Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Analysis of a "bad" poem

PREFACE: I read a poem I didn't like, and I found myself wanting to talk about it. Then I immediately questioned this instinct, because I worry that I'm predisposed not to like this type of poem, and I hate when people write negative reviews of books that they dislike on sight and refuse to accept on their own terms. And I don't really believe that there are "good poems" and "bad poems"; you can't assess goodness without a framework, and we haven't all agreed upon a framework. But then, on the other hand, I respect and trust critics who talk about what they dislike occasionally, not just what they like, because it gives you a better sense of how they read. And on the third hand, I opened to this poem at random in a literary journal that was sitting on our coffee table (the Fall 2013 issue of Crazyhorse, which I received because a poem I co-wrote appeared in a recent issue); I had never previously heard of the poet. I hope you believe I had no preconceived notions about or agenda against the poet, or the journal.

So, all that said, here's the poem. It's by Danielle Cadena Deulen. (For what it's worth, she has a creative writing job and a couple of books; I wouldn't be doing this if it was the poet's first published poem or something like that; my hope is that a credentialed poet can handle a little pushback.)

The Needle, The Thread

What am I suppose to do with all of this
happiness? The needle that pierced through

then the thread that follows, that seems
immeasurable, but so thin, delicate. I run my fingers

along the healed seams in my skin, the patched
ruptures in the walls of my mind. But now

the storm has washed the pavement, lost water
rises from its unadorned body and the flowering trees

flood the gutters with pink. What am I
supposed to do with the scent of the weeds, the sharp,

impatient greenness of them, split, as I am
with a history of sorrow? When I breathe the sweet

June light, my lungs crackle, my hair stands on end.
What do I do with this swirl of pines, the wasps' nest's

astonishing swell, the rivets in the maple, rough
beneath my hands, and my God, the sky---the sky---

First, I think this poem's opener invites suspicion: "What am I suppose [sic] to do with all of this / happiness?" The typo, yes, irks me, but I'll grant that it's possible this is the fault of the editors and not the poet. In any case, the question amounts to a kind of humblebrag, so the author is setting the reader up for an overturning of expectations: The only way to correct for this abundant windfall of happiness is to allow some darkness to seep in later on, so that's what I expect as a reader.

What I get, instead, is a pretty flat register of emotion: awe all the way through. The poem ends on the same note of shocked appreciation as the first line: "my God, the sky" etc. And what comes in between? There are some hints at a more painful past, leading up to this beauteous moment: "seams in my skin"; "patched / ruptures"; "a history of sorrow." The problem is that these gestures toward pain feel false because they're turned into music. You'll notice that Deulen uses the "X of Y" construction throughout -- "walls of my mind," "scent of the weeds," "greenness of them," "history of sorrow," "swirl of pines" -- to the point that even phrases that don't quite fit the pattern start to feel like part of the tic: "all of this," "seams in my skin," "stands on end," "rivets in the maple." In contemporary poetry, the X of Y move has become a kind of syntactic substitute for real meaning. It sounds poetic, especially when the variables are plugged in with poetic words like "sorrow" and "rivets," but what is actually being accomplished? Is the occasion moving or are you just forcing me to go through the motions of being moved?

My issue with a poem like this is that there's no real tension. The poet is using beautiful language to describe beauty -- it's a five-star review of beauty. But beauty is not underrated; it doesn't need an advocate. The poem oozes sentimentality ("sweet June light"!) and the end is overdramatic. And I like drama! Give me a big Rilkean ending any day. But in a Rilke poem, you get 13 staid lines about a bust of Apollo before the flushed demand of the ending. There's a sense of subtlety, a sense of balance.

I could sort of see this poem having a place in a sequence of poems that demonstrate some tonal variance, but as a poem on its own, I don't think it works. And I guess that is on the editors as much as the author. I see journals publishing stuff like this all the time. It's a fine example of paint-by-numbers "craft"; you've got your assonance and your nice "line breaks." But in the end it's just the poetry equivalent of Oscar bait. Beauty without depth; wafer-thin.


  1. I took "suppose" to be some kind of vernacular, almost a way of redeeming the rest of the sentence, which is otherwise uninteresting. "walls of my mind" felt kind of cliche, like one time a poet read a poem where something was "dancing in your imagination" and I felt like I was on Sesame Street. I wouldn't be brave enough to use "my mind" as a phrase in a poem- I just don't think i could make it work, and I don't think it worked here.

    That said, I write a lot of stuff like this. I'm not published, I haven't made a career or a life of poetry, much to my own disappointment. I tend to experience short moments that send me off to write something of about this length and depth, and I'm generally OK with that. Coming from a more accomplished poet, something like this is a little puzzling.

    1. She uses "supposed" correctly later in the poem so I don't think it's an intentional misuse/vernacular. LOL at "dancing in your imagination."

      I write poems with big abstractions like "the mind" and "happiness" but I guess think abstractions + sentimentality is kind of a double offense. But there are parts of the poem I like (the seams/seems rhyme, the "wasps' nests"); if it were a student poem I'd think it had redeeming value and all that, but I'd push her to make it better.

  2. Perfect, thanks for saying this, it needs to be said.

  3. Ezra Pound said about 100 years ago that, in the effort to abandon formalism, the poem should be more than mediocre prose chopped up into line breaks. That's clue one for this poem. That the poem is in couplets, which seems to be the current workshop standard is the 2nd clue. My gripe with poems like this, aside from the fact that they do not really risk much, is that this is a level of consciousness that is kind of shallow. I'd like to see something deeper in the poems I come back to again and again. Something of the personal myth of the poet, perhaps something odd or unsettling or striking or original. Vancouver poet Lissa Wolsak says poets like this one should "go further down their own throat" and I can't say it better. There is not enough real criticism in the poetry world today, as people can't separate criticism of the poem from criticism of the poet as a human being. Poetry suffers.

    1. Another way to say this is that the poem has no element of surprise. It's gesturing toward epiphany but there's never a moment of realization. It's just "Wow, nature is lovely."

      I like the throat line.

  4. -I would really like the very ending (..."and my God" on) in a better poem, I think. I also don't mind the opening question if it, as you say, leads to some darkness. In between, though, ouch.
    -The sorrow doesn't land at all because it's entirely generalized (perhaps in a misguided attempt to make it seem more "universal"?).
    -It also has one of my pet poetry peeves: "so" used as a synonym for "extremely" without a follow-up qualifier ("so thin that _"). "So" on its own is the world's laziest adjective.
    -"ruptures in the walls of my mind" is high-school-journal profound

    1. Me too, I could see those lines being made to work inside a different poem, if they had some irony or whatever, but here, just no. (I got a little goofy this morning thinking of other ways to start that second line: "What am I suppose to do with all these / cupcakes" etc.)

      Yeah "ruptures in the walls of my mind" is pretty inexcusable, and I say that as someone who uses the word "mind" freely in poetry.

  5. I'd start by rethinking the words "split, as I am,/with a history of sorrow." That notion will probably disappear after a few rewrites. Without it, the poem is a list of images that float away like bubbles, shiny, doomed.

    1. I want to read the poem about the bubbles.

  6. I pretty much agree with what you've said about the poem, and with the other comments here. I've read the poem twice -- the second time I read it out loud -- and I have a hard time sensing any real compelling need that the poem came from. (This is something I listen/feel for when I read a poem. I'm not much drawn to poems that are just, or mostly, exercises. I'm drawn much to poems that feel like birth by labor.)

    I don't necessarily mind the "X of Y" construction, as such, though "walls of my mind" did kind of make me groan. I would have to have a pretty compelling reason to say "of my mind" in any context in a poem. It yanks me back to the silliest aspects of shallow corporate media notions of 60's hippie life and thought (and I'm one with a great respect for 60's hippie life and thought, but "of my mind" hasn't aged well).

    The poem starts to get my attention a little with "the scent of the weeds, the sharp, // impatient greenness of them", but after this tentative gesture toward substance and organic life it falls away again.

    Richard Hugo, in his essay "Writing away from the Subject" (I think that's the title, or -- possibly -- "Writing off the Subject"?), -- it's in his book of essays The Triggering Town -- says that often an inexperienced poet, or one who is still in the early stages of learning poetry, will write three or four lines on (say) autumn rain. The poet will then get the idea that the poem must be "about" autumn rain, and will start trying to make up more lines about autumn rain. But the real subject of the poem isn't really autumn rain, it's something else, somewhere else -- those first lines might belong in the poem, but the poem also needs to go other places in order to come to life.

    Yeah, I also see literary magazines publishing stuff like this all the time. I mostly avoid reading magazines that do that.

    1. "Walls of my mind" kind of reminds me of "These are the halls of medicine."

      I talked about that in my recent podcast with Brad Listi, how you can't just sit down and be like "This is the poem about memory!" I like Hugo's formulation of it though.

  7. I see nothing in the opening that presages a seepage of darkness. For all you know the rest of the poem could be unrelievedly bright. I just find the poem a bore. I'm bored by the trite spring symbolism and threadbare poetic diction (nothing fresh about seems/seams, unless Hamlet is a new indie-theatre play), by the absence of anything evocative of pain, anything enigmatic, anything for me to do other than passively absorb this woman's expression of elation which why should I give a fuck about. It's irritating that this kind of slop garners publication credits and creative writing jobs.

    About "writing off the subject": right on, love that. Also something Hugo says elsewhere, that it's well to throw in some unexpected, apparently unrelated words like submarine or pyromaniac. Those words take the poem in an unexpected direction.

    1. Hamlet probably is a new indie-theater play.

      I've been reading a collection recently that is chock-full of unexpected, almost random words, and it's kinda fun, reminds me in a way of Tori Amos lyrics.

    2. "To be or not to be, or whatever."

      "That's a bummer about Yorick."

      "Go be a nun or whatever."

      "Man is a real piece of work."

      (Possible lines from "Hamlet: the Indie-Theater Production.")

    3. "Go be a nun or whatever" is priceless.

  8. Yes, I know what you mean, you remind me of Elvis Costello (I was an Elvis addict for a while in college). He carried a notebook and filled it with words that grabbed him. Like driving through Madison, WI he wrote down stuff from road signs. He saw a sign that said "Quisling Clinic" and worked that into his lyrics. Sounds random, but how random is random? If it exerts an intutitive pull, it's not really random.

    1. I kind of think songs allow for much more randomness than poems.

  9. Elisa, this is being passed around by people at Syracuse and your analysis is just dead on. The faux wonder (the "awe" that is really self-enrapturement), the cheap emotion, the wrong details (lungs "crackle"??), all of this is stuff you see regularly in pubs and among the academy poets. It's hard to imagine that Crazyhorse, of all pubs, didn't receive any poems that were just plain better than this one. So why'd it get published?

    " But beauty is not underrated; it doesn't need an advocate. " This observation is crucial to understanding what went wrong in the poem. We can set aside everything else, which could arguably be a matter of taste, and see that the poem has no occasion. It's not just the safe and sterile "craft" (Kraft) style of the poem, it's that I don't need to be told that beautiful things are beautiful.

    Anyway, you nailed this. Good stuff.

    1. "The poet is using beautiful language to describe beauty": yes, let's have fleurs du mal.

      That's the trouble with Milton, too. He elevates his style to describe supernal realms.

    2. I'll add that I think it's perfectly OK for there to be poems without occasion (certain kinds of conceptual poems, for example) but it seems to me that this poem is trying to fit into a tradition of lyric poems that *do* need an occasion and some kind of turn to feel meaningful.

      As to what journals publish and why, I think most of them gravitate toward safety and often what feels safe is stuff that walks like a duck and talks like a duck but is not, in the end, actually a duck. I mean, when I think about why I would bother reading poetry, the answer is that a poem should either make me think or make me feel (two sides of the same coin), and that's usually by showing me something new, or new to me at least, some surprising or interesting way of thinking or putting language together or whatever. And this poem superficially looks and sounds like other traditional lyric poems that do those things, but it missing the "makes you think/care" part, which is why it feels melodramatic versus actually dramatic.

    3. Also, thanks! Forgot to say that.

  10. The poem does seem to be trying (too) hard to poetic. Cocteau's admonishment that a poet doesn't resort to poeticisms, nor does a gardener scent his roses, comes to mind. Touching in a bit a narrative underpinning may have helped the poem rise to its occasion (whatever it may have been).

  11. Overall, I agree with your and everyone else's criticism of the poem. When I read it a second time, though, I thought that maybe the first line was not a humble brag as much as an expression of exasperation that the speaker is surrounded by apparent happiness that she can't share in (because she's had some kind of surgery? A C-section? Eh.). I find myself trying to cobble together a deeper meaning in the poem that is only hinted at, which makes me wonder if they are just poetic hints with no real substance.

    1. Hi Sarah, a reading like that seems to depend on knowing something about the author/speaker that the poem doesn't reveal. Is the poem better if the author/speaker has had some kind of accident, operation, etc., that renders her incapable of appreciating beauty or happiness? Or did she get some minor stitches? I'd like the line a lot better if it was an expression of exasperation, but the poem doesn't seem to be built out of exasperated language; instead everything seems pretty, "delicate," "flowering."

    2. Mother, Summer, I

      My mother, who hates thunder storms,
      Holds up each summer day and shakes
      It out suspiciously, lest swarms
      Of grape-dark clouds are lurking there;
      But when the August weather breaks
      And rains begin, and brittle frost
      Sharpens the bird-abandoned air,
      Her worried summer look is lost,

      And I her son, though summer-born
      And summer-loving, none the less
      Am easier when the leaves are gone.
      Too often summer days appear
      Emblems of perfect happiness
      I can't confront: I must await
      A time less bold, less rich, less clear:
      An autumn more appropriate.

      --Philip Larkin

    3. Summer-loving, had me a blast.

    4. Summer-born to sweet delight,
      Summer-born to endless night.

  12. Reading more of the discussion here, by way of contrast I think of a poem by Tom Hennen. It's in his book Darkness Sticks to Everything: Collected and New Poems, published 2013 by Copper Canyon Press.


    Tom Hennen

    Independent Existence

    A small pond comes out of the hillside.
    On its surface
    Hangs a frog imitating moss.
    A wlllow leaf
    Drops on the water
    And is immediately still.
    Autumn air penetrates the ground.
    Wind hums endlessly
    To the tangled grass.
    When things happen here
    There is no urge to put them on TV.


  13. No urge to put them on tv, just in a poem? That doesn't work for me. It is self-congratulatory in the extreme.


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