

So this came up in Julia Cohen's recent response to the Harper's article on why contemporary American poetry sucks, etc. (Here's my response.) Here's the paragraph where she suggests a new (maybe, to you) way of approaching a poem (emphases mine):
C) What If, Complexity and Critical Thinking Aside, We Just Enjoy Whatever Parts of the Poem We Enjoy?
What I mean is, you don’t need to read a poem multiple times. You can read it once. You can read it once and feel like you understood it or NOT feel like you understood it. You can read it again if you want to, but you don’t have to. You can read it and fall in love with a single line and ignore the rest. That’s okay. I love this Gwendolyn Brooks line “a girl gets sick of a rose,” I love this Zachary Schomburg line “what I plant I bury,” I love this line by Jennifer Denrow, “You were the white field when you handed me a blank sheet of paper and said you'd worked so hard all day and this was the best field you could manage,” and this line by Seth Landman, “What is good? My curiosity sways on an island with sounds,” I love this line by Elizabeth Willis, “I swim to shore everyday.” I love these lines for many different reasons. They make me feel something. They make me think about language. They make me think about human potential and human fallibility. Like there is no “right” way to write a poem, there is no “right” way to find pleasure in reading a poem. When I go to a museum and stand in front of a Jasper Johns painting or a Rothko, I don’t pretend to understand all of its meanings or implications—but that doesn’t make me afraid or bitter. I might come back and sit in front of it again, and see if I glean something new or different. Or I might not. I’ve gained something from the experience, and it’s okay if that “something” is indefinable. As Sommer Browning writes, “either way I’m celebrating.”
I don't hate on an academic approach to reading a poem, to explicating and picking apart if that gives you pleasure. That's partly what I'm doing in my Poneme columns. But I don't write an essay every time I read a poem, and I wouldn't want to. I also think that if a poet writes a line that moves me and sticks with me, they have given me something great, and who cares if they haven't written a book's worth of perfectly polished self-contained poems? Or maybe they have but I just haven't gotten around to reading them all, so what. I love the Justin Marks line "The day crawls by like a living document, the prettier for having forgotten me" – even if I keep forgetting the rest of the poem. Years ago, when I was a reader for Ploughshares, I screened a submission that included the line "sweet and extra"; it got stuck in me somehow. Then, much later, I met the author at a party. It was Mary Walker Graham. I've read probably fewer than ten of her poems in my life, but I think she's a phenomenal poet. (The "like a person" refrain in "Then & Now" kills me.)

3. All Poetry Is Visual Poetry

This one's all me! (Except I'm sure someone else has said this before, see above.) I was tweet-chatting with Jessica Smith last night and telling her how instructive it was for me to see her read at the Mass Poetry Festival in Lowell one year. See, Jessica writes visual poetry, AKA VisPo. Her poems look like this. And people often don't know how to read them. I really didn't, until I saw her do this reading. She projected the poems on a huge screen behind her on stage, and explained that she doesn't read a poem the same way every time. It's like a garden with multiple paths, and you can choose to wander through the garden however you like.

I'm not very good at listening, so I would almost always prefer to have a visual aid at a poetry reading. (There are exceptions – I saw Denver poet HR Hegnauer perform last weekend, and she was utterly brilliant; it was not like a reading but some kind of magical poetry theater.) And the reason, I suddenly realized, is because to me all poetry is visual poetry. How it looks on the page matters so much, is so crucial to the meaning. This might be, for me, the fundamental difference between poetry and prose – not the sound, as people always say, but how it looks. The line break is just the simplest example of this, but even a lack of line breaks (as in prose poetry) is important to the reading.


  1. Props to Julie for quite possibly the first reasonable analogy on record bridging the nontechnical with physics.

  2. Years ago when I was in a poetry class (at the Port Townsend Writers' Conference) taught by Olga Broumas, at one point during the class Olga commented that she puts herself in situations that force herself to act, that this is how she approaches much of her daily live and how she lives. It occurred to me, much later thinking about this, that I put myself in situations that force me to feel.

    Poems I especially respond to tend to be poems that (among other things) cause me to feel something. Not just anything, but something that moves me in some significant way. To feel wonder, or loss, or an awareness of transient beauty, or solitude, or insurgent political rage, quiet anticipation, or...

    One of the projects medieval alchemists endeavored upon was the making of a "hermetic vessel," a container that was strong enough or made well enough to contain the potent volatile energy of Hermes. I somethings thing of poems, or the making of poems, as the making of a kind of hermetic vessel -- making something with the strength or structure (or, perhaps, the subtlety) to contain... what... maybe the raw energy of experience as it occurs before words. I've never quite been able to put this right, but something like that.

    1. Feeling is important, yes, but I feel that thinking is a variety of feeling (or vice versa), so poems that make me think are equally valuable.

    2. Yes, I'm not at all suggesting that there's only one valid way to approach poems or to be moved by them. There are obviously many ways to -- which would have something to do with why many different people can respond differently to the same poem.

  3. point #3 is everything (well, one thing) i always felt about poetry but never realized i felt. THANK YOU.

    1. Thought I responded to this earlier, but, YOU'RE WELCOME!