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Options of The What and How

In workshopping poems (which I’ve done on and off for over 25 years now) there are rules of thumb which make for good habits, for example: consistent capitalization [which I will always be dinged for], standard spelling [I mix U.S. and British, sometimes in the same poem for the same word], losing the pattern [starting in one meter and rhyme and forgetting it], a word that is not in keeping with the rest [in syllables or register], as well as the automatic proofing to remove any articles, adverbs, adjectives and add sentence punctuation.

But overlooked in the mechanical skim that can pass for workshopping is the bottom of line of what is being said about what and why. Is a poem basically a complaint? an I-haz-a-sad? I-feel-mad? Here’s an anecdote? Here’s a flash sermon? A vignette of a scene? A rhetorical point? Purely language at play?

When we talk we may not know why. It just flips out there, subconscious driving the zeitgeist of the moment where the real communication is body language. When we write, and edit at length we can have the luxury of being more considered. The unconscious doesn’t get out-run but we can tailor more if we want. We can get a handle on what we’re saying and what would make it more effective.

People like a poem which has a story arc. Even in jazz or improv of music you can create on the fly a sense of an ending coming and something that feels like an ending. But how closed of box? To weave forward for a long poem you need structure and subtle control to keep the momentum without bashing away too long on one note and keep the musicality interesting.

Poems can go any any number of directions…towards music, or avoiding it, towards closure or preventing it, towards explaining or refusing to in some Deleuzian string. There are many worldviews, influences, constraints and needs that guide which choices are made. People may write fiction or non-fiction or autobiography. [Even if audience will assume it is autobiography even if it is about dice living on the ocean bottom with immigrant martians. But that’s another story.]

One may want to fit a form, or a genre, which can be like a register of speech with its own limits on topics and length or utterance, formality of grammar, level of vocabulary. One may write to a particular audience so for that real or imagined person pitch a certain tone and point of view. To not hit the target someone else wants of being coherent and plain enough, exciting enough, or controlled enough is something of a judging fish by how well they climb trees criterion. What is the aim of this particular poet and poem?

Poems can present a summary of what the poet has worked out or present a mystery for the reader to be able to reasonably solve and get the impact from what details are chosen. A poem may seek to find a reader as confidante, or witness, or potential convert to perspective. It may aim to inform or entertain, or blurt an emotion for self-expression.

What’s the arc of the poem? Is it a box? Can you anticipate what will come? Do you avoid being able to be predicted? The opening is like a trailer. Does it reveal the whole gesture that then gets unpacked later? Do you aim for the same amount of compression?

Poems can progress steadily and then veer at the ending in an effect that works to deepen and widen, or fail and add a pat profound bow. They may aim for sustained hyperbole or understatement. Like body language or inflection, some throw it wide, some hold it tight and flat. No case is in itself a bad thing. It is a matter of who you talk to and whether you effectively communicate.

In my writing notes to myself recent touchstone questions include: What do you not consider poem-worthy? What is constant as air? What do you work around automatically? What is visible to you and may not be to others? What matters? What doesn’t as subjects?

People often feel some things are poem-worthy and other things aren’t. Poems should be epic, is the idea. The emotions and ramp must be large. People want an aha moment, some gratifying profundity to make it poetry not prose. The same tension has run in haiku since Basho’s time at least. Or is one to report what is? Not just the propped up significance, the story but everything is worthy of attention and care.

John Lent in describing how rob mclennan’s poems work in Songs for little sleep talks about how you can get different gains by going with rules so that all things may be admitted so that “when it works, when it really opens things up—as in Kroetsch, Bowering, bissett, Moure, Cooley, Jake Kennedy, kevin mcpherson eckoff, Natalie Simpson—it can create a true ‘rush’ of making and re-making for the reader. It can be breathtaking.” He goes on to say that mclennan by,

allowing the ‘ordinary’ to present itself as a field of juxtapositions, loosely unified—but also to the second risk—allowing ‘play’ in diction and syntax to support other surprises in logic through unexpected association.

[ See more at: Arc]

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