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.
after its misstep, struggle
slumped into the ease
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
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.