renovation fourteen: lunch atop a skyscraper, 1932

Maybe you know this famous photo by Charles Ebbets?:

If not, this is from the middle of the Great Depression, as the GE Building (now more popularly known, maybe, as “30 Rock”) was being built. There’s something strange and poignant about all this New York Deco history happening in the middle of economic disaster. Probably the starkest example of this, in this photo at least, is the fact that these are men eating lunch (actually, posed to eat lunch) nearly 1000 feet above the ground, with no safety harnesses. The pulley in the foreground caught my attention, as did the man on the far right, who does not appear to share the camaraderie of the others. Since this was the prompt list I put together…

1. “…understanding what touch meant / for the first time…” (Roger Bonair-Agard, “Because I cannot remember my first kiss”)
2. “The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.” (Stephen Spender, “The Truly Great”)
3. “I bled sweetness across the outside of my teeth.” (me, “Treasure Hunt”)
4. an artistic photograph of something mundane
5. Give an example of the usefulness of a simple machine.
BONUS. Give your poem a prime number of lines (prime numbers being those that can only be divided by themselves and 1, such as 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc.)
ALTERNATE (2). “We pretended to know nothing about it.” (Cleopatra Mathis, “Dead Fox”)

…I thought of the photo pretty quickly, and the poem grew from there. There’s probably a lot more to be written just from this photo (and indeed there’s even a documentary about it, particularly about how nobody knows the identities of these men for certain), but this will have to do for now.

(lunch atop a skyscraper, 1932)

The man on the end frowns at the camera
while the rest pass cigarettes, discuss baseball,
trade gristle and hard-boiled eggs for red apples.
He drinks his lunch from a half-empty flask
to take the edge off, to help him forget that he is
one sharp breeze away from death.
Most builders have forgotten to envy the beam,
held in its web of pulley and rope, except this
scowling man pulling a rosary around the hand
tucked in his pocket. Life has gotten
so cheap these days. He, at least, is still
not ready to give up on it, even when shivering
on the bread line, or riveting these new cathedrals.
Or even now, when the bosses tell their men,
walk out on that girder– sit– smile for the camera–
and he does not smile. Tenacious as a bull.
Staring at the crowd who waits for him to fall.

renovation three: autumn kitchen

I wasn’t kidding when I said there would be a minimum of effort and preparation put into these prompts, because there is just so much crap going on. It’s already 3:00 PM, and even with the extra hour from Daylight Savings, I feel like I haven’t gotten done a damn thing today. Slept late, had two meals that both lasted forever (with a third already on the horizon), played games with my brother, had a visit with the niece… tomorrow I have to go back to regular life. I can’t afford to be in this lazy mindset, dammit.

I suppose that sort of informed the character who shows up in the little Kay Ryan-esque shniplet I wrote for today. I look at it and just go “ugh”, no matter how many little twists and revisions I think about making. Here, I’ll look again– ugh. No matter. I’ll plaster it up on this post, and give you the prompt I put together which inspired it, and let you figure out what to do for your own work… hopefully you are having a more productive day than me.

1. “One smile on the brown hills and naked trees…” (William Cullen Bryant, “November”)
2. “…crumbling the inner barriers of the brain.” (Yvor Winters, “The Fable”)
3. “He is all sweep and method when he comes.” (me, “Haymaking”)
4. window shades
5. Combine one piece of art with another in a way that seems completely incongruous.
BONUS. No line in the poem should be longer than eight syllables.
ALTERNATE (1). “No sun–no moon!” (Thomas Hood, “No!”)

And then, this, which doesn’t get everything in, and the ones it gets, doesn’t get well:

(autumn kitchen)

Need is the half-thawed engine
that drives his talent
for invention. An odd bleed
aligns the challenged mind
and the hand that acts
without thinking. The ground
cracks with cold while we
bake bread and cannot find
a knife. What man slices loaves
with a wing of red stained glass?
But he’s good for such things.
He survives: the kind who,
dying of thirst, would pass through
the flood without drinking.

Please go write something better, I beg of you! I’m going to try and do the same.

The Refinery: virginia layton

Three-day weekend, you are a harsh mistress, but I think I’ve got this down to a science by now. I managed to juggle four different social event type things (coworkers, friends, family), stayed off the computer for a whole day yesterday, got some free books and board game time out of it, and finished my laundry + groceries by noon today. And now there’s another 36 hours of uninterrupted hum to enjoy: poems, job applications (what a way to spend Labor Day), etc.

I am getting evicted, though. Not for another couple months, but still, it’s on my mind and needs some attention… damn landlords renovating and whatnot. We’re looking at November for a probable move-out, which I like: in theory, we’ll be able to tell where there’s functional heat, but it won’t be so cold that moving is absolute misery yet. Still, it’s likely I’ll have to leave Chelsea/Village area. Who knows? It could be the making of me; or, I suppose it could be just the obvious. What if I move to Brooklyn and have to learn how to ride a bike? You’re nobody in Brooklyn unless you can do that.

But let’s talk Refinery. Today’s poem is, “Teaism” by Virginia Layton!

Virginia says this piece is a composite of a couple different ones that have appeared on her blog, and sent two version of this one; I’ll use the revised version for the purposes of this post. She has also helpfully included translations of the two Tagalog words that appear in the text: umaga means morning, and áraw means sun. I’ll add that to the list of dozen words I picked up when I had a Filipino boyfriend many moons ago (like when I started this blog; yikes).

I drink my Irish Breakfast from a bowl
and look out the iron-clad
window into the once lushly
overgrown garden district, waking up umaga.

I dredge the river, brown with silt or soot,
straddle the Mississippi with careful
dirge and scat-skittering trumpet; its scent
a stiff drink makes my vision
cloudy, reminiscing my search fruitless
for those ephemeral moments on the park bench when the page
was love supreme: job security, maternity leave, levees broken never entering
the labyrinthine archways of the city where
our souls played hide and seek through back alleys, crumbling
stone chips squalor—áraw

glints from the ring on my left
hand, as I press gently the desiccated leaves unfurling
in tepid water; I sit on this stool with uneven legs
and I can’t let myself go
soft or move too much without losing—
what was it? Art Tatum scampers in my head,
his fingers tapping it, yes, fleet arpeggios jive
into the Duke’s Mood Indigo and I forget
strident cries, “Life separates us!”

I get ready to leave, slip
into the cool, emerge soap-slick hands slack.
What-to-do’s top heavy sink,
what-if’s submerged
bubble slowly.
Water hot and scald shock
discharged as hands wring: deliberate
pain disseminated, regret vaporizes.
The door’s locked ‘cause no one’s home.

And then off to the café where lonely rumors fly
in an earthy aroma, aphrodisiac for Fiona, legend
of naughty enticement,
a machine well-greased like Angelina
(Creole at ease with her sexy)
or like the way Yo-Yo handles a cello
(bravado upended) and the vision of the Crescent
City is a love flung far, a distance imminent…
craving undrenched.

All right, there’s a lot going on here. Let’s do what we can:
- The first thing I’ll say is that I don’t like this in two parts. I know it’s a composite, but here’s a rule of thumb I recommend: only separate the poem into discrete chunks like this if you feel that the themes/angles you’re working with are completely unable to be woven together. (And then, in that case, always err on the side of the ratio of one part to one such angle.) Take a look at all we have in this poem: a meditative experience with tea, a wistful (tragic?) portrait of the narrator in a city (New Orleans?), this musical angle, mixed with the domestic and moving from place to place (house and café?), and a sort of tension between loss and desire. Lots to work with, but I think it has the potential to be all married together. What I’d recommend for having multiple themes like that is to examine the arc you want them to take, then decide whether each stanza of the poem will advance that arc a little bit, or examine the entire thing from a unique point of view. Only break it into sections if you don’t have confidence the reader will consider it one unified whole, because that ends up being the effect.
- The risk we run with such a complicated poem is becoming too cryptic for our own good. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit, and with such a piece of machinery as this poem, it takes a lot of effort to find ways to keep it trim and moving. It’s not a problem to make personal allusions the reader won’t get, or refer to events that have significance for the author only. However, you have to make up for it by making those images equally enticing, with the potential to be meaningful to the reader in their own way. Take a look at the Art Tatum section, for example: even if you don’t know who he is, you’ve got his full name (Google away!), what he does, and how he relates to the overall narrative. There is emotion and connection in the way he’s presented. But in the last stanza, I have no idea who Fiona is, all I can think for Angelina is Angelina Jolie, and Yo-Yo is, I assume, Yo-Yo Ma. I’m not sure what they’re doing in here and how they relate to the narrative. Sometimes it’s better to cut things altogether than to leave them half-cryptic, and make room for the ones which can develop further.
- And thirdly, there are a few odd moments with the language. Overall, I’m very happy with it (which I’ll get to below), but the poem rockets pretty strongly a few times between a casual, everyday mode of speech, and a florid one. There are plenty of poems that do this, and generally it’s not a problem: but I suspect the effect created here is not one Virginia wants. (I could be wrong.) “I drink my Irish Breakfast from a bowl” is a killer opening line, very plain yet distinctive, with that highly specific gem tossed in the middle. To go from that style into “reminiscing”, “ephemeral”, and “labyrinthine” makes me wonder if there’s a focus on the elaboration of memory and vision; I think that distracts from the meatier themes in the poem. Some of the lines also get a lot longer as a result and disrupt some of the poem’s flow. I’d rather see more Tagalog (maybe a whole line?), and more of the pattern with very simple language elaborated through unique structure and sudden detail.

- Continuing my previous point, there is great value to linguistic quirkiness. I don’t mean the SAT words that turn up in poems just because they are, admittedly, wonderful words that deserve a second chance outside a sophomore English class. In my opinion, the goal should always be to use words everybody knows in ways they’ve never considered ordering them before (with the possible specific or unknown word they have to reach for, woven in, naturally). Lots of spaces in the poem demonstrate this: I like “slip into the cool” better than “deliberate pain disseminated”, “I dredge the river… straddle the Mississippi” better than “crumbling stone chips squalor”, “off to the café where lonely rumors fly” better than “a distance imminent… craving undrenched.” As I said above, both modes are fine, and even having both in the poem are fine if that’s the effect you want, but in my opinion, the poem as a whole works better with just that first mode.
- And part of the reason for that is, it creates a more believable Voice, with a capital V. There seems to be very little contrived about the poem: I can completely picture the speaker in my head as the center point around which the poem is revolving. Consider that combination of daily domestic and meditative relaxation; the careful description of her surroundings blended with memory; the details of Tagalog and proper nouns to define her setting. Always ask yourself when you write a line in the first person, “would my speaker (who doesn’t necessarily have to be me) say/write this?” I think this poem only breaks down in that regard when it goes out of its way to use these long, fancy words.
- Finally, there are also some nice things going on mechanically in the poem. With one huge exception (see below), I think the line breaks follow the general rule of good line breakage: end with an interesting word always, start with an interesting word if possible. There is some carefully done alliteration and sound similarity that might have even been subconscious on Virginia’s part: “once lushly overgrown garden district” has a lovely chain of vowel harmony and L, G, D alliteration in there. (This is, to me, always preferable to in-your-face alliteration; “soap-slick hands slack” is a bit much.) And there is a rhythm to the poem that keeps it moving at a nice clip. We lose steam at a few points, but always come back, an important quality in a poem of this length. I’d hazard that trimming some of the fancy language that isn’t needed, and maybe entirely removing some of the distracting references the reader won’t understand, would help even more.

Whew. A lot to get through. But of course, I must throw a few more things in as well:
- Is the stanza break after áraw an error? It’s so distant from “glints”. Not fond of this.
- The poem’s title calls to mind a tea shop in DC I used to go all the time, and a play on the word Taoism. If either of these was intentional, well-done, I say.
- An ellipsis! Get it out get it out get it out.
- Although the narrative is sometimes tough to tease out for the reasons mentioned above, there does seem to be a simple (but thoroughly explored) narrative here. I dig that. This is getting an after-mention because pieces of this concept are already covered in the longer talk.
- I’m not wild about a couple of the grammatical structures, though. “Silt-brown” might be better than “brown with silt or soot”; and how about “what-if’s bubble slowly / as they’re submerged”? What would the poem’s narrator say?

That’s a wrap. Virginia, I hope this has been helpful, and gives you the confidence to further tweak the poem; you’ve got something good going here! And for everyone else (who are, of course, always welcome to send poems as well…), here is a prompt to get your brain-juices flowing:

Pick a mundane event during your day and describe how you do it differently from everybody else, in whatever small ways: use specific, but not uncommon, words. Then pick an event you (sometimes) do/that happens immediately afterward, and describe it in the same way. Free-write for a bit, and explore the tension between the two, and what memories/emotions they summon up: separately, together, and placed against each other. Let this be the basis of your poem. Try to write in a voice that is the Most Honest Version of yourself; try to get at least three points where a complex chain of sound similarity (several vowels and consonants alliterating and in harmony) sneaks in under the radar.

A lot of work, for this one! But I think you all can handle it, you superstars, you.

The Refinery: andrew geary

Oh man, there’s a video of the reading from Sunday online. I won’t say where (if you dig, you’ll find it, I’m sure), because I’m super embarrassed. But I suppose it’s pretty cool. I’m watching myself be all gawky onstage, and thinking of things to work on for the next reading. (There will be others, yes!)

And at last, we have some Refinery business to attend to, with another one on deck that I’ll be posting in the next few days. This one comes to us from Andrew Geary, who says he’s been tinkering with the poem for a while, and feels it has potential that needs to be realized. So, without further ado, his poem, “The Poet’s Horse“:

The horse was awkward
as it tried to tear itself
from the mud’s grasp.
Gracefulness died
after its misstep, struggle
slumped into the ease
of slipping.

The poet relayed this tale
and told me it represented
humanity. He also told me
that an artist digs the dirt
of reality and uncovers
the pearl, receives the music
from the noise and breaks
the impenetrable block
to free its beauty. So the poet
pulled the horse from death
and gave what he thought
was true.

All right everyone, let’s do what we do best:
- The first thing is alliteration. Here’s a theory I have: alliteration works in very small, careful doses, but we’re taught in school that poetry should have more of it because a) poetry must be distinguished from “normal” writing and its rules, and b) Anglo-Saxon and other poetries ancestral to English made extensive use of it, so its traditional. But there is such a notion as too much of a good thing, and if you’re going to use alliteration at all, you should treat it like any other device: use only when necessary for the sake of, in this case, the sound. The subtler, the better. “Grasp” and “gracefulness” hook my attention and don’t let it go for the rest of the poem, to its detriment; I keep waiting for the next pair, and don’t listen to the content. Same with (maybe “struggle”,) “slumped” and “slipping”. Pairs like “tale” and “told”, and even “poet”/”pulled” are less noticeable, but in every case, one ought to think: is this necessary? Is there a better word that would serve the poem more? Which is more important at this point: advancing the piece, or the sound? The answer to that one may vary from line to line.
- While we’re on the subject of too much of a good thing and sparing use, metaphor also gets a pretty heavy helping in the piece. Our workshop moderator is fond of talking about the “of machine”, where “the (concrete noun) of (abstract noun)” is used descriptively. It’s a widely-used structure, to the point of cliché (“the milk of human kindness”, etc.), and not to say that you can’t use it, but think carefully before you do. Regarding other metaphors in the poem, the second stanza is chock-full of them, to the point that it obstructs what I think is the message of the poem. We see that the horse is not real, and so I understand that the metaphor helps build a reported-tale kind of frame. But this is poetry. You can get away with saying “X is” rather than saying “X is like”, albeit not too far. Think about how much more powerful the poem becomes if the theme and message are happening in the moment, raw and direct, rather than after the fact. The poet watches his horse stuck in mud, unable to free itself, and knowing that he cannot save it, begins to think about how he will immortalize this horse in verse. The way it’s presented now is just an object lesson, a metaphor built upon other metaphors– and you must be careful of doing this, lest it collapse like a house of cards.
- Some of the language seems slightly stilted to me. Overall, the vocabulary is fine: I’m okay with the occasional word like “impenetrable”, but some of the syntax is rubbing me the wrong way. I think the two which stand out the most are “Gracefulness died… slipping,” and “gave what he thought was true.” They have a vaguely epic feel that doesn’t seem to suit the subject matter, unless this was a kind of epic horse, or there’s a larger point to be made about the poet turning even a simple horse into something epic. And what’s going on with “struggle slumped”? It’s not that I don’t understand what it all means, in a literal sense, but you want a poem that arrests the reader for the right reasons. If I have to pause and figure out what you’re trying to say at a given point, and why you make the syntactic/metaphorical choices that you did, I’m spending time that could be otherwise spent moving through the poem, getting to other images that support your ergodic* imagery. You want them to pause only when they’re taken particularly aback by a particularly beautiful and unique line. This saves time so that they will go back and read it again! I think of musician Joanna Newsom as a good example for such stunners. Two favorites: “the sky was a bread roll soaking in a milk bowl” and “the hills are groaning with excess / like a table ceaselessly being set.” I don’t have to do any work to figure out why she chose these or phrased them like that (I know exactly what she means), but my breath catches for a moment as I’m swept by their beauty.

* I’m borrowing the term ergodic from Espen J. Aarseth, who uses it (thanks Wiki!) to mean text which requires a “nontrivial effort” on the part of the reader.

Now, all that aside:
- The theme is a good one, and should be explored. I don’t want to say explored thoroughly, as I like the length/terseness of this poem (see next point). Often, I’ve struggled with the same impulses of turning these life tragedies into something lyrical or artistic (trying, at least). As I said before, I think this could be driven home even more strongly by giving us the situation in media res, where the poet is the viewpoint speaker rather than this nameless narrator. That line about the horse’s struggle representing humanity is brilliant, and I want to see it explored more than the following line, showing these different art forms. (The concept is important, but it takes up too much of the poem’s mass.) And if the narrator is kept, I find myself wondering about the third dimension here: does the narrator agree? Disagree? What are the narrator’s thoughts on the poet’s opinion?
- Not that this is a haiku or anything, but there is an appealing spareness to the length and tone of the poem. Gracefulness is the only word that sticks out at me as anything other than natural, fluid, and simple, with the possible additional exception of impenetrable and slumped. (Not hard words, just more florid than the others in the poem.) Andrew has made good use of the economy of vocabulary here, though I think he spends too much of the time on elements I don’t care as much about (like that pearl, block, etc. line). I would want to see even more attention devoted to “show, don’t tell”, though I hate that dictum: if it needed to keep that reported speech element, the title would be a good place to hide it, which frees up at least a few lines for other, more interesting things.
- I want to zoom in especially on that first sentence, the first three lines. You’d be hard pressed to find a better opening, with the possible exception of replacing “was awkward” with a more animating construction. (Maybe “wriggled” or “flailed”? Or some truly jarring verb like “wrenched”? An adverb could fit in there too.) I think this is part of what makes gracefulness so offensive to me: it follows an excellent chunk of language. That, and, it could be reduced to just grace without losing its power. The third sentence and fifth sentence of the five in the poem are also fairly good, although the end loses its way a little bit, as I’ve already noted. The poem is at its best when it has that cool simplicity, and I wouldn’t want to see its length expand much, if at all; probably it doesn’t need to contract either, though.

A few more things:
- The digging pearls really bugs me. Pearls don’t come from the earth, right?
- I really like the sentiment of receiving music and art as something one must be receptive to rather than hunting for…
- …but really, we don’t need all those art forms. Keep the sentiment, stick with the poetry only, I think.

So, Andrew, I hope that was helpful. I think you’re right that the poem does help potential, and I think you can find it within the poem already, without having to turn elsewhere for additional inspiration. Keep at it! And for those of you who need a prompt, you are in luck because I have one just here:

Think about a tragedy that affected you, but not too strongly or deeply; free-write a bit about your creative thoughts that stemmed from it, for better or for worse. Try to come up with an adage or aphorism that states Something True about the world, which you could tell someone, and which your creative thoughts support. Work these into five sentences, with the aphorism at the end. In each sentence, have exactly one concrete image, and don’t let emotion show through anywhere except in your word choice. Try to delete the “I” entirely.

A little Zenlike and complicated, maybe. But I have full faith in you guys.

The Refinery: debi swim

Thanks to Margo Roby for her plug; there’s poems for the Refinery for the first time in weeks! I do enjoy having something more to do than stare at prompts or random lists of things I’ve scrummaged together and waiting for some kind of writing to happen. (Side note: if spell checker is correct, apparently “scrummage” actually is a verb.) (Side side note: I have used it completely wrong.) And also, as always, I will provide my usual disclaimer that I don’t have an MFA or anything, only my rambling experience; and that I hope you enjoy and get something out of these posts as much as I do. To anyone who hasn’t been around for the Refinery before: you should consider submitting! So today:

“Sun Stroked Thoughts” by Debi

Debi sent this poem in, with the claim of being an “amateur poet”. I only want to bring this up to say, too many people writing out there are too self-deprecating with their status. What people often mean when they say “amateur” is that they don’t write poems which have appeared in Poetry magazine, or they write stuff they don’t like to read afterwards, or sometimes just that they haven’t been writing long. First of all, not everybody reads or likes Poetry magazine, and everyone has an audience, somewhere. Second, I don’t like the stuff I write, either; I think everyone is critical of their own work, and finds it hard to step back enough to appreciate it. And third, a lot of those Poetry poets find their voice right out of the gate, and some struggle their entire lives to find it. So before declaring yourself “amateur”, reconsider what you mean by it. Remember that it comes from the word “lover”, as in, someone who is doing poetry for love rather than profession. If that’s the only thing you mean by it, you are welcome to describe yourself as such.

So, the poem:

The sand under my feet scritches
itches in places I can’t reach
a fish shaped kite flutters
utters in the blue sky
waves SWWWoooSHes
to shore sure as night follows day
dreams carry me across the sea
sons, winter, fall, summer, spring
forth as my sleepy thoughts drift
wood on the beach bleached white
hot Tropic of Cancer
causing sun.

Let’s see what we can do:
- I’m going to keep in the narrative frame of what I think Debi means by “amateur” things here, and pull them apart a little bit. My first tip on reading this is to find a balanced aesthetic, between experimentation and traditionalism. You can’t read poetry nowadays without tripping over someone who claims you need to be all avant-garde with text, to which I say, bullshit. Before I get into the meatier point about rhyme and word use, I keep stopping on that “SWWWoooSHes” in the middle and the formal structure of the poem. I am a fan of punctuation and line breaks in poems; it took me a while to realize it too, but I am firmly in that camp now. Punctuation gives you an entire set of tools to help you better craft your message, and it seems a disservice not to use them. (I count a line break as a punctuation mark as well, fyi.) This poem has a lot of punning and stuff moving across lines, but the sudden string of commas and that final period make the lack of punctuation elsewhere in the poem seem particularly stark. And the swoosh-onomatopoeia distracts me more than it gives any added benefit; “swoosh” by itself is strong enough. I don’t want to say that every poem needs to be a sonnet, or that grammar needs to be inflexible, but it’s also not a requirement to bend the rules. A river does not flow in a straight line downstream; make meanders and rapids and schools of fish.
- Then onto the sound. I find myself wondering about those early internal rhymes a lot. I get the puns in the latter half of the poem (which I’ll talk about in a bit), but I’m not sure why “scritches / itches” and “flutters / utters” are there, and it’s tripping me up. Particularly because it’s so early in a poem; remember that if you set an expectation in the first four lines (like rhyming couplets), the reader, however subconsciously, will expect it to continue. You may want to create the jarring effect of an abrupt shift, from regularity and rhyme to free flow, but you need to be aware it will happen. I think both “scritches” and “utters” can be removed entirely. The rest of the poem is pretty tight when it comes to sound, but the beginning wobbles the whole thing off course a bit. Poetry should sing, of course: but I get the feeling this is not meant to be a poem where sound is the only concern. As much as you should be aware of the jarring effect, you also want to be aware of how much the poem will be perceived a sonic device (rather than a thematic one). A good tip: have someone else read it aloud and see how it matches with your own style.
- And then, moving up another level, the thematic tissue of the poem: what is the third dimension here? As it stands, the poem is purely observational, which is fine if Debi wants, but I think there’s potential to dig down further. The title implies some complexity and damage beyond just the visuals, and the thoughts drifting across seasons/the Tropic of Cancer suggests both a particular location and a desire to leave it. Maybe I’m reading too much into it? But if I am, please treat as a case of a reader finding something which might be worth exploring: a common occurrence in workshops, if you let it happen. (And sometimes the readers are incredibly off the mark, so far behind they think they’re first.) It’s a short, image- and language-heavy poem, but the addition of ego could make for a stronger piece.

From another angle or three:
- I do like some of the punning. “Day / dreams” and “Cancer / causing” are my favorites, I think; and although “beach / bleached” isn’t really a pun, that forceful of an immediate rhyme draws attention to itself in the same way. (I’m less keen on “shore sure” and “sea / sons”.) I like that the poem takes the high road and does puns instead of clichés, which can get tiresome very quickly. Line breaks might disrupt some of this effect, but I think that the clever reader will still be carried through by these phrases even if there is empty space in their middles. Trust your reader!
- Always go with specifics! For me, the two strongest moments in the poem are the fish-shaped kite and the Tropic of Cancer. For the first one, ask questions: who is flying that kite? Where did it come from? What kind of fish is it? Visualize, hypothesize, jazzercise. You open yourself to all kinds of explorations from that one minimal scrap of an image: picture the fish swimming through the sky in the sea wind, or chasing another kite like a fish goes after prety. And then, the second one: I love the specificity of Tropic of Cancer. Where is it? What is the point of naming it? Why does it have that name, anyway? The door is already shining light through the keyhole with the “Cancer / causing” pun, and I want to see it pushed wide.
- …but at the same time, if these incidental moments are expanded in the poem, I would also want to see a corresponding expansion of the general theme: summer-y, or at least beach-y, daydreams. Right now, the poem is, I think, balanced in subject, where the right proportion (the largest one) is devoted to those daydreams. The internal rhymes seem more salient because they’re right at the start, but they actually don’t take up much space; and punctuation/line breaks or their absence, by definition, are salient without taking up space. The poem is honestly, primarily, concerned with its topic, and that’s good; the slight cheek of the puns and the foregrounding of sound overall take up as much space as they should.

A few more things:
- I can’t put my finger on it, but I feel like there’s a couple missing prepositions in here that would somehow better flow the poem.
- The title, as I mentioned, is good. Maybe play around with it to make it even better?
- Honestly, I’m not sure what purpose the list of seasons serves.
- But the more I look at those last two lines, the more I like them.

A little bit of trimming and punctuating, followed by some expansion in all corners, could do this poem a world of good, I feel. Debi: I hope this has been some valuable advice. And for the rest of us who need something to scribble, here’s a prompt that you might consider…

Describe a quiet moment you are having/have had, where the threat of the usual turbulence is waiting, just out of view. What are the benefits/risks of escape, and the benefits/risks of staying? Include an odd image that catches your eye, a specific location in the world that you’ve never been, and clever enjambment on at least two pairs of lines. Separate the poem into at least two distinct stanzas, and at least three sentences (not necessarily complete ones).

Happy writing!

The Refinery: misky (ii)

My goodness, another post. Once again, I’ll pitch the Refinery for those who’d care to send me something: I will happily do my level best to pick apart elements of you poem for public consumption, if you’ve a stomach for it! The fact that I’m not exactly accredited or authorized to do this should not deter you. (I mean, if nothing else, I’ll do it for free.) Send me an email (if you don’t have it or can’t find it, comment with how to reach you), and toss me a poem. This week, we have a repeat guest:

Tom’s Beach: A View Inside Out” by Misky

Those who remember Misky’s last appearance at the Refinery may recall my extensive plaudits and whatnot about her presence in the blogosphere. The poem is rather long, so I do want to leap in pretty quickly, but I do recommend dropping by her blog for her particular blend of heartfelt, everyday whimsy. Now, the poem:

Tom’s mother knew the doctors wrong,
of this she had few doubts. Her love
for him was strong and sure.
He wasn’t broken, as they said.
He wasn’t fragile, as she feared.
He was her Tom, and every word
spoken she knew he heard.
Her Tom was a universe
on to himself.

He’s awoken by clattering
again. They’re spinning,
those two busy toys of his.

… And today is his birthday …

He calls one of his toys Mum,
it looks like the letter B
set firmly upon skinny sticks.
The other one’s called Da, it’s
much bigger, fussing and fretting,
and Tom’s fixated, listening
to its deep screechy, thumpy sounds.

Noise noise, his head echoes
with Mum and Da, and it
shakes him out of bed.

… Cake and ice cream for breakfast …

Tom stands detached, observing
shimmering shadows along
the edge of his hand. He often
brings his Mum and Da toys stride
up short. He sees what he wants
to see, not more. He’s the spark
in his own universe. Tom is
that sparkling speck of dust

in the sunlight, and he dances
with moon beams on the wall
when the house is asleep.

… and lit birthday candles. He doesn’t like those …

Tom twirls through words that curl like
the waves in his hair. He closes
his eyes, mesmerised by sparkling
colours and numbers splashing like rain.
And he counts 1-2-3. Tom counts
colours. Number sums are for counters,
and he’s not a counter. He’s a boy,
and he spins like a planet

as his throat strums the sound
of his name: Tom-Tom-Tom
His name is the beat of a drum.

… He’d wished for a bucket of stones …

And his lungs bellow out the sound
of a trombone, as he hums
a staccato happy birthday song.
Tom casts his glance at the toy
he calls mum, and then he dashes
off arms linked with bright humming
colours and small running numbers,
a periwinkle and a whelk,

all of them chasing after waves
that kiss and hug the edge
of his beach – It’s Tom’s Beach –
adorned with yellow smiley face stickers.

NB: the subject of the poem is a boy with Broad Spectrum Autism, as part of a series. Let’s begin:
- I don’t fear long poems. I welcome them. I say, bring it. I challenge them to try and overtake me. But, any long poem needs to not only captivate its reader enough to keep them from being daunted at first glance, it needs to keep captivating them to hold them in and prevent them from leaving early. In this case, I would say: tighten, tighten, tighten. My suspicion is that this was written as prose first, before being converted to poetry, because when you take out the line breaks, it becomes a pretty clear vignette. With sensitive subject matter, I’m always hesitant to suggest cutting X, Y, or Z, but there are a few points I think are weak links in the narrative. First: the lines with ellipses seem to draw the poem out of context too much, though I understand they contrast the “real world” with Tom’s “inner world”. Second: I’m not wild for the first stanza, because even though it sets up mitigation on what follows, let’s assume all the readers are human and will feel empathy for the subject. We don’t need the mother here, when she isn’t present in the rest of the poem. And third gets its own point, below.
- I’ve made the point before in these little discussions that long strings of similar words (i.e. three adjectives in a row) can leave us hanging, waiting for that final modified noun. For example, we have “deep, screechy, thumpy sounds” above; do we really need all three, or is there one adjective that can sum them up (like mechanical or cacophonous)? Even better, is there a less straightforward image word that will do the work even better (carburetorlocomotive)? The same principle holds for repeated phrases. I’m all for parallelism (important term!), but often it needs to serve a purpose beyond re-iteration. “He wasn’t broken, as…” and “He wasn’t fragile, as…” doesn’t have enough variety for me; by contrast, “his own universe” echoing through the poem has some appeal. Again, the repetition may be an echo of the subject matter; what Misky ought to do here is weigh how the effects of the poem’s sound and structure mimic the content against how difficult they make it for the reader to get caught in its flow. For my part, I usually err on the side of the latter, especially in a longer piece.
- Even though this is part of a series, I feel as though the poem is trying to do too much work at once. Let’s presume (and maybe I shouldn’t, not being the poet) that the point of the series is to create some humanity and empathy for a child who might not otherwise receive it. In one poem, we have the outside (family) vs. inner (Tom) perspective, an assortment of ways in which autism can express itself (synesthesia, personalizing objects), the special event (birthday) peeking through the usual patterns, and the humanity/empathy element on top of it all. Couldn’t some of these be saved for other poems in the series, and this one focused on one particular aspect? To all poets: ask yourself, what is the most compelling moment in this poem? What questions do you still have unanswered about it? (If it were up to me, and it’s not, I’d zoom in on the birthday element and/or the Mum/Da toys element.) Once you can focus on that, a lot of the extraneous stuff can fall away, to be saved and used elsewhere. Save the liver.

But aside from that:
- I do think the poem picks up steam as you go through it, which is why I want to cut that first stanza entirely. It could start with “He calls one of his toys Mum”, without a problem. The “Tom twirls” stanza is probably my favorite out of the lot, and look how far down it is! Lead off strong, and get strong near the end; you can laze a bit in the middle and right at the end (though you probably ought not to) if you want. In a short story, you can get away with more exposition and slow build, but poems are creatures of in media res, even if you want to tell a complete narrative: start with a bang. Proceed to have a series of bangs.
- Back to those Mum and Da toys. Taking the mother herself out of the poem changes the poem entirely, and makes me much more interested in the story. Why does Tom fixate on the toys and give them those names? How are they similar to/different from his actual parents? There’s a meaty story underneath that concept which we get glimmers of, but not enough for us to get a direct answer. I would want just the barest hint more of information, maybe keeping the frame narrative of the birthday, and the rest of the piece I would shift to another poem. Having too many other things going on in the poem (by which I mean the explanations, not just the simple facts of synesthesia or objects: you can easily keep them in by themselves, without feeling the need to justify their presence) distracts from those bits that draw is in and give us pause.
- There are, of course, some nice turns of phrase throughout. “A periwinkle and a whelk” might be my favorite line in the poem, but “his throat strums the sound / of his name: Tom-Tom-Tom”, and “the letter B / set firmly upon skinny sticks” are good too. Nowadays, I don’t stick as closely to my rule of “use one word I’ve never used in a poem before”, but more generally, pay attention when a rare or surprising word/arrangement of words finds its way into your work, especially if it happens unconsciously. Trust those moments! And build upon them, because they are just as effective a skeleton as any rhyme/meter scheme.

A few more thoughts for your consumption:
Change the title. I was waiting for that beach to appear through the entire poem, and unless it’s essential to understanding the rest of the series, its brief flash at the end doesn’t justify the name of the piece to me. Something like “Tom’s Birthday” or “Tom Turns Six” or “Tom Turns Six (Green)” would be more honest. Without the title, I’d proceed to cut the beach itself, too.
- Kudos to Misky for getting so thoroughly into the persona here. It would be awkward to ask direct questions about her connection with the subject, but I presume she’s had personal experience with Tom, or someone like him.
- There are a few phrases that I might be missing because of dialect, but I find them confusing. What is “stride up short”? And I’m not sure “Number sums are for counters, and he’s not a counter” is clear enough.
- I just came back to that bucket of stones. A boy asking for a bucket of stones for his birthday has huge potential; let’s see more of it!

That’s a lot to go through, and Misky, I apologize, but I hope that it was constructive, at least. And what kind of Refinery operator would I be if I didn’t follow up with some kind of prompt thing for the rest of you?

Choose a subject who is often marginalized, ignored, or ridiculed in society. Write a poem that addresses this injustice, but without spelling it out for the reader or getting into first-person. Rely on the visual more than the mental. Frame this portrait with some kind of significant life event, and include the following: a shade of blue, a sea creature, a musical instrument, and at least one verb with three syllables.

Best of luck!

The Refinery: susan carter morgan

You may not know that I wrote prose for a good long while before I got into poetry. Although the last couple years, I feel that I have swung towards a pretty even balance between considering myself a writer of one or the other (because I did enough poetry-only to get to feel the same intensity about it that I do prose), I haven’t given up on the dream of straddling both genres. As a result, as giddy as I get about famous poets, I also have my prose champions, of which Neil Gaiman is one of the most formative. I’ve seen him a couple times before, but last night I had the opportunity to go hear his talk about the new novel, and get American Gods (one of my long-standing favorite novels) signed at last. Although there was barely any time to even say hi, and one had to wait forever, this is his last signing tour ever, he says, so I believe it was worth it. And he’s a charming man, so that’s always a nice touch, too, particularly when one is too giddy to make coherent sentences.

But aside from all that! I finally got a submission to the Refinery (which means there’s no excuse for the rest of you now) to deconstruct. Today’s comes from Susan Carter Morgan, who has appeared in a number of journals (including — shameful wince – Curio), and who hails from the lovelier corners of Virginia. (I say lovelier in comparison to downtown Arlington, which is 90% of my experience with the state. I guess if you like Brutalist architecture and lots of forbidding glass-clad buildings, it’s fine, but I’d hazard Susan’s area has better scenery.) She keeps a blog about her writing, teaching, and living over at, if you’d care to have a look. So, without further ado, today’s poem from Susan is…!

Moving You Out

Closing up your house today,
we wandered past the horse-hair trunk,
nana’s bowl, the book great-grandfather penned.
We covered chairs, hid Martha’s painting,

the one you hung above your dresser,
where you combed your silver hair,
fastening it in a twist with a pearl clasp.
Now no need to feed the birds or brush snow

from porches, where years ago, tanned boys
plopped on benches, their water skis leaning
against weathered rails, while dad tied buoy
line knots, and you perched with a smile.

We lock doors to your memories, now fragile.
You say you are fine, not hearing breaking
sea waves, or ambling along the path
to the raspberry bushes. Fine, you say, again.

Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?:
- There’s a narrative and sense of place in this poem which immediately grabs the attention of the reader: good show! But it falls into one of the traps that often accompanies list poetry, one that is nearly impossible to avoid: the list, although we can tell it is significant, doesn’t give us enough emotional information and simultaneously subtracts from the parts of the poem that do. Each of those details is enchanting, but we have fourteen of them in the eleven lines between “Closing up your house today” and “We lock doors to your memories”. They come with the rhythm of waves, but before we have time to dig deep into any one of them, the next two are already here. Do we really need all of them? I would wager that two, or even one, could be strong and deep enough to carry everything up to “Now no need”. And then after that point, probably another two, or even one, could get us through to “We lock doors”. A principle that balances economy of words and tightening your poetry is economy of image. The poem moves at a brisk clip, but I don’t think centering on one truly powerful image (the painting has my attention the most: what is of, who is Martha, why is it covered/left behind?) will slow it too much.
- As immediate as that narrative is, I do find it a little bit uncertain. This may have been Susan’s intention. My first thought was that the figure in the poem (who soon came across as a mother) had died. But then, that figure is speaking at the end, so I’m thinking: nursing home? living with children after husband died? And there are lots of other narratives poking up beneath the surfaces of the images. Of course, the memory palace is a powerful place, which must be trod with care, but I think it’s difficult for one poem to accommodate all the stories so specifically: the main thread of the narrative gets muddied. I’m going to focus on that painting again: can we see the mother (or whomever) directing the speaker to cover it? How does she seem when she does so, and how do they react? How does the story behind the painting tie into the story of why the house is being shut up? You see how easily even a single image can expand and fill the space, like a balloon, without becoming tired. I think the length of the poem is perfect; now I want to see more depth and specificity, the interrelation between object-stories and current life event-stories.
- And then, I have to say, the end left me wanting more. There are two types of heartbreaking direction I can see this poem going in: the mother figure truly feeling fine and not understanding the magnitude of what’s happening here, or the fact that she’s lying and trying to appear stoic in the face of leaving an entire life behind. Personally, I find the second one more raw, something that tugs on the reader, but with the way it is now, open to interpretation, I think the first is more plausible. Or it could be there is a third possibility that I’m missing entirely. In any case, the end of the poem is your last chance to, if not reveal everything to your reader, at least prevent them from walking away untouched. Think of Ruth Stone’s “Curtains” with that hammer of an end-line, “See what you miss by being dead?” The end (even if it does not have to do wholly with a physical death) can be powerful without veering into trite.

Now for the converse:
- Even though I think the end of a poem should be allowed to fall like a hammer, I think the opening of this one is done with just the right precision. While I might immediately follow that first line with “you (action) (relating to that painting)”, I would keep the first line itself just as it is: it has exactitude and suggests an occasion that demands a poem. Push us immediately off the cliff, let us observe all the details and deeper meanings behind them as we plummet down the page, and then let us crash to a halt at the end, with the reverberation of impact ringing through us.
- There must be some kind of happy medium between removing some of those details and keeping their beauty. There are some really nice images besides that painting that I’d like to keep, for purely aesthetic reasons (while I want to keep the painting for narrative reasons). The twist with the pearl clasp and the buoy line knots stand out to me specifically: the reader gets a contrast between the elegant and urban, and the work-worn and rural, opulence and industry. Those sea waves and raspberry bushes are a nice touch as well, giving more atmosphere to the geography surrounding the house. I think the narrator, the mother-figure, and maybe the father are enough for characters in here; I’d take out nana and great-grandfather. But overall, kudos to Susan for the feel of these images. Remember the balance between sympathy and empathy: I’d argue that the goal of this poem should be to make us feel sympathy for the familial ties and sense of loss (which could be made more apparent by narrative development), and empathy for the reader, getting us into the scene, through sharply-defined, lush details. The best, of course, are details that do the work of both.
- The voice and use of sound in the poem are very easy and fluid, which could have some kind of reflection on the theme of the poem if that’s the poet’s desire. Notice the alliterations that keep coming: “we wandered”, “horse-hair”, “now no need”, etc. The voice naturally wants to rise, and then fall, with the regularity of a wave, on those phrases. Overall (and pardon my pedantry), the feet are two syllables each, flipping readily between iambic and trochaic, which gives the poem a nice andante feel: not too fast or clipped, not too heavy, constantly moving at a steady pace. And to keep up with the idea of sound reflecting content, this brings that seaside setting to life a little bit more, and maybe drives home the emotional sense of things slipping carefully away.

Quibbles and quips:
- Something bothers me about not capitalizing “nana”, “great-grandfather”, and “dad”, but maybe that’s just a convention I’m used to.
- I want to re-iterate once more the perfect length of the poem, overall, and I’d recommend keeping it this long. Remember W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues”: also a list poem, four stanzas (in the final version), about loss.
- I’m not crazy about “we lock doors to your memories”; it seems a bit too cute for this poem.
- Props for the title! Nicely ambiguous.
- The tense seems to switch back and forth a bit. I suppose it’s the today-past, followed by the long-ago-past, followed by the today-present, but maybe leading off with the present tense would emphasize the memories, bring them out a bit more?

Susan, I hope those have been some helpful suggestions. You could do a whole series of poems on those objects, but for this one, I think focusing on the most enchanting and richest with possibilities opens up the most directions for you to go. And wrench our hearts more! We can take it! For the rest of you, I offer you a humble prompt:

Draw a map of a house where you used to live, as best as you can remember. Label each room not by its function (“Dining Room”) but with an object or an event in your past that you associate strong emotions with (“Where I Shattered the Hurricane Lamp”). Frame that object/event with two other people (older brother Jethro, Ya-ya Dianopoulis), who may or may not have been there, and build an emotional web (shame at breaking Ya-ya’s lamp, anger at Jethro) without using a single abstract noun or metaphor. Stick to verbs and concrete images; then show us all of this in sixteen lines or less.

Happy writing! And if you’re not too busy, maybe send in an old poem of your own…?

reading: robert pinsky, “the sounds of poetry”

WordPress did a switcheroo on the posting interface to a very sober black-and-blue thing. It’s throwing me for a loop, but I suppose I rather like it. So I’m taking advantage of that, as well as my dismay at vacation being over (noooooooo) to do a quick book-post. And after drafting twenty poems for the poem-cycle I’ve been working on (any enterprising people want to have a sneak peek and give some constructive criticism?), I think that more drafting will be on hold for a day or two.

So, let’s talk about The Sounds of Poetry. I picked this up on a whim a while back at the Strand for $5.95, thinking it would be a nice little complement to Nine Gates and the smattering of other poetry references that I have. A lot of books seem to talk about the importance of sound in distinguishing poetry from other writing, and some of them offer pithy advice about near-rhymes or meter-bending, but Pinsky’s book is entirely focused on these questions. I imagine he figured, there are enough books out there to suggest how to transform daily experience into inspiration, how to shore up the semantics of your writing, and how to get into the received forms. If you’re looking for how to write a sonnet or find some truly beautiful metaphor to describe your dog chasing a squirrel, there’s none of that in here; all Pinsky will do is tune your ear, and in turn, your voice.

This is not a deprecation: Pinsky argues that an awareness of sound, both as it is produced and as it is received, is the most important talent for a poet to develop. (I’d half agree: I think the eye is just as important, though maybe that’s true for all writing, not just poetry.) Although free verse, prose poetry and concrete verse have somewhat derailed the idea that a poem must have particular patterns of sound and rhythm, we recognize — as Pinsky points out, on several levels, ranging from auditory to emotional to cultural/historical — those patterns when they do occur as a key to some entity called poetry. An anecdote: recently a woman from workshop told me that some girl had gotten in her face once and said poems “haven’t rhymed since the 50s” or something. To any such challenger, I reply, bullshit, and direct them to Kay Ryan (because I’m on a Kay Ryan kick right now). Pinsky’s thesis relies on the idea that poetry is of and for the body: the lungs, the mouth, the ear, the full-body sway. Even if the majority of poems no longer end-rhyme heavily and tend to get free with meter, any poet worth his/her salt needs to be cognizant of the effects of sounds, enough to make wise choices about which ones to use, so that the text makes that leap from “creative discharge” to “poem”.

And Pinsky’s book is an excellent resource if you do find yourself lacking in this regard, which, when confronted with some of the truly masterful poems of both traditional and modern literature, most of us should. Our workshop leader has said that if you want to get ahead of the curve in poetry these days, cultivate that skill. Most you probably know I’m pretty dismissive of certain rhymey poetry (the Joyce Kilmer kind), but admire the subtleties of internal, near, slant, and buried rhymes, within shifting-but-reasonable meters. Pinsky’s book works for both, as it does not play favorites. Being of the descriptive linguist persuasion, I’m not sure how I feel about treating language as a monolith — that is to say, declaring certain types of sound and syntax pattern as objectively “beautiful”, not to mention doing so with standard poetic tricks like enjambment — but he does take a pretty equitable approach to different school of thought. I think I probably find my usual scapegoat, iambic tetrameter, a bit more pleasing after reading the book, and maybe will think twice about my line break placement.

The book is divided into five sections that each treat a different sonic element of poetry: accent/duration, line length, the charmingly titled “technical terms and vocal realities”, sound likeness, and blank vs. free verse. Probably the first and fourth of these are my favorites, while the second and fifth are probably the most useful to a poet who can’t decide whether to go formal or go free. (The third is a handy universal reference to different types of metrical feet, and how that system can sometimes fall apart.) Pinsky also provides helpful examples on nearly every page, including whole poems and breaking them down to make his points. I think the two key takeaways from the sections I mentioned above are the idea that the sensitive ear will quickly determine that “syllables” and “meter” are rarely so cut and dry as a dictionary would have us believe (for example, “it” and “clowned” are both “one syllable”); and that the sensitive ear will hang on the barest of repeated sounds when they are used carefully and regularly (even following something as light as a short “i” train through the morass of a poem). And the sensitive ear, of course, leads to the sensitive voice, which leads to the sensitive (linguistically, not necessarily emotionally) poet.

Pinsky is not without a sense of humor, either. In the glossary of helpful terms that are not covered in-depth, at the back of the book, he has this to say about poetry: “I will be content in this book to accept a social, cultural definition of poetry: poetry is what a bookstore puts in the section of that name.” On top of that, it must be said, the book is short, much shorter than most guides to poetry one might see out there. This all adds a disarming quality to the writing that makes the definitions of things like accented-syllabic meter and Poulter’s measure more accessible. And I think this bolsters the subtext of the author’s thesis: ultimately, all of this sonic work that poets do comes naturally. The practice and development of technique surrounding is just a process of becoming aware of what we know, in our tongue and our chest and our skin, is music. But music is the only major concern of the book, and if you’re looking for meaning or message, you’d better search elsewhere. More than enough guides treat with those, and that section at the bookstore will give you all the prompts and philosophy you need. (Not to knock those books at all, but I like that there’s at least one solely devoted to the pursuit of sound.)

You may feel that you have no need of the book, and your ear is musical enough. But I’d like to think that I have a pretty finely-tuned sense of the sounds I want in a poem, even if I sometimes confound what I think would be “proper” in a piece, and Pinsky has certainly alerted me to a number of things. I’m hoping that the book will help me craft those pieces better, and make them better suited to the readers. And after all, if you’re not writing for the pleasure or desire of being heard, why write at all? Might as well hook the ear, and then have your say.

The Refinery: joseph harker(??)

Tomorrow evening the vacation begins! It is much needed, and I am hoping that it will be the appropriate balance of relaxing and productive. Donna is doing a summer residency, and I thought, I wish I could do one of those too; but then I took a page from Peter Murphy‘s book and thought, I’ll do a retreat on my own time. A writing staycation, if you will. So, it’s down to the homestead for several days, and I’m committing myself to writing time each day. Then back up to NYC for the last evening of poetry workshop on Monday. I had kicked around spending next week in Canada or New England, but the logistics ran away from me, so I think I’ll stick to the Hudson Valley if I go anywhere at all. Perhaps some city exploration and finding new venues to write will do some good for the old muse as well.

But meanwhile, I’m doing the thing I’ve threatened to do for a while, and carving myself up on the Refinery altar. I do want to spend some time editing and revising some older pieces, so I ought to get in the habit of doing it. Workshop is nice because it’s an opportunity to hear feedback on the poems you know aren’t quite right yet, but can’t put your finger on what the problem is. (I don’t habitually bring poems that I know are terrible, out of embarrassment, nor the ones that I love, for fear that they are actually terrible, too.) When you have those middle-of-the-road poems, particularly the ones that grow out of prompts, I think workshop is good practice for external critique, and a lot of the strategies people use in them can be adapted for internal as well. This one that I’m going to tear apart is one that I put down a couple weeks ago with the hunch I’d use it for this purpose, so it may look familiar:

“Heart’s Thaw”

After such a long time heartsick,
to see the birds’ northward line
and the archery of homecoming–
from the bone to the flesh grown thick
moans a green sound, the rhyme
of the body with the sky hums
vowel on drowned vowel– the signs
meaning spring and rain running
will fill each part and cavity– the sun
paints bird backs as a flame the wick,
gravity claims their upward climb–
and the flock tacks right, lowly divine
with the sleepless heart caught undone
in its wake– knotted by the quick
turn, by the art of so many dimensions
and leaves who burn with becoming.

I’m going to break from usual Refinery practice and not introduce the author because it’s, you know, me. And because it’s me, I can flesh out some of the rationale and resistance a bit more thoroughly. But otherwise, what’s bothering me about this poem is:
- In workshop, we often talk about the cry of the occasion as an essential ingredient for a poem, that is, the event/thought/image that demands a poem be sculpted around it. And I tend to get Socratic when I look for that cry, continually building question on question: why did I choose to write about this? But is it really worth writing about? Is there some element I can nail down as the compelling part? Is it really compelling? Why? And so on. I know that this was done to a WWP prompt, asking for a “body-soul Zen moment”, but the danger of prompts is that it’s a forced choice. The event in question here is seeing a flock of birds returning in the spring; is it compelling? Am I looking for something deeper than what’s there? This isn’t to say that simple observational poetry, nature poems, or basic emotional poems don’t have the value of others and shouldn’t be written, but there ought to be something damn compelling to make them pop. I’m not convincing myself that this momentary event, which (to be honest) didn’t actually impact me enough to be called a body-soul Zen moment, so the poem feels a little bit fake and lacking in depth.
- But part of that good be chalked up to the prompt itself. Remember: prompts can be cages as much as they can be foundations, and it’s good to break free of them if the poem demands it. I think I did toss aside some elements of the prompt — it was part of a longer series that I haven’t been taking part in — but not enough. If you’re going to let the poem spread its wings enough to cast off whatever prompt-egg it came from, you have to flap them hard to get those little bits of eggshell off. In workshop, we also talk about the second subject of the poem, where you have the other “what is the poem about” underneath the surface interpretation. I think that I got caught up in trying to create this mood around a one-dimensional image, and though I wanted to dig a little bit deeper, I didn’t do enough work in that regard to give the poem depth. (I was also distracted by other elements, though, which I’ll get to.) Not to toot my own horn, but this is another reason I try to give multi-faceted prompts: they force the mind to do more than one level of work, and give the poems richness. It’s a skill I’m still trying to master too, though I suspect it’s easier to be effortless about it.
- I think I was too cryptic at certain points, too. The title and the poem’s events may give some context to the emotional information in the poem, but there’s not a lot of reflection, just a raw sense of feeling X, Y, Z. Again, not to say that’s not a valuable impulse to share, but it wasn’t what I set out to write, and it feels clunky in the trappings I tried to place it in. Never leave the readers confused; tantalize, mystify, and entrance them, but don’t perplex them. How many people can honestly read the poem above and say they understood every single word and the work it was doing among the others? Because I can’t, so if you can, do fill me in!

That being said, there are some things that when I look at, I’m proud of:
- This was an image I’ve tried to get down for years without success. Although it may not be as profound as I make it out to be/felt I needed to portray, and though there’s not a lot of specifics given, I’m glad I finally wrote something about it. It was a day in spring when one of the trees outside my house was just completely chock-full of birds. They all rose at once at one point, and formed this flock that dipped and turned as one, hundreds of them, sounding like thunder. And there was nothing transformative or enlightening about it beyond the simple wonder of the power of nature. The challenge with writing about that in verse is to keep the core of the idea from being so cloaked in poetry’s devices that it gets lost.
- There really are a couple of phrases I’m really proud of, which were the genesis of the poem to begin with. I think the archery of homecoming came first, and looking back, I almost feel I wasted it on this poem; though after revising it, maybe it will become a more solid piece that I’ll be more comfortable with as a box for such phrases. And the rhyme of the body with the sky was another one I liked, though I must have re-written it twenty times trying to get the mouthfeel of it just right. The idea of tangible, primal things being vowels, and then the unexpected rhyme between them, was something that occurred to me and filled me with delight. Lastly, that knotted by the quick / turn, I knew it had to enjamb. That sudden curve of the flock was what I wanted to capture, though I’m not sure it worked out. Don’t get me wrong, there are other phrases that I think fell kind of flat, but I think those three I feel happy with.
- And of course I was trying to do kooky things with sound. In workshop, they call me a sound poet because, perhaps due to my linguistics background/day-job, I love experimenting with rhyme and meter, throwing lyrical flourishes in, creating nonce forms around internal sounds, etc. But as with all things, all poetry is a balancing act between what the poem needs and what you want the poem to have. The sound got in the way, probably, of a lot of explanation — or at least suggestion to, again, entice and entrance — that would have better served the lyric. Now, there are plenty of poems (e.e. cummings, anyone?) and songs (Sigur Ros, anyone?) that play with sound and language, and don’t concern themselves with much else, all well and good. For me, though, I like to keep that intentional, structured sonic richness in poems that have a heartbeat when I can, and it’s very delicate to get right. That being said, I do like the sounds in this one, too.

And the little nitpicks that make these Refineries so much fun:
- The middle of the poem is the weakest. I feel confident saying this.
- There seems to be some ego-deletion in the poem, on another read, which is surprising but not unwelcome.
- Aunt Emily, with her hyphens and penchant for deleting function words, may have made too heavy a mark.
- I do think the poem is exactly the right length. Not too long, not too short. A haiku wouldn’t have done it justice, a sestina would have been interminable (as they often are, let’s admit).
- What was I thinking with the title? I can’t tell if it helps or harms.

Well, I have generated for myself at least some food for thought. And if the fact that I’m doing one of my own poems was too subtle a hint: send me poems! Email is best (linksfreude) (gmail) (com) (fill in the blanks), but links in the Comments box are always fine, too. If you don’t feel like sending one for revision, and would rather have a prompt, try this one on for size:

Choose a memory of yours based in sound, and write a list of beautiful, bizarre phrases to describe it: then pick your favorite. Examine the rhythm and sound of that phrase. Is it iambic, dactylic, trochaic, some mix of meters? Does it repeat consonants or vowels? Try to create some specific sound and meter rules for yourself and invent a nonce form just for this poem, based off that line. Describe the memory and what you learned from it, no more, no less; use at least one body part, one color, and no verbs with more than one syllable.

Complicated enough for you? I certainly hope so. ^_^

reading: jane hirshfield, “nine gates”

Cripes, have I really been silent for a week? Sorry about that.

I am in a weird place today. First of all, I spent five hours in line starting at 7 this morning (which those of you who pay attention to my Twitter may have seen) waiting for Shakespeare in the Park tickets, successfully acquired; as a result, I am Really Very Tired. Then, because I had been away from the Web for almost 24 hours, I came back to find out that the mother of a friend passed away yesterday afternoon. And a few hours later, the child of two other friends was born. It was just strange to see that mix of extreme sorrow and joy while sleep deprived, I guess, but it constructed this weird place around me, so that’s that. I suppose there’s no better time to write a book review thing, is there?

I’ve made much ado about Jane Hirshfield‘s book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry lately, and I’d like to share some thoughts about it. First, if you haven’t read Jane Hirshfield’s poetry, please do so; good places to start might be “This Was Once a Love Poem” and “Seawater Stiffens Cloth“. I’d hazard to say these are longer than typical pieces of hers, but they maintain her same sensibility that smacks strongly of traditional Japanese poetry, Taoist and Buddhist sensibility, a keen observational eye for nature and a gift for surprising metaphor. If you want to know how to do haiku or tanka in English “correctly”, Hirshfield, along with traditional luminaries like Sandburg, Snyder, and Williams, is an excellent resource, not only because of her poetic skills, but also because she is trained in Zen Buddhism, and is a prolific translator of Japanese poetry. (Nine Gates features several haiku that are nice to keep in your pocket.)

A brief anecdote: Hirshfield reminds me a little bit of my high school creative writing teacher: they have (in my opinion) similar features, are close in age, and share interests in both Zen and women’s poetry. (OK, so maybe the similarities end there.) Recently, I was chatting at dinner with that teacher (who is also a Life-Mentor for me) about Natalie Goldberg’s philosophical and imaginative Writing Down the Bones, our “textbook” from that class, and mentioned that Nine Gates might serve as an equivalent for poetry. It turns out that is not quite the case: Hirshfield’s book does not contain exercises for writing individual poems, or strategies to get yourself to write more. But I do think that it could be considered the next step, if you feel that you’re ready, and it’s a book rich enough to be read and digested again and again. A lot of the terminology, history, philosophy, and vocabulary in it are not for the faint of heart. Heaps of care are put into every sentence, making the book fantastically rich, but not suited for a quick skim or piecemeal adoption of methods. More than anything, it’s a primer that gives training on how to write: the mindsets and thoughtful considerations a poet must take on to get into their own work.

(Start with Goldberg. Then go Hirshfield. That’s my advice.)

And once you do wade in, there are some wonderful topics that are covered. Each chapter is one of the “gates”, ranging from how rituals and spaces affect or strengthen a poet with the sureness of any religion, to keeping the delicate balance between the self and the self-destructive, from the origins of poetry as a cultural necessity, to the difficulties of translating from one language to another. There’s something for everyone in here, and though the author guides with a firm hand, all she does is get you through the gate itself: you are the discoverer and recorder of what lies on the other side. What is helpful is the way that she names and categorizes aspects of writing, the self, and the interaction between the two, in ways that you hadn’t thought of before. For example, she discusses the three “modes” she labels subjective, reflective, and objective: those poems that have an “I”, those where the “I” is present but not front-and-center, and those rare ones that are (almost) entirely divorced from the “I”. At another point, she also discusses the six “energies through which poetry moves forward into the world it creates”: music, rhetoric, image, emotion, story, and voice. My favorite might be when she draws on two Greek myth-figures, Mnemosyne (the Titaness of Memory) and Hermes, to discuss the oral versus the written traditions, and the nuances poetry takes on in/from each.

For all of these terms and more, Hirshfield helpfully provides examples that range from ancient Egyptian love poems found on papyri to Whitman and Dickinson. She quotes the opening of a 12th-century Japanese Noh play and Allen Ginsberg with equal ease. I always appreciate the showcasing of such encyclopedic knowledge because it truly demonstrates the universality of poetry; the Egyptian poems from 3500 years ago are just as coy and colorful as a similar verse written today might be. Every series of words put together in the right order has its proper time and place, which could be anywhere, anywhen. I guarantee you won’t care for every single poem in the book. This is an advantage, because you are then drawn closer to authors you admire. The book reinforced my suspicions that while haiku are delectable for me, I don’t think I will ever be satisfied only with that aesthetic of negative space: I appreciate it and can admire it nonstop, but in my own writing, I feel more confident that the reflective mode, the energies of music and emotion, are more important to my work.

At least, I think so. Which brings me to the final, most important point I’d like to make. The book has made me seriously question, again and again, my own writing. Today, especially: my friend added a poem of Li-Young Lee’s to his mother’s eulogy that was heartbreaking, and I thought, I will never write anything like that. It might not be true, but I think Hirshfield’s book has made me more self-aware. However, it’s the kind of reality check that does more good than harm. Rather than having the editor-voice which just spits and says “this sucks” for what you write, you get more of a philosopher-voice that gently points out the wavering thought-space you were in as you drafted your peace, a geomancer-voice that shows you the bad feng shui blocking your poem’s energy, the muse-voice that brightly suggests you reinforce X Y or Z aspects of your style, etc. If you have the same reaction that I did, you’ll find yourself writing less, but writing much more mindfully, and feeling better about what you actually struggle through. Not everything needs to be a throwaway piece to keep your hand moving (though of course, you should never give up that valuable practice entirely either).

Overall, I think this is a book that will be at my side for a long time. Read it when you’re ready; then immediately read it again. Then keep it with you, ready for some kind of divination, when you need a key to unlock a thing that has no name. It’s a remarkable way to train your writing and to get it into a place where you are comfortable with it. I feel assured of this, even if I haven’t yet gotten to that place myself. But yes: it’s a climbing rope, a blunt knife, and a microscope of a book, all at once. Consider this my hearty recommendation!