Saturday, July 14, 2007


One of the ways I felt I had been managing my poetry, in terms of form and structure, was a sense of the dynamic between the struggles of life, the real world, i.e., in WCW's definition, experience, and the need to create something out of this, the need to create in WCW's definition, a world of existence. One could say, in a nutshell, that this is simply the progression of the development of all art, I suppose, so it is difficult for me to separate out the finer strands that mark my own process and progress.

Some of the things I've been trying to capture, or even work with, in my own writing and life seem so incredibly extreme. The circumstances of my life seem at times to me overblown and unusual; that is, the emotional lows lower, the emotional highs higher--the havoc wrecked on life of unusual, atypical illness in a child, no less. And then all of the concomitant emotional and circumstantial fall out of such a bombshell all around me.

Thus, there is, or I try to make, a tension in my poetry between a neo-formalism and scattered, disorganized content. Perhaps it's not even a tension, but an attempt to join the two together. A tension would imply some kind of initial coherence and two or more things pulling apart. This is more like an attempt to push together, to conjoin the unreal and the real, structure/form and chaos. It's not making something out of chaos, it's conjoining form and chaos.

I'm concerned that this is precisely where an audience can depart for the hinterlands. And poetry is ultimately a social act, a form of communication that seeks an audience, or starves if it doesn't find one. Reader response is a critical element of poetry, as much as composition is. I sometimes think that, while many readers are open to new poetic experiences, that a primary press of the reader is toward what the reader recognizes as poetry.

So what I'm writing, then, risks a lot. It risks being trivialized for being mimetic in a simple-minded way: of course life and experience are chaos, of course the artist wants to shape something from that. But it also risks an audience being attracted by the formal shaping, only to be repelled by the verbal chaos, to expect a directed meaning because there are formal qualities on the surface, only to push backwards away from the material because it resists that.

It risks, in short, being called a "beautiful mess," as one of my poems was so called by another student at a workshop at Warren Wilson. The person who made this comment was not trying to denigrate at all--he was looking at a draft, and what he saw as a draft, and he saw much he liked there. But I think he wanted more verbal/semantic order. And that's not necessarily what I supply. My instinct is to constantly subvert that, with sliding syntax or other syntactical play, with the elision or elimination of punctuation, with an emphasis on sound within the tension of sound and meaning.

One of my models, although Roethke is much more attentively formal and regular with his punctuation and syntax, although not with his verbal play, is "I Knew a Woman":

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew upon Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).

Or maybe not. Roethke is definitely a starting place for what I do, but in re-typing this, I think I see his exploration is more at the level of vocabulary/diction, and that is combined with a traditional form and the experimentation of rhyming the surprising, unrelated words. Or maybe, subconsciously, I see myself as the lady of the poem speaking--she's a muse figure, but also a totem of disorganization, chaos, mutability--and, in that respect, related to Spenserian and Chaucerian emblems of femininity. What happens if the lady speaks?

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