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Sipos, and Rules for Remembering

[We now return to the regularly scheduled programming, joined in progress…]

I suppose that’s the thing with imagist and story-driven poetry. The brain starts to paint scenes and not a blessed word can be retrieved that’s salient. I remember what I saw between my ear. I recall the experience of the poem, but how did he put it now?

George Sipos at Plan 99
George Sipos read from The Geography of Arrival and Anything but the Moon in Ottawa June 12.

As he read, I was thinking this reminiscence on making a model airplane as a kid — the joy augmented by the glue fumes, the way the plane all came together after such effort looking like it had already crashed — would make a great animated film, or book trailer.

It was a bittersweet comic sort of tale of how the toy was embedded and coming from its time and yet is a different thing. With his adult mind, he realizes that the fighter planes were ominous and symbolic, and yet he can still step into child mind at that time, and how that it wasn’t about being a supporter of air raids. He was a kid in the colony. Planes were buzzing Europe. It was just that little piece of plastic bomb being set on straight. That was the thing. And yet with the context of reflection the whole memory has a further depth.

His story of the huge model of a ship transported by train across the country among the furniture as they family conveyed themselves in parallel by car would work lovely in an animated short. There’s a small plot arc. There’s pangs. There’s reminiscence of good times and a strong sense of place and time. It has a depth to it.

There was a dramatic tension to give the poems and prose shorts an architecture and prevent them from being flat. There was a historical depth of reflection that some poetry lacks.

He said he didn’t know what to call his book categorical. They were memoirs that found a place on a page in small chunks. The project started out when someone he knew moved to his old home town. He wanted to share with her all the memories he associated with a particular intersection or place but realized, she wasn’t the audience. But now the stories were all rising from memory. What to do now? Write, write, hone, and eventually, voila, a manuscript, a publisher, a book.

In a way, any discussion of what we call a communication is moot. Poem, memoir, flash fiction, anecdote, literary short…does it work? Does it “have legs”? What makes it work?

Wolff’s law of bones says that adding a load creates strength, while taking a load off weakens. The bone remodels its structure according to the need of use. Without tension there is no architecture.

The extension of that into literary, suggested by TA Carter at Tree, is that poems need a sort of tension and movement — a starting point, a stretch, and a return — otherwise the structure of the poem is weak, atrophies. For a poem to have legs, it needs some sort of heavy load to bear, to work against, to make it strong. If there is a vignette with no tension, it’s shapeless. The dramatic arc, expressed in some way, defines the work so that it can move to the reader.

There’s a push to create words that sing and snap and get at something worthwhile. What counts as worthwhile?

In the attempt to be modern and fresh, there’s an attempt to break away from story of self, and there’s a sense of taboo, in some circles, on anything that (tsk, tsk) might suggest self, because that is self-indulgence.

To engage on sound alone is music. What does that leave for poetry? When there’s a push to leave narratives to the domain of short story, novel, movie, news, story telling and carve a new domain for poetry, how to give a hook to poetry that anchors on something that a reader or listener can feel? What engages at deeper than superficial level to make it engaging and not just an intellectual, huh.

When there are rules on what qualifies as worthwhile poetry, it seems a little off. Rules are useful. The limits are suggestions of what works for what end. We can’t lose in the shuffle the main point of gratification of the writer. Sometimes an exercise in device and methods serves the intended purpose of creating tools for the toolbag but the real use of poetry is when something needs, for whatever internal or external reason, to be expressed.

Each person is trying to work something out in their head, work thru something, explore or prove something. Why should there be advised or prescribed routes?

Here are some popular binaries: Only use sentences. Never use sentences. Repeat for emphasis. Never repeat the same medium- or low-frequency word in the same poem. Keep in the same speech register. Vary the diction. Keep the density even. Keep the density and syntax uneven. Avoid articles, first person pronouns and prepositional phrases. Never use any tense but simple present tense. Disturb conventional syntax. Don’t bring in an omniscient narrator. No editorial asides. Have no point of view. Play with multiple voices. Tell only things which are true, or emotionally true. Avoid autobiographical.

There’s something suspect in an insistence to only tell things according to rules intended as guidance. To use rule without understanding the purpose is misuse, a jot and tittle literalism. What does the rule aim to create or avoid?

This insistence on writing poems in the present tense only, whether they are poems of current experiences or past has limitations. It’s great for low literacy textbooks but is it necessary for poetry? Simple present tense doesn’t automatically confer vivid immediate writing itself. It’s trying to avoid sloppy discontinuity, poem skipping around thru time like the mind does. It aims to smooth flow.

Backforming to give a narrator precocious awareness of the context at the time of the event is a mechanism to avoid the sense of an omniscient narrator stepping in. One doesn’t want to be told what one is being told. It’s a tricky thing to get around. In writing we are working out what occurred in some past and in the present. It can take a lot of lot of decades to get a eureka. We want to be true to the past, real or imagined, in the context we are building with words, but have the other foot in the present. How to smooth that out? There’s an art to doing that.

To stay in the stream and stick knowledge in the historical narrator’s head retroactively is a kludge, a shortcut. It can feel forced and Sipos avoided the pitfall. His narration is in two timeframes but there’s no jolt and no sense of imposition on the past nor editorial aside to the reader in present.

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