Line Item; or, On Poetic Lineation; or, Don’t Just Break a Line, Make a Line

I see an awful lot of earnest, heartfelt prose that’s broken up into poemy-looking lines and stanzas and called a “poem.” But I just can’t agree. Such work has ignored the most primary and powerful tools of the art and craft of poetry.

Let’s just start with the idea of a line. A line¬†should start strong and end strong as much as possible, and should have some reason for being a made line that ends deliberately and with purpose rather than one that ends because you think a line should be about so long, or one that haphazardly strolls across the page until the automatic right margin shunts it downward.

A line must have some integrity. That integrity should be in the form of:

– idea — that is, it should do the work of building on, refuting, suggestion something other than, developing or moving along the idea of the poem,

– rhythm — the line should have some relationship to the lines around it such that it carries along or disrupts established rhythms,

– sound — the sounds in the line should have some kind of resonance with the idea of the poem or, again, be part of a larger sonic pattern in the poem.

And that’s just what I come up with off the top of my head.

The line break itself should have a purpose — to suggest, to control the reader’s pace: hurry the reader along or stop him in his tracks, to hint or wink, to emphasize, argue, and again it also can have sonic responsibilities in the form of, well, silence.

Not every line in every poem necessarily carries weight. Sometimes you just have to get from point A to point B. But the editing process should include serious consideration of each line and its integrity. This is the great fun of writing poetry, for heaven’s sake! Otherwise, just write prose. Prose is fine too.

Hobbes, Locke, and Kant Walk into a Bar; Or, Can’t We All Just Get Along

I’m reading American Philosophy: A Love Story, by John Kaag. It’s an example of those creative-nonfiction approaches that intertwine personal story with, well, whatever…in this case a brief overview of the history of philosophy, especially American philosophical thought.

Kaag likens his first marriage, departure from that marriage, and tentative approach to a new relationship to the idea shifts and insights of the American philosophers he studies. I’m not sure it’s entirely effective — (No, dude, I don’t think the fact that you couldn’t see fit to sit down with your wife and have a frank discussion about the problems of your marriage and so instead hocked your ring and caused a scene at a party so your wife would agree to a divorce is like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s courageous departure from the expectations of marriage into the world of ideas, and eventually to find love with another woman.) — but I enjoyed it overall.

The book provides this stark description of a very contemporary schism:

“Hobbes and Locke diverged in many ways, but they agreed that people were generally moved by sensations, fears, and desires rather than by profound moral principles. For them, human reason was predominantly instrumental, an extension of an animalistic drive for self-preservation, and the wisest thing to do was to set up political institutions that could keep base instincts in check…Kant argued that humans were not simply moved by the forces of their world but, at their best, were motivated by an internal, almost divine force he called rational will….By virtue of their active rational capacities, human were the only beasts that could set duties for themselves, and therefore the only ones that could be morally responsible.”

So that is the question, people: Are we assholes or are we assholes with a glimmer of sense that we don’t need to be assholes all the time? The jury is out.


No, Mary, YOU tell ME; or Life in the World

Mary Oliver in Upstream wrote in the eponymous essay, “In the beginning I was so young and such a stranger to myself I hardly existed. I had to go out into the world and see it and hear it and react to it, before I knew at all who I was, what I was, what I wanted to be.” I feel like I’m still in this state, that I’m still rediscovering, redefining.

I admire the way she is so attuned to her environment, noting the shifts with each phase of the passing seasons, how she daily consumes that notice and transforms it into her work in poetry. I react to the world in similar ways as when I was young. I think I have long paid attention to details, both out of an interest in the natural, and out of a watchfulness born of fear of what is scary and uncontrollable in the world. But it’s what I am to do with those reactions that I continue to find puzzling. How to live a life.

As Oliver said in “Summer Day,” “Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild, precious life?”

There are many hours in the day in which to live out an answer to this question, but an unknown number of years to figure it out. I am grateful for the question and how it haunts me. She writes, “May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful.”

Pema Chodron wrote, “The future is completely open, and we are writing it moment to moment.” I am grateful for the possibilities that crack wide open with that quote, but also daunted by the responsibility. Blue sky today and a breeze bobbles the rhododendron already unpinched from the cold night temperatures to the warming air.


Comma me down; or, Commas and the Appositive; or, Commas and Nouns Describing Other Nouns

There’s this thing called an appositive. Feel free to forget that word, but remember the rule of commas associated with it. If the renaming or descriptive noun or noun phrase that accompanies the central noun is essential to the identification of that noun, you do not need commas. Examples:

– I am not a polygamist. My husband, Gilbert, gets all my ire. [In this case, there is only one husband, so his name is not essential to the definition. The husband is the one husband; there are no other husbands in this case.]
– I am a polygamist. My husband Gilbert gets all my ire. The other guys get a pass. [In this case, the husband named Gilbert is essential to the definition of husband, to distinguish him from John, Ted, and Arthur, my other husbands. Poor Gilbert.]

– My book Best Seller is a best seller, far outselling my other five books.
– My book, Best Seller, is a best seller, which is amazing, as it is my first and only book.

-There are a million famous authors. I met the famous author Joe Schmo the other day.
-According to narcissist Joe Schmo, there is only one famous author. I met that famous author, Joe Schmo, the other day.

-She is the founder of the girl band Girl Band. (As there are a million girl bands, there would never be any reason to put a comma between girl band and Girl Band. Nor should you ever actually use the term girl band, unless, of course, you are talking about Girl Band.)

Okay, go off and err no more.


Another One Down; or, How Fiction Betrays the Hopeful Heart

Regular readers of this blog, all three of you, will recall that I have freely admitted to being an impatient reader, quick to judge, quick to become crabby. I rarely read fiction anymore, as it so frequently incites my worst selves. I ghostdrift the aisles of the library, lifting them up to read the back blurb — “ugh, who cares,” I think of one, “ugh, I don’t want to read that,” I think of another. So when I, with fear and trembling, finally check out a volume of fiction in an attempt to be at one with the world, who seems to greedily consume fiction and laud the praises of books hither and yon with “best books of the year” designation, national and international awards, interviews on public radio, etcetera, I yearn to be satisfied. My latest pursuit: a “comic” “genius” at the “top of his game” in a book that was just given a Very Important Prize. As you can tell from my tone…ugh, the disappointment.

When a book disappoints me, I feel it personally, viscerally, deeply. I love books. I read, therefore I am. I forced myself to plod through this thing, through all the author’s jiving and winking, his self-satisfied jocularity, but by page 70 with no discernible plot in sight, I closed it for good. I had been betrayed. How am I so out of step with literary opinion? What does this say about me? Surely something is wrong with me.

On the radio I just heard about a bright new talent in singer/songwriting. “I had never heard anything like this before,” said the Famous Person who discovered this New Talent who sounded EXACTLY LIKE ALL THE OTHER “NEW” POP TALENT I’VE BEEN HEARING FOR THE PAST 10 YEARS. No, for longer than that, as I have a CD from 15 years ago that sounds exactly like this “new sound” — the thin voice that peters out toward the end of notes, the near-glottal stops, the discernible leap between chest and head voice. Heard it. All. Before. What is wrong with me? Surely the emperor can’t be walking around with no clothes to the extent that I seem to perceive.

I’ve counseled myself in the past to read more slowly, be more forgiving, open my mind to the new. All that is true. But certainly taste is real and not every single person can be expected to like the same things as every other person. I read a book of poems recently and thought, “yes, I can see why the editor chose this, I can see the editor being attracted by this,” even though it was not my taste. I was able to move on without feeling grief and ire. So I am capable of some rational maturity when it comes to reading and taste. But then there’s all the other times.

I do worry about my own discernment, that I’m hopelessly limited. I’m not a music aficionado. Perhaps there is something this woman is doing that I’m not picking up on. Maybe this novelist is doing something very important with all his jazzing around. (Or maybe the emperor ought to at least put some underwear on, for crying out loud.)

And maybe it’s just that I owe so much to fiction — I grew up with it, in it, formed by it. It saved me, succored me, awakened me, instructed me. It was a parent to me, and thus prey to all the expectations a child has for a parent. I guess I’m not a grown-up when it comes to reading fiction; I’m a needy child. But just as a parent is only a flawed human being, a novel is too only what it is — a message in a bottle thrown out from one flawed human being into the sea in hopes of finding a sympathetic, nay empathetic reader. And maybe I’ll go back to nonfiction for a while until I grow up a little more.


Tongue Over Teakettle, or, the Pleasures of Surprises in Poetry

I’m reading Stephen Burt’s The Poem Is You, and found myself intrigued and delighted by this poem, whose author was unknown to me: Diane Glancy’s “Hamatawk.”



Just it was (crow tongued) he was saying a caw.
Then wings fold up the Indian
if antlers deer give
totems of the head the anyhow of them.
This coat gets smaller each year
like the tepee I come from
when I (back) to the (space) I was born,
the small hohum of it,
old ones all reversed
smaller the autumn trees than I remember
(the way) old language breaks.
Hum way to hum hum the buzzled wiggle
of the tall grasses smoothed down
by the path of them (to woods) through the field.
I’m going and if not
I come back smaller.
Then he (the crow) sings like this
his mouth he opens. Caw. Caw. The grasses
(wave) they take flight the crow wings (grasses
burnt) all fields shrivel
next the new world.

There are so many surprises and little winks and nudge, and yet sadness and rue.

From the start: backwardization of the title, tomahawk to hamatawk, the wink at talk and the undermining of that tired symbol from our cowboys-and-indians mythology. I

love the various uses of parentheses to describe or circumscribe or clarify, the creation of a “back space,” the questioning of “the way.”

I love the tangled syntaxes and then the flat statement “This coat gets smaller each year…” and the hohum hum hum and caws.

I love when someone else’s work makes me stop in my tracks and say, wow, how did she do that — and how can it inform my work? “Then wings fold up the Indian” and “if antlers deer give/totems of the head the anyhow of them” and “The grasses/(wave) they take flight the crow wings” really interest me in how they make you slow down, consider and reconsider what is doing what and how and why, and the wonder and space of that wonder.

This poem was published in 1991, and Glancy has continued to publish in both poetry and fiction, as well as plays. I look forward to seeing what else her mind has conjured.




Get Thee Behind Me, Spider; or How to Deal with Self-Doubt

I have this idea for a performance. I’ve been thinking about this for almost three years. For three years I’ve been darting at the idea, throwing down some words, and then wandering away. Today I said to myself firmly, Okay, you’re going to work on that project today. That was at 9 a.m. It’s now almost 3 p.m. I’ve shouldered that elephant in the room out of the way several times as it’s stood between me and the coffee pot. As you can tell, as I’m talking to you rather than actually working on it, I am in avoidance mode. Why is that? Why do I keep working on it, wander away, and then resist getting back to it, yet still have at least a theoretical interest in the idea?

I realized today that the whole thing is shrouded in doubt, like sticky cobwebs, the kind that may or may not contain spiders. I doubt many things: whether it’s a good idea at all, whether I can pull it off, whether I know enough about what I don’t know, whether I know enough to do a creditable job and not embarrass myself.

Some comedian/inspirational speaker woman I heard once talked about the committee we all sometimes have, a committee who lives in our brain just waiting around to critique what we’re up to. My committee seems to have assembled in response to this threatened performance. Who are they? Who are these snooty opinion-mongers? They are you. They are me. Mostly me. You’ve always been quite supportive, actually.

All art making is a kind of communication, so why has this one conjured up, more than most of my other attempts, this committee? I’ve done performances before, so I’m used to an audience, the faceless foot shifters and program droppers in the dark. No, it’s the inner doubters that are keeping me at bay.

But self-doubt need not be a bad thing. First, it means I’m stretching myself into unfamiliar spaces. This is good. Second, it can make me careful, thoughtful, apt to do some research, some self-education. This is only bad if it becomes what I do instead of doing the thing I’m trying to do.

So now that I’ve identified my doubt, I’m hopeful I can move forward with it rather than against it. I regret I characterized it as a cobweb, as I can’t think of any way to go back now and reclaim the metaphor — cobwebs get caught in the hair and tickle the neck and cause me to feel like spiders are crawling down my sleeve. Self-doubt can’t be swept away. But I can hope to push it aside gently (get off my hand! get off!) and move forward cautiously. I can educate myself about the art and craft I’m embarking on, try to identify some specific aspects that are causing me concern, identify some steps or aspects to focus on, and can muster a new committee to run drafts past, people who will be constructive. And real.