Bitter Pill; or, Considering Irony in Poetry

I have written a short collection of poems that consider the uneasy work of living together in society, but I don’t like the collection. It has too much irony in the poems. Rilke said irony has no place in poems; but Lia Purpura was able to explain to me why.

She wrote in an essay in her book All the Firece Tethers: “Irony is the outward sign of a feeling one’s trying not to have…There isn’t a bit of longing in it. No failure. No danger. No dream.”

And I think it’s true, these poems of irony mask, for example, the admiration I have for Franklin, Jefferson, and the guys, yes, men, white men, slave owners, yes, andthinking deeply about society and the individual, the collective and the future, liberty and cooperation, what a document of declaration must say, what the foundational contract of a society must do. They made mistakes. They drank, whored, backstabbed, ducked some vital issues. They met heated hour after heated hour, wrote, listened, shouted, considered, drafted, redrafted. It was a monumental effort to craft this country. Extraordinary.

The irony I used masks the fears I have that we human beings are still so far from being able to love each other; that I am so far from being able to love my fellow humans; that we are killing each other and the planet because of it. It masks the grief I feel around the virulent divisiveness of the world.

How to write those poems?

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A real laugh riot; or On Cleverness or Humor in a Poem

A recent critiquer of a poem of mine averred that in two particular places I had “substituted cleverness for humor.”

This gave me paws. Ha ha, see what I did there? Isn’t cleverness humor? Humorous? Humor-ish? Is it a lesser form of humor?

It could be said to be superficial, perhaps — wordplay, for example, whereas humor, perhaps, should dig deep, have a little of its tragedian partner. Is there not room for cleverness in a poem?

The first place the critiquer red-penned in this way was indeed wordplay. I was trying to reconsider the meanings of a word. But maybe I had made my point with the image I presented, and didn’t need to emphasize it with the wordplay. In which case, it wasn’t the cleverness at fault but the redundancy. Fair enough.

The second offense was a quick lightening of the mood — I used an old song lyric to describe a situation. I’m not quite so convinced cleverness was a problem there (or indeed, anywhere). In the poem in question there are a few lighter moments in a poem otherwise taking itself seriously, and this was one of them. Can’t a little levity allow the reader to take a breath, to share with the writer a chuckle?

But maybe such cleverness calls too much attention to the writer. Look at me and my cleverness, it may say, and take the reader out of the poem in a way that is harmful to the poem and its atmosphere. Do we really need to share a wink, you and I?

If I want to inject humor, shouldn’t it be of the deeper kind and arise from the poem itself, not from the author’s ego?

I don’t know. I like to laugh. But when is humor organic to a poem and when is it hiding something or asserting itself in a show-offy way? I just don’t know, in the case of my poem; although I may recognize it immediately in someone else’s.

At any rate, I think it’s an interesting question.

Looky Lou; or, Enjoying Lia Purpura’s Work and More on Form

I heard her read many years ago, and enjoyed it thoroughly, and thought I’d read her book On Looking. But I remembered nothing about it when I feel deeply into the fascinating essays of this writer’s deep gaze. I also picked up and am, based on how much I’m enjoying so much of On Looking, looking forward to her newest collection of essays All the Fierce Tethers.

Listen to this from “On Form” in On Looking (again I’m being drawn to discussions of form — for someone who stubbornly writes in free verse, this seems peculiar):

“Sketching, I consider the line: ‘These fragments I shore against my ruin’–from a time when so much felt to be coming apart. But no. My fragments I shore to reveal my ruin. And all the similarities my eye is drawn to: flaw. Torque. Skew. I make a little pile by the shore: cracked horseshoe crab, ripped clam, wet ragged wing with feathers. I look because a thing is off, to locate the unlocatable in its features, forged as they are, or blunted, or blown. I look because the counter flashes its surprising grin.”

The essays luxuriate in the odd things noticed, the lovingly catalogued deformities noticed in her fellow humankind, in herself, in the world.

In the wonderful “Glaciology,” she recalls a week in which she was waiting for the results from a cancer test as her area was wrapped in snow, school cancelled, the usual rhythms disrupted. She wrote: “Of all the names for snow considered, of all the shifts in tone it made, I found clamshell, bone, and pearl. That week I found lead in the white, mouse in it, and refracted granite. Talc with pepper. Layers of dried mud, zinc, and iron. Blown milkweed and ashy cinder. Silvered cornfield. Uncooked biscuit. Mummy, oatmeal, sand, and linen. Some morning glory. Some roadside aster.”

Her interest in similarities reminds me of Magritte’s interest in such things. Think of his painting of a bird cage containing an egg, the curve of the cage echoing the curve of the egg; the thing containing the thing containing the thing to be contained but not yet birthed.

Which is sort of the form of a good essay, it occurs to me.

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Wake Me Up When It’s Over

This was an interesting moment from Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman, p130:

“There are about a hundred billions neurons in the average human brain, and each neuron is connected by long filaments to between a thousand and ten thousand other neurons. The electrical and chemical components of these neurons are largely understood. The manner in which electrical signals are created and fly through the fibers of a neuron, then generate chemical flows at the juncture between one neuron and the next, then start up the electrical signal again in the next neuron is understood in quantitative detail. The creation of long-term memory, upon which so much of our self-identity seems to be based, is accomplished by the material generation of new connections between neurons and the strengthening of existing connections, all caused by specific proteins. Despite the known material nature of the brain, the sensation of consciousness— of ego, of “I-ness”– is so powerful and compelling, so fundamental to our being and yet so difficult to describe, that we endow ourselves and other human beings with a mystical quality…To some that mystical thing is the soul. To some it is the Self. To others, it is consciousness.”

So we know all kinds of stuff about how the mind works, but we don’t know what this feeling is of knowing. Which makes me so confused I feel sleepy. And, let me tell you, from all the articles people insist on forwarding to me, we really know very little about sleep — how it works, why it works, why it works the way it works, and what’s going on when it doesn’t work, not to mention how to fix it. So we not only don’t know what this thing called “I” is but we don’t know why “I” can’t sleep. I’ll tell you, it keeps me awake at night.

Coming round again; or, THIS is the post on structure I meant to post last week

What I have loved about John McPhee is how he manages to be transparent in his telling of his tales. It’s like he’s standing behind you, just out of range of your peripheral vision, but speaking into your ear, whether he is narrating a raft trip down the Colorado or trying to explain the many geologic folds of the eastern seaboard. But in his recent book Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, he reveals himself, and his approach to writing, all the things he’s learned over his long career, primarily as a staff writer for the New Yorker. If he gets a little cute, maybe it’s because he’s not used to talking about himself, and, after all, after all the fine books he’s written, I guess he deserves to be as cute as he feels like. But he is also generous in offering readers a glimpse into his thought process as he has put together some of his classic stories.

The most interesting essay to me was “Structure.” He talks about the process of trying to figure out where to start a story, not to mention where to eend it. And as a poet, I appreciate this dilemma. I often find, both in terms of genuine interest, and in terms of energy, the power of a poem often starts several lines after I think the poem starts. I often find this in other people’s poems as well, people who have entrusted me to look at an early darft and comment. Other people have characterized it as “throat clearing.”

But McPhee usefully talks about the structure of a story, and how you can potentially start anywhere in the structure. As I don’t tend to write narrative, or story-telling, poems, this does not entirely apply to me, but the idea that a poem or a story need not start at what might be considered “the beginning,” is useful. Yes, sometimes you need to set a stage, or lead a reader in to a situation, or give a little back story, but often the most effective thing to do is to start in media res, the middle of things.

This is why I love the editing exercise of cutting the poem in half and starting with the middle section and see what happens. Maybe the top half goes on the bottom, or is best slid in somewhere after the middle, so a back and forth effect is created, or maybe the top half gets tossed, because it’s not pulling its weight.

McPhee has often created fairly elaborate diagrams to understand the basic structure of his story, and then decides what event markers can make good starts and ends. In fact, the essay itself rambles around a bit, and crosses back on itself, and occasionally tried my patience, as sometimes his work has done. But I appreciated the journey, as I almost always do.

He emphasizes, though, that the structure of the telling must come out of the story itself.

And isn’t that true of a poem, too, as I talked about in an earlier post about form. I experienced this myself recently, as I set out to write what I thought might be an essay. And I wrote, as I always do, in prose, stretching into the topic. Then I set to introduce possible line breaks and stanzas.

As I began to do this, I got a visceral reaction. No no no, something said. The line breaks almost made me sick to my stomach to look at. I took them out, let the lines roll out and breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever this thing was, and it might be that puzzling beast we call a “prose poem,” it wanted to stretch out, it wanted to wander and linger. And I also started to jumble what came first, in the end cutting out sections and shuffling them around like a card shark, in much that intuitive process in which I try to put together collections of poems.

As I’ve mentioned before (it’s lucky I have few regular readers, as I appear to be shamelessly repeating myself), Tony Hoagland usefully talked about how attention must be paid to how the reader is asked to enter the poem, through a door or thrown into the deep end?

McPhee described the process in one story of realizing that an encounter with a bear that happened, in chronological terms, about three-quarters of the way through the narrative, could serve to shape the entire piece. So, understanding that particular story as a circle, he started with the bear, and everything else led back to that moment.

It seems like a good idea to start with a bear. I find often people are committed to the chronological narrative of what they’re talking about in a poem, and can get visibly shaken when it’s suggested that they throw that chronology out the window.

I was thinking about this while reading Diane Seuss’s poem “Still Life with Turkey.” The center of the poem is her recollecting being asked, when she was a young child, if she wanted to view her father in his coffin. She said no, and the poem reflects on her role now as someone thirsty for seeing. So the poem starts with sight, not the father but a turkey in a still life: ” The turkey’s strung up by one pronged foot…” The poem lingers on the turkey for a few lines, then wanders to the memory, reflects then, “…Now I can’t get enough of seeing…” and ends with the turkey: “…the glorious wings, archangelic, spread/as if it could take flight, but down,/downward into the earth.”

The journey of the poem, like the journey of a story, should start with — and take you to — the bear.

Bring it on home; or Thoughts on Structure

A family crisis plus daily rejection emails plus a flurry of other small irritations recently put me off my writing “schedule” (ha ha) or really any of my efforts to be creative. I’m in a funk and wonder what it’s all for anyway. So I watched Project Runway. Or, in this case, Project Runway All Stars (In which contestants from past Projects Runway re-compete. Really, guys? you have nothing better to do than this again? Dmitry, I’m really surprised at you).

Anyway, in spite of some terrible calls on the part of the judges (Are you freaking kidding me? I shriek), and truly horrible styling for the host, poor Alyssa whatever-her-name-is, always stuffed into some inappropriate boob-bulging dress and teetering in some ridiculous high heel (Are you freaking kidding me? I shriek), I find it inspirational.

I love seeing how the designers rise to a challenge, within minutes conjuring all kinds of ideas, choices of colors, shapes, the imagination, the technical skills required. I love the way they become truly wrecked throughout the course of the competition, sleep deprived, on edge, and how they always say the competition pushed themselves to do things they would not otherwise have done.

I don’t know anything about fashion or clothing design, so I don’t really understand exactly what they mean, but I would like to feel that feeling — of trying something I’m not entirely sure I can pull off. The problem with not being in a reality show about writing poetry is that I have to come up with my own challenges and push.

I have had that experience — in recent times, for example, trying to write a long poem with long lines and leaps, pushing and elbowing and elbowing the boundaries of the poem. My first videopoem pushed me in this way, and my animations. (Can I really draw an octopus that looks recognizably like the same octopus across ten frames? Fortunately, all octopuses look sort of the same….)

So what’s it all for? Well, as regular readers know from a previous post in which I revealed the meaning of life to be, well, a meaningless question, I don’t think “it” is all “for” anything. It just is. I wake up every day (so far). So what am I going to do?

I guess I make things because it can be fun. I write because it’s how I think. I play with animation and video and paint and fabric because it’s fun. I don’t cook things or play tennis or volunteer at a soup kitchen because those things are not fun for me. In the absence of a Project Prod a Poet or a Project Make Something, I have to put myself in the creative zone, and this can be tiring and tiresome. But at least I’m not sharing a room in some hotel with other contestants, and having to worry about what Irina is saying behind my back. Cuz she’s just mean.

Make Me an Angel; or, On Not Committing to a Genre

As I’ve mentioned in this space before, I have a love/hate relationship with Poets & Writers magazine. All those contests I’ll never win! All those pages listing who won all those contests I’ll never win! But it often contains interesting articles and interviews. And I got thinking about this quote from an interview with Valerie Luiselli by Lauren LeBlanc.

Leblanc writes about Luiselli: “As a writer she doesn’t confine herself to fiction or nonfiction but instead allows the passion of her interests to guide her note-taking and writing. The genre makes itself known only after she has considered her subject from a variety of angles.”

Exactly, and so beautifully stated!

I don’t know how much is the interviewer and how much was the interviewee in how this was spoken, but I’m grateful to both. I was just putting together some notes for a poetry workshop I’m giving to the general public in April, which is, of course “poetry month.” I would not usually offer a “poetry” workshop. Rather the workshops I have offered ask people to just think creatively and imaginatively and not worry about what genre comes out.

In my intro notes to this workshop (the host organization said I could “do anything I wanted but it had to be focused on poetry”) I want to say something like what this article said, the idea of letting the work figure out its own form. This is part of the mysterious process of making.

As soon as you put a label on something, you’ve narrowed your vision. Just write stuff. And let it be. Meaning let it be whatever the hell it is — nothing, or something, Shakesperean sonnet or story, essay or one-act play. You won’t know until some editorial attention is paid to it.

So I’m going to add to my intro something about “allowing the passion of interests to guide” and “consider the subject from a variety of angles.” Why charge off in the direction of a poem just because you think you’re a poet, or you’re in a so-called poetry workshop? Let’s feel the idea and utterance like clay in our hands. Let’s play with it until it grows feathers and flies.