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
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
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).