I spent a while trying to think of what I wanted to call this new series of critique-y essays. “Reverie” was such a great word to type each week, so I was looking for something close in sound, but that carried the meaning of picking apart a poem, figuring out the things I like and don’t like about it, making suggestions, talking about poetic craft, and building the thing back up again. So I think “refinery” has a good raw feel to it: I don’t want to take your poem and make a finished poem out of it, I want you to do that. I just want to take a raw material and filter it into another raw material. For the time being, I’ll stick with that as a name. And first up this week…!
“The Gong Factory” by Margo Roby
(Margo has been a huge supporter of my poetic pursuits, and I think it’s only fair that I repay the favor by kicking off this series with her poem. Also, she emailed me first.)
Margo actually sent two versions of this poem, and said, pick apart the one that works best. (The difference was mainly in the line arrangement, not the text itself.) So, here is her poem:
The Gong Factory –
[The scene, in] the one-roomed, soot blackened, windowless
foundry, looked like a throwback to the Bronze Age.
Time of day became irrelevant; all focus was on a charcoal fire.
In a crouch, not shielding his face from the heat,
a man turned a tin and copper disk until the metal grew white hot
and malleable; he rose, lifted the piece with tongs,
and threw it onto a second fire, squatting to work the bellows,
and draw the heat. Four men, their muscles expanding
and contracting under skin burnished to a walnut brown, stood,
each with a sledge hammer, and began to crash out a tattoo, a heartbeat,
a complex, hypnotic rhythm that provided a counterpoint to the horns
honking in the street, and the rising decibels of an upset housewife.
The hammers and an occasional burst of sparks split the dark;
the glow of embers burned bright off the sweating men, their sinews twisting
with the lift and fall of their hammers. Back and forth, from fire
to fire the disk was tossed, until, without losing the beat, two of the men
flipped the disk with their hammers and the other two shaped the edge,
bending it under enough to trap the air. In the relative coolness,
the blinding undarkness of the front yard, a man held a gong on his lap
and polished the metal, stopping every few minutes, to strike the surface
and let a note sift through his head; a rasp, a chisel, and a small hammer,
smoothed the edge of the instrument. He would continue at his task
for days, until the notes no longer pierced, or bruised, his ears,
until they floated before him, taking their place in the fugue.
Okay, have you read it? Here’s how I’m going to do this; and I’m still feeling out how I want to handle this process. I’ll pick out three things that I dislike, and give suggestions to improve them, with my reasoning. I will then pick out three things I like that should be developed further. And then I’ll throw some of each as little sound bites, hard and fast.
- The poem is very literal, observational without much metaphor. This is not a bad thing on its own — sometimes the theme of the poem only needs the barest language — but in this case, the idea that is coming across to me (the process of making a musical instrument is full of music itself) would benefit from metaphor. Moreover, the thing about a poem like a haiku (one that says “a bird sings” to sum up the whole idea of natural music, for example) is that they’re short; this poem is not. Long observational poems, if they’re going to describe a concept of lush beauty like music, should be lushly described. I see that Bronze Age simile right at the beginning, and want more right away. (Use philosophical logic to generate metaphors: where the gong is described as a disk, what else is a disk that could stand in for the gong? Maybe they toss a sun, a moon, or a million-dollar coin from fire to fire.)
- Beware of over-describing a scene, though. There is a delicate balance to be struck between giving your reader lushness and dragging them on too long. In the case of this poem, I find there are a few points where pairs or triplets of words could be easily served by just one: instead of muscles “expanding and contracting”, “flexing” or “straining” works just as well. Instead of “a rasp, a chisel, a small hammer”, why not just “he” smoothed the instrument? Another balance that must be struck is between the moments where you choose to have subject-verb-object on its own, and the moments where you go into list-mode and many-adjectives mode: try not to have too much of one or the other. I think enough of this poem could be trimmed down that you’d be left with one two-thirds the length.
- I wasn’t crazy about the passive character of the poem. It’s not in first-person; okay. There is some metonymy and synecdoche in action, where parts or closely-associated objects stand in for people; fine. The language hedges a bit, particularly at the end, when it says “would continue”; not too bad. The gong is passed, beaten, handled, etc., without having an animation of its own; sure. But having all of these things at once doesn’t engage the reader quite as much as a poem that made the gong a character itself, or put the writer in the action (why are they in a foundry anyway?), or assured that the craftsman will continue. Observational poetry is allowed to grow outside the scope of the exact observation made, so that the work sounds self-assured. Don’t be afraid! The chances of any of us having been to this factory in Bogor are so slim that you can get away with pushing the edges out more.
Now for the stuff that I liked more:
- The theme of the poem is tried and true, with the music-to-make-music idea. I think we could even see more of that: some of that over-description that simply lists actions and pads with adjectives could be replaced with more language to drive home the point. (Unless I am missing the point, and that wasn’t the intended theme at all.) Setting the scene in Indonesia and having gongs opens the door for a relatively rare topic, on which you can expound your knowledge. I’ve heard gamelan, and know where Bogor is on a map, but adding “local color”, in all five senses (but particularly hearing), will differentiate this one from the other music-to-make-music poems out there.
- This is how enjambment should be done. That line break in the middle of “from fire / to fire”… brilliant! I don’t think there’s a single endword in this poem that doesn’t hold weight, which is nice, and some of the headwords are excellent too. Visually, it’s a little strange that the lines lengthen as you go, before tapering back right at the end, but overall the poem feels like the right length, with the right length of lines, with the lines and stanzas broken at all the right moments.
- The sound is on the right track, with some excellent vocabulary and word choice. My two things are mimetic writing and hapax legomenon: I like to have the writing reflect the theme of the poem (in this case, I’d probably strive for a really strong, hammering kind of rhythm) and to not use any given word, aside from common ones, more than once (I wouldn’t say “hammer” or “disk” quite so often). But those are two pet preferences that you don’t have to follow; in any case, the vocabulary extant in the poem shows both a command of the language (malleable, burnished, sift) and the specific terminology of the subject matter (trap the air, fugue) of both metallurgy and music. Also, there is some nice alliteration that moves through the poem, which I always appreciate.
So those are the main thoughts that pop up in my head when I read this. Here are some of the smaller ones:
- I don’t know what that housewife is doing in there; cut her out.
- Too many commas for my liking, even if they’re grammatically correct for those sub-clauses.
- “Undarkness” is lovely!
- There are subtle mentions (windowless foundry, traffic, continuing for days, etc.) of the hardship of the job, on top of the glory of crafting: some kind of reference to that music-of-making-music as an escape from the difficult life would be nice.
- I always dig when the poem is given a setting, which cements its faraway quality.
- The actions being described in those final two stanzas are beautiful. I love the idea of him sitting there tapping until the gong rings true.
- I’m not crazy about the third line. Not sure why, it just sounds weird. (Sidebar: did you know that “focus” is originally Latin for “hearth”? I feel like there’s a connection to be made.)
So, my challenge to Margo is: write another draft! Then maybe post it in the comments, if you are of a mind to. And maybe these suggestions will be helpful. My challenge to everyone else is, take to heart what you want to take to heart from these suggestions, discussions, musings, etc. and apply them to your own work. (I think that “Refinery” fit well with the theme of the poem this time, too; that sense of processing works nicely with the foundry bit.) I think there are two more poems I have on deck (maybe three? I must double-check), but you are welcome to send me more! And of course, your comments and the like are always appreciated. We’ll see how this blogosphere critiquing workshop experiment goes…