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A plug for poetry

April 30, 2013
by

I have never been a great creative writer.  But there was a time in my life where I devoted a fair amount of effort to it.  And it did me a great deal of good.

My creative writing came almost entirely during college, which was as turbulent a time for me as I imagine it is for most people.  Creative writing, and poetry in particular, was valuable during those years because it gave me a channel through which I could plainly state the way I perceived and felt about certain ideas.  Once those feelings were committed to paper I could begin to understand them (or at least be aware of them), and see how they meshed or conflicted with my intellectual understanding of the same ideas.  Eventually I came to realize that there was a very specific set of things that I found simultaneously moving and irreconcilable.  And I saw that there was something very particular that I wanted to say, and which felt very important, but that I couldn’t manage to put into words.  Finally, after over a year hovering around the same ideas (even when I tried not to), I wrote the best poem of my life.  I don’t know how other people would feel about it, but to me it was exactly the thing that I wanted to see written as black lines on white paper.  And it made me quite happy.

So, in short, I have a great and very personal appreciation for the potential benefits of poetry.  Today is April 30, which means there are technically a few hours remaining in National Poetry Month (as Brian Tung has been reminding me).  So I wanted to write a short post endorsing poetry in general.

In particular, I wanted to suggest two simple exercises for the person who has an interest in trying to write a poem, but has a hard time knowing where to start.  I credit both of these exercises to my wife (who got them from a class she took with Jude Nutter), although I imagine that they are pretty common in creative writing classes.

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Exercise 1: Thirteen Ways

Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is a pretty famous poem, and for many it may bring back bad memories of high school English class.  But it’s also surprisingly fun to play with.  In case you’ve never seen it before, the original poem is this:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

I
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

II
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

III
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

VI
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

VII
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

VIII
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

IX
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

XI
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

XII
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

–Wallace Stevens

What’s great about this poem is how it takes a relatively common object — a blackbird — and constructs thirteen short images around it, each of which makes you see the object in a new light.  Trying to emulate this approach (as literally as you want) with your own chosen object can be surprisingly gratifying.

Here, for example, is my own go at it:

Thirteen Ways of Standing at a Bridge

I
Standing on a bridge, a body becomes aware
of its tenderness for open air.
A body becomes aware of all that it cannot be.

II
She was so small.
She was distant.
She walked as if in place.
But I saw her, on a straight line,
And the bridge was my telescope.
The bridge was my ravine
to channel the love I devoutly wished
would fill the space between us.

III
A bridge is a joining of triangles.
A bridge is geometry.
A bridge is not perfect.
A bridge is the feeling of being perfect.

IV
Above: thin and light whispering, tenuous fluid.
Below: dark and crashing roar, inexorable fluid.
I am held, just here, by the bridge

V
I am writing, I am resolute. I am filling the page with my hand.
My mind is here.
My mind is not here.
I am building a thin, gray bridge across the white paper.

VI
A bridge, sometimes, is everything.
A bridge is not alive.

VII
Listen: urine will cover the concrete.
The walls will writhe with vulgarness.
The traffic will echo, always from above.
But you,
sir,
you can live here.
This bridge will keep you dry.

VIII
When the sun rose, the bridge was yellow.
The bridge was yellow
in the dark night.

IX
In those days of rain, the floodwaters
culminated.
They embarassed us deeply.
We watched, together, a trailer house go sliding down the river:
A white bird alighted on the roof.
Together, they passed beneath the bridge.

X
Every atom is a stone.
It is held by others —
together, they must hold.
This bridge is my shoulder.
A shadow travels over it.

XI
In the evening, I sit.  I think of them.
They are silent.  I sit in fear.
My fear is a dark, black bridge that stands against an impossible sky.

XII
A child, in the world, is small.
A man, on a bridge, is a child.
A child, in the world, is small.

XIII
You did not know my courage
when I stepped into the kitchen.
You looked at me.  I stopped.
I was feeling the crack of a great, great bridge.

–Brian Skinner

If you’re curious, I wrote this poem largely thinking about the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis:

Exercise 2: The Single Sentence

One of the things that a great poem can do is to surprise you by pulling you in a sudden and unexpected direction.  Here, for example, is a good one that does exactly that:

Where You Go When She Sleeps

What is it when a woman sleeps, her head bright
In your lap, in your hands, her breath easy now as though it had never been
Anything else, and you know she is dreaming, her eyelids
Jerk, but she is not troubled, it is a dream
That does not include you, but you are not troubled either,
It is too good to hold her while she sleeps, her hair falling
Richly on your hands, shining like metal, a color
That when you think of it you cannot name, as though it has just
Come into existence, dragging you into the world in the wake
Of its creation, out of whatever vacuum you were in before,
And you are like the boy you heard of once who fell
Into a silo full of oats, the silo emptying from below, oats
At the top swirling in a gold whirlpool, a bright eddy of grain, the boy
You imagine, leaning over the edge to see it, the noon sun breaking
Into the center of the circle he watches, hot on his back, burning
And he forgets his father’s warning, stands on the edge, looks down,
The grain spinning, dizzy, and when he falls his arms go out, too thin
For wings, and he hears his father’s cry somewhere, but is gone
Already, down in a gold sea, spun deep in the heart of the silo,
And when they find him, he lies still, not seeing the world
Through his body but through the deep rush of grain
Where he has gone and can never come back, though they drag him
Out, his father’s tears bright on both their faces, the farmhands
Standing by blank and amazed – you touch that unnamable
Color in her hair and you are gone into what is not fear or joy
But a whirling of sunlight and water and air full of shining dust
That takes you, a dream that is not of you but will let you
Into itself if you love enough, and will not, will never let you go.

— T. R. Hummer

One of the impressive things about this poem is that it is all one sentence, but it never feels like a run-on.  The writer pulls you fluidly from one image and one emotion to another, returning at the end to where you started.  But by the end the starting place feels very different than it did at the beginning of the poem.

This is also a fun poem to try and emulate.  That is, you can try to write a poem that tells a story with a single sentence.  When I tried this, I chose to do it from a similar first person view, but I chose for my subject someone that I thought would be more likely to think in long, unbroken sentences.

[Untitled]

When your vantage point is low to the ground, everything is edible —
the angled, cylindrical surface of a pencil
that yields to the teeth, leaving flecks in the mouth;
the cool and sharp-tasting metal of a dime,
with its muscular face and rippled edges to tickle the tongue;
the round, plastic coating of electrical wire;
the animalesque foot of a wooden table;
the hairy tendrils of a scuffed-up ball of carpet,
which feel like danger, but also like knowledge –,
in short, such a world is meant to be explored with the mouth,
each small or large thing encountered, somehow by chance,
and carefully weighed for taste and texture,
which together allow you to make a judgment
(a judgment only — not an opinion,
not an image,
not a coherent set of emotions,
and not a list of rules or guidelines)
of a world that is being presented to you
through a constant, dizzying sensorial flow,
a world that cannot be encountered in any way except
from the floor
in a state of great wonder,
in frequent pauses, where the head lolls
for trying to take in uncountable surroundings,
and through short, exultant bursts of motion,
rife with the joy of what it means
to be a living body
(the kind of joy that exists only
while “joy” is not its own word
or a category of certain things
to be sought or shunned or understood as a controlled part of being alive),
until finally, with little warning,
that feeling of being powerful and lost,
of being central to an inscrutable universe,
becomes intolerable
and you lie there, twinging,
feeling the body’s reaction to oppression,
and the depth of your own helplessness against it,
until that moment when, somehow, you are lifted
from your own terrible weight of being
and restored to comfort and familiarity
by a gentle but firm compression, a soft encirclement,
and the reassuring, nurturing warmth
of a round breast.

–Brian Skinner

My poem is, of course, in all ways a worse poem than T. R. Hummer’s; it’s uglier and less smooth, with weaker imagery.  But the point of this post is that you don’t have to be T. R. Hummer or Wallace Stevens to gain something by writing poetry.  So if you’re the kind of person who feels a vague interest in it, maybe you can use the last day of National Poetry Month as an excuse to try one of these exercises.

Of course, feel free to suggest other good exercises in the comments.

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This is probably pretty immature, but at the end of this post I feel a need to wash away some of the artsy stink of pretentiousness that (unfairly) comes with talking about and writing poetry.  So feel free to enjoy this quote from Paul Dirac:

The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible.

–P. A. M. Dirac

And this hilarious sketch from Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie:

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