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Posts Tagged ‘poetry technique’


I love the poem, “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done,” by Natalie Shapiro, in this issue. “So sorry about the war,” it begins. What a hook. I’m into the work instantly, and swept along. “…wanted to learn how to swear / in another language…” the narrator explains. “the top method…open / fire and listen to what people yell.” What an original, horrifying statement. The next statement then goes in a completely different direction, bringing in a kind of cranky God. The combination of originality and sudden twists of tone and direction make this such a worthy poem. And funny. Not many poems successfully manage humor at this level, but Shapiro does it nicely. She has a third thematic braid as well, people in their homes. Finally, she circles the poem around to reference its beginning. All done in seven stanzas of one to three lines each. Efficient. Very much how one does it at the top level. Brava.

The other poem in the issue is “My Mother, Heidegger, And Derrida,” by John Skoyles. “Educated in a school in Queens…my mother knew little about art.” Then the narrator’s mother sees the painting, ‘The Potato Eaters,’ which reminds her of her own mother. “The shoes resembled my grandmother’s / high-topped boots.” From there the poem becomes sort of a meditation on the mother’s visceral, memory-driven reaction to the shoes in the painting, versus the high-toned, high-minded reactions of Heidegger: “the dark opening of the worn insides…” and Derrida: “what constitutes a pair of shoes.” The great thinkers come out somewhat as fools here, less wise and less well-seeing than a simple woman of the earth. The poem leaves us with a sense of satisfaction and a sense of the worth and wisdom of plain toilers, from generation to generation. Great poem.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of poems, Against The Night, is a sometimes sweet, sometimes rueful look at love in a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, at https://www.amazon.com/Against-Night-Poems-PMF-Johnson-ebook/dp/B01LXQX9Y5/ as well as other fine e-retailers.

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Two poems in this issue, the first by Amit Majmudar. This guy is absolutely one of my favorite poets going. He varies between excellent and breathless. In “The Beard,” he begins, “What was I like, before this beard? … what was I not like.” The language is plain, the idea seemingly simple. He runs through the relationship between self-chosen image and identity, with a hint of the religious. “Among believers and atheist, / among atheists a skeptic… all emphatic on the apophatic.” I love words I never knew. Apophatic is the idea of describing God by what God is not. But that’s just a way-station in this poem, where the narrator next finds a man on the TV at his gym club accused of terrorism, who he thinks looks very much like him. “Judging from…glances of flat-footed accountants running / for their lives / to either side…I was not the only one who thought so.” I love that running for their lives aside, the resonance it brings. Because the narrator is running as well, one of them and yet suddenly separate. Now the beard puts him in danger, by its existence. And separates him, an American, from other Americans. Then he adds one more symbol, the shaver: to use it or not, what that means. A deep and thoughtful poem.

The other poem is by Chana Bloch, “Dying For Dummies.” “I used to study the bigger kids — / they’d show-and-tell me / how to wiggle my hips, / how to razz the boys.” So the poem begins with being young, and learning about life. But at the turn it becomes a poem about what old people are learning, including the narrator now. “…watching my cohort / master the skills… of incapacity.” And yet the narrator still is looking to those older than she, though she is old herself. The final line brings the whole theme home very nicely. A poem by turns wistful and disturbing.

Peace in Poetry,

P M F Johnson

My eBook of love poems, Against The Night, is a sometimes sweet, sometimes rueful look at a long marriage. It’s available on Amazon, as well as at other fine e-retailers.

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So I’m reading the poems in the Missouri Review when I notice an interview with Dorothea Lasky. I say, hey, maybe she’ll say something interesting, and flip through it. And there it is. The secret to American poetry over the last thirty (or so) years. Oh, I suspected it…we all suspected it. It had to be, right? The poems we’ve been reading in The New Yorker and Poetry Magazine (among so many others) whose purpose (and success) are completely opaque to us. The stuff that seems almost simplistic jingos, published in some of the biggest mags in the land. And we’ve wondered, what IS it about this poetry that makes otherwise brilliant (seeming) editors buy it? When it seems like ragin’ crap? I say us because I have surely learned in the years of writing this blog I am not alone in this point of view. The ‘what-am-I-missing-here’ feeling of being on the outside of the inner sanctum.

Well folks, Dorothea explains it all to us:

Interviewer: “In ‘Poetry Is Not A Project’ you write…There’s a lot…to do…to make our world better for poets. Let’s start…by valuing poems over projects…How do you differentiate between a poem and a project?”

(And I’m like, what’s a project? What’s the academic “in” joke here?) Lasky answers:

“I saw the idea of a project as being something that shut out particular people who might not know that term, or…how…to construct thair work in a particular form. Some people took this as an attack on conceptualism…”

(Are you with me on wondering what the heck conceptualism is? Cuz I never took an English degree, folks.)

“It was more about an elitist use of…’project’ when you can say, I’m writing a project about…jewels in the ocean or whatever…articulate it in such a way, it’s easier to get a grant or get a job…in contrast to somebody who is…authentically writing their poems.”

Interviewer: “Are too many people overly obsessed with ‘projects,’ and is that a negative aspect of academia, and all the pressure to get jobs and grants?”

Lasky: “This is a problem because it’s shutting out poets from the conversation who don’t…know how to articulate their ‘project.'”

Oh bless you, Dorothea Lasky. Bless you, Jason Koo (the interviewer). Here for the first time I, at least, learn of the evil secret underbelly of American poetry. That poets (many poets) now create projects. Centered on a theme. And this project is written up in a grant proposal. And this grant (when obtained) leads to validation for a poetry publisher (likely academic) taking on the book that results. So a pile of poems, let’s say fifty to eighty or so, are written around this theme. And we can assume these poems find favor in the journals after the poets mention their project in their cover letters, and all is glowing happiness on their part. And, excuse my cynicism, the quality of the resulting poetry ain’t the primary standard. What grant committee would have confidence in their ability to pick out good poems from bad? As versus properly politically correct poems, for instance?

Personally, I haven’t much of a chance in this game, because when I write poems to a conscious theme I write…lesser poems, shall we say. Crap, even. And I don’t want to write crap. So I write my poems my way, and (with luck and blessings from a higher power) publish them widely, but when it comes time to publish a book, gosh, I have fifty, seventy, a hundred published poems I string together, many published in respectable journals, but they don’t follow any neat little theme. There’s no ‘project.’ And so, no sale. Sound familiar to any of you all?

Wow.

Anyway, the interview also mentioned another new movement in poetry, “The New Sincerity,” which — since many of us write little poetry with the ironic twist so beloved by the old school — may actually give us all hope for the future world of poetry.

Or at least something to research a bit. Along with the other revelations above. Good luck to all of you struggling to break through, and may this help some in giving guidance.

Oh — and buy the mag for the interview, at least! ;->

Peace in poetry,

P M F Johnson

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Gonna comment on the last New Yorker rather than the one from this week, as I have been brooding over the poems a bit, letting them filter in.

So. Jan 14th, Galway Kinnell gave us “I Coyote, Stilled Wonder.” Not still wonder, but stilled. Right in the title he makes us stop and look a little more carefully. Then: “When did I get this bejawed look, that flashes up out of creeks and ponds…” He does a couple things in this opening sentence to bestir our interest — the neologism of “bejawed,” first off. What does that mean? And the sentence itself doesn’t make a lot of sense; but Galway Kinnell, from past experience, is a poet who does explain himself, so we are willing to read on to see what he means. And the poem does explain itself: we learn the “I” narrator is the coyote of the title, and he’s celebrating having eaten a calf. But there is “Man glaring into bloody mess on ground.” A big truism in poetry is the more words you cut out, the more powerful the poem. I might have spread that cant myself. ;-> Is this poem a little extreme in adherence to that notion? Or does that sentence suggest the primitive thought process of a coyote? Either way, “I could see Man raise arms, / steady his over-and-under, and squeeze.” Over-and-under being a type of shotgun. So there is a conflict here, and a threat to the narrator. The coyote is shot, and the title instantly takes on a deeper meaning. Stilled as in dead? But this reading conflicts with the bejawed look flashing up: that implies the coyote is seeing its reflection in the waters. So ‘stilled’ as in silent, maybe. His jaw was shot off: bejawed. The primal conflict between man and coyote gives tension, and keeps us reading and worrying out the deeper meanings. Adding interest though conflict is a good technique for the toolbox, one overlooked too often — we may think of it more as a fiction trick, but why not use it in our own craft? Food for thought. I know I went right out and tried a poem with conflict after this. I’ll let you know if it sells.

Billy Collins pretty much never uses the technique of a confusing line later explained: he’s clear and straightforward. So he has to rely on other strengths to keep the reader going. In his poem “Catholicism,” he starts with “There’s an opposum who appears here at odd times…” well, already there’s a disjuncture between title and first image. Why an opposum? Catholics play dead a lot? He keeps us interested through the first stanza or so simply with the power of acute observation and the telling detail, as we follow the opposum — who’s an interesting creature, inherently, after all: “he gets so close to the window…that I start to review my sins…” Well, that seems a little off. Looking at an opposum does not immediately make me think of my sins. And Collins acknowledges this: “What is it about him that causes…an examination of conscience?” Collins lists qualities of an opposum that might lead to such a turn, up to: “His opposable thumbs / able…to lift a chalice…” Bingo: the opposable thumbs make him like a human. Priest-like. So, priests playing dead? Digging through garbage? Funny of face, but a bit alien as marsupials, whatever that might conjure up? At the end we are presented a conflict between Collins and his Catholicism, done in such a flourish of detail that I at least am satisfied with the poem overall, and ready to go back and dig further into what symbols might be here, what meanings have been hidden, why I am a bit disturbed by this poem overall.

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.

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