Thursday, March 26, 2015

Roses are Sometimes Not Red or Why Dr. Seuss Doesn't Write Poems


"Roses are red" is not a poem.

Dr. Seuss--not. Sorry.

Shel Silverstein. Sorry again.

Is this a continuum--verse to poem? Or is it two grab bags, two pencil boxes, two messy stacks of paper, the side of the goat and the side of the sheep, the Atlantic and the Pacific, the lady or the tiger, the lion and the lamb? I teach in an art school so I should be able to say "Roses are red" is to a poem as a stick figure is to the Mona Lisa. And is the difference skill or ambition or shimmer?

Yesterday a student said we agree to disagree when I would only agree to saying that Dr. Seuss writes narratives that rhyme. And sometimes there's not much narrative.

I once did a break down of what "Roses are Red" does and doesn't do:
  • It's succinct rather than flabby.
  • It's memorable.
  • It's traditional--harking back to some lines in Spenser which might be a little racier than the current version: 
                       She bath'd her brest, the boyling heat t'allay;
                       She bath'd with roses red, and violets blew,
                       And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.
  • Alliteration, consonance, end rhyme, interior rhyme, and half rhyme contribute to its musicality.
  • The metrical pattern has a variation in foot at a key place (beginning of last line when we move to the beloved), conveying information and contributing to musicality.
What is the problem? Is it only a cliche through overuse? If it were a rare unremembered song in  the Roud Folk Song Index (#19798), would I feel differently?

And yet I think the problem for me is the images chosen. They feel easy. They don't seem to have any nuance. We are moving from "fact" 1 to "fact" 2 to "fact" 3, and pretending line 4 is also a fact. Does this kind of false argument have a name? Sometimes roses are not red. Sometimes violets are white. Their sensory existence is predetermined by nature which is not true of line 4. Is line 4 just flattery? Is line 4 just a swift sweep up of the common endearment--sweetheart or honey?

Maybe it's that these images--rose, violet, sugar--are unrelated in any meaningful way to the beloved. When Robert Burns says, "O my Luve's like a red, red rose" there's a connection between the beloved and the image. The image is there to begin a wave of possibility. We can enumerate the ways this might be--soft, fragrant, beautiful, swift to die . . . 

So what is missing is complexity, layers, some kind of shimmer to meaning that cannot be entirely nailed down? Holograms of meaning? The ability of the poem to keep opening/shifting instead of closing down?

When we return to a poem time after time is there still pleasure, discovery, an unfolding? Do we need the burden of purpose or an unburdening on the page or the making of a kind of armor that can be shared? A sense of the serious?


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Why Did I Do It?

This past week I've written a poem in a strange form. It started out regular in a block of prose text, but then I decided to separate the phrasing into thumbnails in columns in a grid of white space. First, it was 3 columns, then 4. I played around with the question of how many thumbnails there should be. I had 15--should I have only 14 because that's the magic number for a small poem--calling all Shakespeares, calling all Petrarchs. But I think I've discussed my love/hate relationship with this idea before.

I had begun this strange shaping as a result of several subconscious influences, two of which I can identify. The first was a series of  Story Trope Bingo cards on Book Riot which offer plot points like "Dark Past" and "Someone Vomits."  The other influence was a picture I saw online of an art installation consisting of dozens of photos overlapping and ruffled like plumage, stuttering out an image. But for this particular poem, I settled on a grid from my past--the sliding tile puzzle, where disordered tiles are pushed around to spell a phrase. You could use your thumbs just like texting.

Should this kind of poem be subject or approach specific, if I considered a series? Should the title have 4 parts (like the 4 columns)? Is there any kind of suggestion in the poem that the parts really could be pushed around? Although the puzzles were only solved to 1 order as far as I know. But if we are not at least thinking about disorder, what is the point?


Sunday, February 1, 2015

Making Lists (a Kind of Crochet)

I feel that I should follow my last post with "10 Things I Love About Writing," but I'm not feeling that exuberant today. Maybe because it's February. Maybe because I'm going to have to shovel snow later although usually after I get out there I kind of like it. So bright and impersonal and large.

Instead, I'm going to talk more about lists which I am always making in notebooks and on scraps of paper and now in Google Drive. Sometimes I never consult them again. They're a way of thinking through things. Here's some of my recent lists that had titles:
  • "Today"--this is on my Google Drive so that I can consult with it anywhere (ha) and includes random things I should do, the week ahead, and a little section on where I can shoehorn writing into my day.
  • "What I Do and Whether I Should"--you can tell I started this around the first of the year but sometimes it's useful to state why you do something on a regular basis. Things need to be examined. Although I do make a semi-impassioned defense of watching TV late in the evening having to do with the mushiness of my brain
  • "5 Things I Should Do in the next 5 Years But That I Might Not""--what does it mean that I could only come up with 1 thing that was relatively new?
  • "My Life But Better"--the first sentence says "What Are You Waiting For?" 
Side note: I'm very fond of the list in poetry. Last class, my students and I noticed and appreciated the list on line 4 of Kim Addonizio's "Onset": "Everywhere emergence: seed case, chrysalis, uterus, endless manufacturing." Unusual objects, replicating shapes, repetitive (in that plus plus way) sounds. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Ten Things I Hate About Writing

Even though I belong to two writing groups (1 poetry, 1 mixed) and go to two annual retreats (both mixed), sometimes you need more. So yesterday, my sister and I had a writing day.  We talked and made lists: 3 event-oriented things to do in the next six months, 3 things to change in our writing life, 3 things to stop doing, etc. We made a list of 10 things to write about. And we made a list of 10 things we hate about writing. This was meant to be a kind of joke category. Here's what I came up with:

1. I hate that I can't do it all the time.
2. I hate when I seem to be returning to something I thought I was done with.
3. I hate how there's this unconscious/subconscious element. The thing in my head that I cannot control, but I can coax. It's like a goddamn husband. Tempt it to please me!
4. I do not hate how it has become more labyrinthine or complex, how it has remained fluid and potentially unsatisfactory even though it was once satisfactory that way.
5. I hate that I don't have enough time to read support literature whether other poetry, how-to, research for something I want to write.
6. I hate that I cannot expect to support myself as a poet.
7. I hate that there is so much bad writing in the world.
(I could only come up with 7. I stole 8 from my sister.)
8. I hate not being read.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Notes on Student Poems

  • Streamline. How to say something more clearly. 
  • More humor. Jazzy titles
  • How can the reader know what you know? Readers respond to image, narrative, the unexpected, a different point of view.
  • Abandon centering. Think about using stanzas/space to create clearer meaning.
  • Rhyme is doing you no favor.
  • OK. I like all this where the familiar tale is being mixed with other things and given new particulars. But then in last two lines back to usual--why?
  • Too pretty sounding?
  • I like this incremental repetition but I want more. Push harder.
  • Combination of two things can increase interest, effectiveness.
  • Read aloud for rhythm, clarity, necessity.
  • What I want most is for you to experiment with not centering--will change feeling of lines.
  • Cutting always good.
  • Language--what is the ratio of complexity to clarity. Think about necessity. Deliberately making it more difficult and I can be fine with that if it has a purpose--re-seeing?
  • Maybe un-sentencing would help.
  • This sounds funny.
  • A little falling off towards the end where earlier there's all this great, various stuff. Think about order.
  • Think about line breaks to shake up usual way of reading and emphasizing words.
  • Doesn't hang together in interesting or directive way like what follows.
  • Not clear to me why this enters the poem.
  • This is a great quote but it seems sassier than the poem itself.
  • Think about order--clusters of idea/messages.
  • Why so many commas?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Transcribed from a Lake House (but not there now)

Definitely want to work on the poem but now my methods change. Notes, notes, notes, some looking up, then typing into the computer the fits and shreds, firming up the lines, moving things about.

I'd like to make an idea list. It's 7:03 and I have a strong cup of coffee. A list for small places in Cleveland which interests me as a series, an approach. So far 1. Daddy's car 2. The Brick 3. alley by Euclid 4. WW utility room 5. censer 6. Amana freezer 7. BSS parking lot.

What else might qualify in strange ways (I'm crossing the numbers off so things don't have to come out straight):
  • Miss Roger's piano room
  • the pool at Rocking Chair Cove
  • the cottages after I grew up
  • the wine bottle when I pushed down the cork
  • the pothole where I got that flat tire
  • the stuffed veal breast
  • the hollow chocolate egg of confetti
  • could I try the rubber boots again
  • the library on Mapledale
  • or maybe a particular book--The Dandelion Cottage with its wallpaper scrap idea of making a home
  • the pyrex coffee pot--thinking about it like a movie with repeated sloshings gurgle gurgle swamp swish empty
  • the surrey
  • the secret place behind our thin suburban woods
  • Alvie's 
  • the little park and Bob's Big Boy while we waited for Katie

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Lake House Diary VI (Thinking About the Prose Poem)


I just came back from a long weekend on a large island in Lake Erie. It was an annual gathering of writers that we figured out has been going on for 20 years. Good friends, good writing, good newcomers, surprising turns, noisy dinners, conclaves on the back deck, swimming off the bird sanctuary beach. Because I've been having kind of a dry summer, I brought with me a talismanic notebook (steno) that I used several years ago when I wrote like a storm pouring out and everyone would wish for a return of that kind of bounty as do I.

I also considered if I am nostalgic for the rhythms of the prose poem. Maybe I think that because of my two recent readings. At one, having read a number of poems in a row, I read the last poem (a prose poem) as if I was a furnace gusting out a great fireball or a prophet letting loose his proclamation. At the other, I read in a much more punctuated, measured style. But this second reading was only one poem--much time elapses--and then second poem (not prose poems). And I know a rhythm and a power can be built if there is a continuing in the reading. Something to think about.

Maybe my sense is that prose poems sometimes have something untamed about them and I like that. Do not gentle me! Nor should I gentle myself in this! I went to the prose poem because of rhythm but maybe there was also burgeoning and proliferation and carelessness in the right way which really means there was not care in a mingey persnicketty kind of way. I need that wildness again.

(note at the bottom of one of those notebook pages: feral cats in the backyard)