Ill news from last night: I was not admitted to the PhD program I’d been hoping for (and the other one I applied to is a much longer shot), so it looks like I’ll be stuck in my job for at least another year and a half. I wish more programs had interviews: it’s hard to demonstrate the passion for research in an application effectively. I want to do the PhD because I want to do the kind of work in the world that needs this highest precision of education; but sometimes I suspect they just want people that plan to lock themselves in academia forever. Maybe I’m being unreasonable, since the vast majority of people I know who are successful and happy with their lives don’t have one, but I’ve always felt that the degree would be an essential part of my life and the impact I want to make. This was the first round. I can always try again in the fall, but until then, I hope my determination doesn’t get swallowed by my disappointment.
Maybe I should go for an MFA instead. :P
OK, enough about that. I’m writing this Refinery early and unwashed in the cafe. After early bed last night, I woke up at 8:30 and looked out the window to see it was snowing, so I jumped up, threw clothes on, and headed out before it stopped. (Which it has, now.) Walking in the snow cures all the soul’s ills, I think. Poetry is a close second. This week at the Refinery we have…
“Out of the Depths” by Vivienne Blake
Viv is one of the most prolific poets on the blogosphere, writing (with very few exceptions, as far as I can tell) at least one poem a day, sometimes more, usually crisp, short verse with a witty weft. And besides that, she’s a knockdown quilting and crafts maven, a superb resource for all things French, and an opener of windows into a life that’s completely different from mine (European, relatively pastoral, and measured, in contrast to my New York, urban, hectic), which I always appreciate. Be sure to check out her blog! The poem she offers us today was written to a prompt for an “allegorical poem”, and goes something like this:
Over the side with a splash
hand to mask
feet spread wide to cut the water
start the journey swallowing hard
to ease the pain of pressure.
Smooth descent, slow and careful,
eyes everywhere to muster bearings.
Gauge at ten metres, that’s enough -
safe depth but lots to see,
comfortable with familiar landmarks,
lumps of coral, darting colours
Fronds waving all the same way
danger sign of riptide current
fear grabbing by the throat.
Which way is up and where is here?
Gasp at unexpected depth
as brain is forced to stop and think.
Think, watch the bubbles
that way’s up. Turn and flip
Jettison weight, slowly does it,
pause then rise, pause then rise.
Head back, force out water
breach the surface, not safe yet.
Gaze around to gather bearings
strike out strongly for the shore.
All right, team. Let’s get analyzin’:
- Allegorical poems are tough, to begin with. I called attention to the prompt in the introduction so we could talk about this fact. Basically, I think of allegorical poems as metaphorical ones with less flexibility: there is a specific thing the allegory is meant to tease out, often taking a stance on a particular issue. Think of the Faerie Queene, or some of those Joyce Kilmer poems; and then check out this wonderful piece by Billy Collins. My opinion is that this poem is more of an extended metaphor than a full allegory, which is fine. But there are no speaking personifications of Life and Death, no philosophical overtones to the struggle in the last stanza, no direct allusions to things outside the poem, and no exhortation or moral for the reader. (The title is sort of allusive, reminding me of the Catholic de profundis thing.) As a metaphor poem, what I get from it is, the author sometimes goes further than she should, tempted by beauty, and has the wherewithal to get out before that unexpected dangerous place becomes inescapable; and then maintains the strength to regroup and try again another time…
- …and I could be totally wrong, because one of the advantages of metaphor poems (over allegory poems!) is that there’s no “right way” to read it. The reader takes what they can from it, which is hopefully what the writer intended. However, once you open the door to admitting a metaphor poem, I think it’s improved by allowing more devices as well. Personification, simile, synecdoche, metonymy, all those fun ones! Permit metaphors within metaphors: instead of fear grabbing by the throat, how about fear is a rusty chain skinning the ankle? Instead of watch the bubbles / that way’s up, how about climb the bubbles / hand over hand? I have no trouble following the narrative of the dive (and I’ll get to that below), so make it as interesting as possible. One of my favorite quotes from The West Wing: “An artist’s job is to captivate you for as long as we’ve asked for your attention; if we stumble into truth, we got lucky.” I demand captivation with quirks of language that have never been used for this situation, involving these particular images and circumstances, ever before.
- I would like to see more details at the same time that I’d like to see less. (I’m so picky.) Let me give an example: danger sign of riptide current doesn’t work for me. I know a riptide is dangerous, and I know it’s a current; the fronds dragged in the same direction is something I might not. So if we change those lines to Fronds waving all the same way / threaten the riptide, we’ve gained space for two words to play with. (Maybe start that stanza with but when to make more abrupt the transition from stanza to stanza?) Tweaking a poem is often about the economy of words, trimming down in order to find room for expansion. The poem feels like it’s just the right size and shape; now I want to see slightly different details. I want to cut the eyes everywhere line and gasp at unexpected depth, and use the space to add lusher details about the tempting undersea landscape (give colors to those corals and their inhabitants), or the palpable physicality of terror (that rusty chain).
And now for something completely different:
- I like the style of language here. There’s an abruptness to it, almost a choppiness (but not too much so) that implies the breaking of waves, a pounding heartbeat, and rising panic, all at once. This fits perfectly with the theme and setting. I don’t normally write like this, so I appreciate seeing it done well; I do think it could be a little more internally consistent, or at least clearer when the shifts between the level of choppiness are intentional. More commas and dashes — even more line breaks — could help, especially to distinguish the panicking second half from the seductive first half. There’s an in-the-moment internal monologue feel as well; I can picture this string of language running through the diver’s mind.
- Viv has a very musical temperament, and the rhyme and rhythm of this poem are no exception. Those last four lines, with their alliteration and carefully placed pauses, stand out particularly well to me. And that line which was is up and where is here has a great ring to it. Furthermore, I am a sucker for the mix of very straightforward words with very elegant ones dropped like diamonds into oatmeal: you have this very nourishing, familiar collection of ease, descent, strike out, and then those wonderful bits of riptide, fronds, jettison. I’d even say a bit more jazz: you don’t have to use super-fancy words, just carefully-placed ones. Instead of safe depth but lots to see, what about a safe museum depth? Sometimes a single word can conjure up the work of an entire phrase, giving you more space to play with and introducing a lyrical element at the same time.
- It’s rare in these Refineries that I’ll pick out a particular phrase to expound on, but that repeated pause then rise just stays with me long after finishing. I think there are three reasons for this. First, phonetically, it’s a very soothing phrase: it bounces off that initial p sound, and then has nothing but very fluid sounds swirling all around the mouth, with a natural dip-and-lift intonation. Second, it maintains the voice and pace of the poem, but hides it very well; the effect is hardly even apparent, but at least as important as the physical sound of it. And third, the repetition, plus the meaning of those verbs, gives more flesh to the theme of the poem. I read this as a touchstone of determination, carefulness, and success/escape from dire straits. When you have a phrase like this that springs out of the entire poem, take a lesson from it, and try to echo some of its weight (not too much) elsewhere in the piece.
Finally, some minor quibbles and smiles:
- What about The Dive for the title? If we’re going to cut the “allegory” element, the current title feels a bit much for me. (So would “Diving in Dire Straits”, but I’d chuckle.)
- This poem is didactic about diving, without trying hard. Now I feel like I know what to do if I ever go scuba.
- I’m not keen on that fronds immediately followed by fronds. I love the word, but break it up a bit.
- The in media res quality is nice: we neither know, nor is it very important, where or when this takes place, who else is there, etc. The poem is self-reliant and universal.
- But at the same time, it couldn’t hurt to describe the setting a bit more. Just a tad! We know it’s tropical (coral) and deep-ish (you need a mask), but maybe two or three more details.
That’s my ten cents on the piece. Viv: I hope that I read this one right, and that the suggestions are helpful! As for everyone else, as I’ve been lately wont to do, here is a prompt for you to do what you will:
Share a moment where you learned something valuable from what you thought would be a mundane activity. You can describe the setting, but no establishing before-and-after. Make extensive use of metaphor and internal monologue, so that we are not sure if it’s a dream or reality; don’t use any proper nouns or personal pronouns, though!