I Second That…; or, Considering the Emotional Gravitas in Poems

Nothing like yet another rejection to get me thinking about emotion again. No, not the attendant screaming, crying, rending of garment. I mean emotion in the poems. This is a recurring theme for me as I grapple with my own work.

This time it’s not just one poem. I’m staring down a bunch of poems. Make that a chapbook-length collection of poems. I’ve been sending them out individually and as a chapbook. With no luck. But I’ve long had this little hmm of concern about them. So I keep revisiting them, and having an argument with Me and Other Me:

– I read these poems and get a little glurgling in my gut. What is wrong, what is wrong?

– Is it the burrito we had for lunch?

– No. It is not the burrito we had for lunch. I’m sorry, I have to, again, come to the conclusion that the emotions of the poems are obscured. Or overly intellectualized. Or not well realized. Or, frankly, nonexistent. Too many of the poems feel like intellectual exercises.

– But we’ve been working on these for almost two years!!!  There are some very interesting parts of many of these poems. There is emotion in some of them.

– But the sum? No. we just have to face the fact.

– But wait, two years worth of work? Must we chuck it?

– Quite possibly. In economics that time and effort is called a sunk cost. You can’t worry about it. It’s done and gone. The product just doesn’t work. It’s the clunker of chapbooks. A lemon.

– But, wait, let’s be reasonable. What about the parts that work? Can’t we start there?

– Yes. We can, clear-eyed and with renewed energy, start there. But there are no guarantees. Isn’t there a column in some magazine: “Can this relationship be saved?” That’s where we are. The answer could possibly be “no.” It’s also quite possible that we have not a chapbook-length collection but just a few good poems. They can be used toward some other as-yet-to-be-realized collection. The rest can go in the chuck-it bucket.

– Eesh. Okay, I might be able to live with that.

– Frankly, remember, all of these poems started out as imitations. So to some degree, they ARE intellectual exercises. We were trying on other poets’ rhythms and thought processes.

– Yeah, but we were inserting our own thoughts, our own nouns and verbs and clauses, so they did arise out of our own concerns. And then we edited them toward our authentic voice.

– But I can still detect that disconnection, that roundabout route to the poem. We have not shown what is at stake in these thoughts, situations, these descriptions, flights of fancy. We have not truly plumbed what these poems are “about” for us.

– This question, “what is at stake,” annoys me. What is ever at stake in a mere poem? No lives are lost or saved here.

– No? We are an uttering animal. We cry out in words. We jubilate in words. A poem can be a little cannon of power. What’s at stake? If I, the reader, don’t feel that something vital is at hand, some deep energy impelled the poem to being, then the poem misses the mark. I can indulge in memory and fantasy and philosophical meanderings. I can tell you my dream. But if I have not conveyed the deep “why” of what turned those into utterance, then I am wasting the reader’s time.

– Gaaaaah.

– Calm down. Let’s just go back and look at them, one poem at a time to, without sentiment, dig deep into the impetus of the choices of these poems. Toss what’s ornamental. See what’s left.