Archive for November, 2012

New York One Two

I have learned that if I do not understand what a poet is doing — don’t understand a poem, or why it was published (especially for non-linear poetry) the best way to “get” it is to try to write an equivalent poem.  Get the same sound and rhythm in the language, bring in new themes at the same time as in the original, but flip the themes on their heads, so it’s not just a rote copy, but a structure I have to understand.  So if the poem is about summer in New York, make a poem about noontime in a small town.  If the intent is to show a reaction to death, at the same place in my poem show a reaction to a wedding.  Those sorts of simple flips.

In Cathal McCabe’s “The Roof,” a concrete poem so simple I can’t reference it without giving away the whole poem, (in the New Yorker of November 19) this simple flip might create a poem about rain filling a basement, for instance, creating a visual by arranging the poem on the page.  I’ve actually written quite a few concrete poems, so I know a couple of the tricks his poem does are pretty slick…read the last four columns of his poem vertically, and you’ll see what I mean.  Hiding other words and a whole reaction inside such a single, simple word is very hard to do, and admirable.  Also fun.

In Lia Purpura’s “Prayer,” the first half of the very short poem seems to be a simple moment described: “Its occasion // could be // a spot of sun…”  But that opening balances, sets off and conceals the ambush of the second half/sentence of the poem, which just goes on and on in my head long after I’ve finished it.  Since that sentence is about going on and on, this also is a difficult trick to pull off.  It is these sorts of difficult tricks that make poems worthy of The New Yorker, I believe.  Puzzle poems, jump poems, poems with a second layer, something you maybe don’t notice right away.

This rewriting technique is what brought me first to appreciate John Ashbery.  His poems at first seem to be totally non-linear, to the point of having no ties between any of the lines.  At which point, what is the point.  But when I tried to emulate one of these poems, I had to admit there were relations, or near-misses, between each line, and these near-misses were very hard to pull off with the sort of gentle breath control Ashbery shows.  His poem in the Nov 26 issue is “The Fop’s Tale,” and its first three lines are these: “The day began inauspiciously.  // Well, well, I have patients who visit my family. // Silly, they don’t count.”  So, patients visiting family is evidence of how inauspicious the day began, or maybe an argument against it, and either way they are dismissed in importance in the third line.  Who is they, the family, the patients?  So there is your task — try to write three non-linear lines that actually can build a story like that, with two different possible readings like that.  I would point out he keeps that end-rhyme in mind for a couple more stanzas before abandoning it, and sort of starts another one with opens/mentions and so on.  So you’ll want to shift rhymes in and out as you go as well, but nothing too close.  And the first stanza is a call and reply argument, but that does not appear anywhere else.  Do the equivalent of that, too.  Then there is a theme of going to bed/making children/sleep/and at the very end, love.  And a theme of/set of references to different countries.  I find the more I try to create an equivalent poem, the more I appreciate the poem he did create, here.

Finally, take Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “Bear,” which relays an incident about a bear after birdseed and suet under the eaves, and a man who fearlessly charges down and takes noisy umbrage “in his white loincloth like David against Goliath.”  the poem deepens a little with the line “would she be saying you my dear are the person who married him // which of course I did” and then at the end references that little line in a turn that flips the whole poem into a meditation about marriage, about what it means to be together, about the risks of committing to each other, about acceptance, misunderstandings, and loneliness.  See, even by the description you can tell this poem ain’t gonna be easy to emulate either, eh? ;->

Such chewy poems these all were, and worth the work to understand them.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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Plain In the Grain

The Fall issue of Plainsongs opens with a Plainsongs Award poem by Karen Douglass, “Nineteen Sixty-Eight,” which lists dates of that year, what was happening personally to the narrator, and what large happening occurred on that date.  “January 2 // My first child is born…Christian Barnard performs // the first…heart transplant.”  The confluence of events gives the poem resonance.  One of the cool things about Plainsongs Awards is the editor that chose the poem discusses what worked for her (in this case) about the poem.  She mentions the younger set thinking of Woodstock when they think of the Sixties, while 1968, when so much happened, was a year before Woodstock.  ’68 for me revolved around Robert Kennedy and Humphrey running for President.  For me, btw, the golden heart of the Sixties was a year earlier than that — the Summer of Love.  That was the first year I remember listening to pop radio with a fierce intensity, trying to absorb everything going on.  The year I first remember hippies.  By 1969 it was all riots and fear, for me (I grant you Watts was in 65, and the fear of riots ran all through those summers — this is just impressions).  But the Sixties were about love, and so the year that mattered was the one with Monterey, Janis, the Doors…  Totally off the subject, I grant you, but a poem that draws all that out.

There are a number of homage poems in this issue, Nancy Cox delivering the first, “1923 Edition, The Harp Weaver and Other Poems Edna St. Vincent Millay.”  I like these poems.  This one has a nice line, “See the spine’s title worn off // by the span of a lithe hand…”  And it references back not only to Millay, but also to the anonymous person who loved this book, and cherished it.  Well done.

William Meyer, Jr. gives us “Yellow Cat Lives: In Remembrance of Robert Frost.”  “When I came somewhat forlorn // to the winter woods…” Some poems have a good feel to them, if you know what I mean, a comfortability.  We are going somewhere we want to be.  This is one of those.  Honestly, though, these last two poems bring out a funny little fear I have as a poet, of writing titles that are so long, there won’t be room on the page for the poem itself.  (And therefore the editor will reject them).  Obviously foolish, as evidenced by these two poems and countless others, but a little nervous tic in my writer’s soul all the same.

George Held tries his hand at a Dickinsonian poem, “I Know My Life Is Wasted.”  Poetry Society of America sponsors a poetry contest for poems inspired by Dickinson, which this would have been good for — maybe the poet has others he can try.  Or you, dear reader, could check the contest out as well.  This was good stuff, though.  “I know my life is wasted // amid the tyrant days…”

It’s getting late, so the last poem I will mention was my favorite in the issue, “Hell,” by Joseph Voth.  Doubtless the fact that it is an amusing poem biased me in its favor.  “At least one high school English teacher // is there, or will be…”  Working in Williams’ Red Wheelbarrow for good measure.  A delightful work.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson


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Suitcase New York

In this week’s New Yorker, James Longenbach gives us a poem called “Suitcase,” which starts: “No one can predict the size… or even the location // of the room where you will live a long time…”  Now, this is a poem I’ve read a few times, and it’s basically as opaque to me now as when I started.  I get that the room you live in a long time could be death, but that seems an awfully simplistic symbol, and working through the details of the poem, is not well-supported.  “in summer the trolley stops in front of the Ministry of Public Instruction…”  It works better as a metaphor poem for life, I guess, but for me, a metaphor poem should throw some deep illumination on its subject, or what’s the point, while this one does not.  (The chorus asks, is that truly a problem, Robin?)  Lots of details, though: “When I pack, I lay out every sock…” That introduction of the “I” is the spot I would choose as the turn in the poem. It’s been all You up to that point.And there IS a bit of meta-poetry, if that’s the symbolic reading we’re going with: “One of life’s greatest pleasures, // if I’m allowed the phrase, // is packing a suitcase.” And that’s fun. Mind you, there’s nothing non-linear here, or deliberately opaque.  I think I just don’t get it.  I’ll probably bounce up in the middle of the night in a week or so and say, “Oh, THAT’S what he meant.” ;->  It did get me to re-read it a couple times, and the last line is definitely one that leaves a lot of resonance behind.

The other poem is by Ben Purkert, “The Lake Is A Mind With A Shopping Cart In It.” I like the title, right off.  It opens, “See that?  A heart on the flap of // your Cheerios box?”  This is a poem with a lot of energy, and barely enough room to contain all the ideas bursting forth. “simply hold a ham // upside down if you want it to scan…” Life is going by here at ‘a hundred-thirty-mile-an-hour smiling at the camera with a toothpick in his mouth’ fast (see if you remember that pop reference!) and there are cars doing donuts and parking lots and nuking food and modern life in all its glory.  Someone doing donuts across a frozen mind?  More poetry should be like this.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, a sweet, rueful look at love in a long marriage, is available on Amazon, and at other fine e-retailers.

Related blog posts:

New Republic Of Poems

The New Yorker – Aug 21 17

Rattle – Fall 17


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Talkin’ Bout Science

The January 2013 issue of Asimov’s has a couple of poems in it, both of which I enjoyed. Robert Borski gives us “Bikini Snow,” a meditation on the fallout from a nuclear explosion. “From the fungal cloud // of smoke // it drifts down…” I like the implication that nuclear bombs are a fungus in our world, and note the reference to the Bikini atoll, where the H-bomb was tested. The images are powerful – “torn // from the crystalline // heart // of matter…” And each of the stanzas is in the shape of a little mushroom cloud. An effective poem.

G.O. Clark contributes “Just Another Day in the Burbs.” It starts, “He wakes up // to find all his neighbors // are first generation holographs…” Now, in this poem, each stanza is in the shape of a lozenge. Pills to be downed to survive in this dystopian world, maybe? ;-> Clark has fun with the whole Stepford Wives trope: “his long-legged, blue-eyed…wife most likely a clone of the original…” And a marvelous ending line, especially apropos for any writer!  Great fun.

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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