It’s time time time that you love; or, On Narrative, Lyric, and the Restless Eye

I like distinctions, categories, naming things. But then if I think too much about them, categories, they fall apart. I’ve been thinking again about this idea of “narrative” poetry and “lyric” poetry. Many intelligent things have been said about those categories, I’m sure, none of which I can remember at the moment. 

But I’ve been thinking too about time, as I often do, and time seems to be the primary distinction between the narrative and the lyric poem. A narrative unfolds over time; a lyric is of a moment. Is that true? 

I was asking a friend recently about a poem of hers that unfolds over a short period of time but is focused on the feeling of a moment. She describes what she’s been up to in her work recently as “trying to use fragments of narrative as part of an attempt to creat a non-narrative experience.” 

Is a narrative poem just a long way toward a lyric moment? I don’t know. Maybe. Isn’t the whole point of telling a story to give that moment of impact? When all the notes of the song come together in a resonant chord? 

But that idea of music is the purview of the lyric, isn’t it? The etymology of narrate is gnarus, meaning knowing. Not much is known about the origin of the word lyre, or Greek lyra or lura, that stringed instrument of long ago, but made its way to the French lyrique or short poem expression emotion suited for singing to the lyre. Or something like that. 

Does a lyric poem by definition have to be short? If you go on and on does it become a narrative? If your narrative poem is too short, is it a lyric? What if it takes place over a century, but does so in three lines? You see how Swiss cheesey these designations get? 

And then there’s this idea of imagery and its role. Imagery seems more apparent in a lyric poem, because, hey, there’s usually not much else going on. But a good narrative poem must also do some strong image work, doesn’t it? I mean, what would The Raven be without the…er…raven? Does imagery work the same way in a narrative poem as a lyric poem?

My friend said of her poem that what she was showing was the shift in focus and perspective of the narrator’s mind. But interesting to me was that what also shifted was the central image, from one at first hidden and revealed, then to one seen and disappeared and sought for, all indicative of the narrator’s mind. Quite brilliant. So now I’m thinking that what is of central concern in a poem, any poem, is not the change of time but change itself in some form or another. 

The physicist Carlo Rovelli had this to say in The Order of Time: “The entire evolution of science would suggest that the best grammar for thinking about the world is that of change, not of permanence. Not of being, but of becoming.” He wrote: “The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events.” 

A poem may use an image thing or an event thing, but what it is really attentive to is the changing, and what we’re drawn to is that awareness, however long it takes, a moment or an epic passage, and whatever transpires along the way. I think.

This ain’t no fooling around; or, Letting Creativity Have Its Way

A member of my writing group was wonderfully oppositionally defiant of the intentions she would set herself from month to month — this was how we ended our meetings, with each of us setting intentions for the coming period of time — but would instead appear the next month having done several other, unlooked for, unanticipated, and productive things. 

I read that the act of thinking of one’s intentions can actually give the brain so much pleasure that it never bothers to embark on the messy and difficult business of actually acting to complete the stated intentions. 

Which is where we find me at the moment. 

Summer is not my season. I waste much of my energy hmphing and rssnfrssning about the heat, the humidity, the people everywhere where I might want to be, the legions of imagined lyme-carrying ticks dangling on every branch, the real legion of poison ivy creeping creeping toward me, and the closed notebook. Closed closed closed. In spite of my intentions to get down to it, start that daily practice I’ve thinking about. 

Except here’s the thing. I know that come autumn, I will look back in my notebook and find all kinds of stuff I managed to sneak in there while I wasn’t looking. It happens like this every. year. I don’t know how I do it. 

It is true that some of what I find has actually been written in the spring. I don’t pay particular attention. When I do these dives into my pages, I don’t care when I find stuff, I just care what I might be able to do with it. Like even now, I may sound like I’m bragging to admit, but I find myself with a chapbook-number of similarly themed poems I somehow churned out in the late winter/early spring. This is not, to me, terribly good news, as I already have two full length manuscripts, one of which also has a chapbook-length version, that are gathering rejections like dust. Damn my f’ing productivity. 

But if I’m not creating, making something, trying something, then I’m fitful and depressed. Well. It is possible I’m fitful and depressed while I’m creating/making/trying. But it’s a DIFFERENT fitfulness and depression. More pleasant.

So as with the weather and the world, so with my notebook, I’m looking forward to discovering, come fall, what I’ve been up to over the summer while my notebook seems to be shut tight. Creativity will out. It will have its way, sneaky as tears, as a sigh, a nervous tic. 

I have a Facebook friend who just posted some terrific playing around she’s been doing with her visual art. It was inspiring to see how gleefully she was trying things. Yes! I said to myself. THAT’s my intention! So I sit here happily looking out the window, thinking about my intention. My brain feels good. Real good. I’ve worked so hard I can probably relax now. What’s the date again?

Help me solve the mystery of it; or, On the Ongoing Process of Learning to Write Poetry

I think the poems in Victoria Chang’s Obit are a lesson in how to write poems, if only I were clever enough to be able to draw out that lesson, articulate it to myself. 

Something about the contrast between the careful rectangle of them and the leaps within, between the dispassionate tone and the intensely personal experience, between the dispassionate tone and the imaginative leaps, between the utter clarity of them and the sometimes inexplicable details, between the cleverness and the seriousness. 

I come away from them (I can only read a few at a time) and find it almost impossible not to start writing in that tone. I found the same with reading Diane Seuss’s Frank: Sonnets. I kept writing Seussians; but of course, not, as both Seuss’s and Chang’s brains are wildly their own, their experiences wildly refracted through their personal prisms. 

It’s been fun to try to ski in their tracks, but ultimately it leaves me gasping. And of course, the trick is to take away something of the effort and skill and artistry, but ease it back toward my own rhythms and directions.

I love reading poems that are so amazing that I have to put the book down and catch my breath. Poems that surprise me and inspire me: in how I live, what I notice, and how I write. Poems that remind me of the power of what is said and the beauty of what is left unsaid.

Waiting on a friend; or, On Writing and Patience

 

Remember last week’s advice to myself? Stay open to connections, calmly watch for sprouting seeds?

Yeah, okay.

So I tread softly through the noise and haste. Sat calmly amid the sun and rain. Tinkered with the poem. Tinkered with the poem. TINKERED WITH THE DAMN POEM.

Rolled the poem up and beat it against the desk.

Decided clearly I know nothing about writing poems.

Quit writing forever.

Decided to go back to school in the plumbing trade.

…Then I got an idea.  …

 

This must be the place; or, On Not Writing

Here I am again. Is it spring, with its stuttering reenactment of incarnation, that renders me numbskulled, vacant?

I’m inert. Such a great word, short-stopped by that cul-de-sac of an -ert.

Like the newly snow-emerged and dim-colored field, I am empty.

I have not written in a long time. Nothing is on my mind. I am thought-less. Seem to have nothing to say. Have no idea how to write a poem.

No idea why I would even do such a thing.

Have no sense that I’ve ever done such a thing in my life nor that I will ever do so. As the damp field curled with squashed lines of old weeds and broken stems of milkweed, languid pale humps of grasses tangled in mud will never be anything other than that.

Will it?

Darkness on the edge of town; or, On Cody’s Borderland Apocrypha

Anthony Cody’s Borderland Apocrypha has been an engrossing read. It details violence against Mexicans in the United States in poems that splash and splatter across the page. Set in landscape format, the book unfolds with white space and quick bursts of text, as if almost every poem is a kind of erasure, the text a struggle to stand against the white space.

A central poem is “Prelude to a Mexican Lynching, February 2, 1848, Guadalupe Hidalgo; or The Treaty of Peace, Friendships, Limits, and Settlement” which is an almost-30 page erasure of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which, as an end to the Mexican-American war, required Mexico to cede to the US all or parts of what we now know as the entire Southwest. The so-called treaty was bilingual, and Cody’s erasures show two erasures on each page, a dotted line separating the English and the Spanish. The erasures from the preamble and Article 1, for example say in English, “animated by a sincere desire to/end/the people/as good neighbors/There shall be/ America and the Mexican/without place.” And on the Spanish side: “las calamidades/que/existe entre/paz y/ciudades/sin/personas,” which I translate as “the calamities that exist between peace and cities with no people.” (Cody himself supplies no translations of the Spanish threaded throughout the collection, which meant some happy leafing through and discovery in my Spanish-English dictionary.)

Lynchings of Mexicans were widespread before and after the war, and many of the poems serve as witness.

Some poems bunch text, as in “Nightjars,” which ends with a flock of the word “before” or the cacophony of “this had a name.” Others play with the structure of text or interact with photographs. Official words are scrutinized, historical photographs are questioned.

The word “apocrypha” means hidden or secret writings. Cody takes history as a text to be broken open, and in so doing he reminds himself, and the reader, “Recall that beneath you, are the others.”

Every town’s got a mirror; or, On Reconsidering the Poetic I

Many of my poems call on science in one way or another. I usually have some science-y read going, and that informs my considerations (Is consider from words meaning “with the stars”? I must look that up.). But someone recently observed that rather than centering the science, my work seems to center the self. (This was offered not necessarily as a critique, but of course the result was the same.) 

I’ve been thinking about this, and wondering without “my” “self” in the consideration, what do I have? (It also makes me laugh because it’s also been suggested that I can have a tendency to keep too much distance of “myself” from my writing, by which I take to mean some emotional fire.) Or have I confused a presentation of a self with a presentation of some emotional response. I am therefore I feel something?

I take as my starting point for much of how I view the world “my self” as a member of the human species, and move outward from there. As I encounter the world, learn about it, observe it through my personal senses, I write. Without a point of view that somehow brings home in some personal way what I’ve been thinking about, I tend to find my poems veer into the polemical, clinical, or earnest tones I find dreary when I read poetry. (Of course, then there’s the tricky “we,” which I’ve written about before.) But maybe I’ve lost some opportunity along the way. Maybe come to put too much “I” in my work and not enough peeled eye. 

Out of curiosity, I dove into the newest collection of poems I’m putting together and was amused to find that, besides a few persona poems, which I didn’t count in the “I” category, more than 20 of the 36 poems contained an “I” standing around somewhere in the poem. (Of course, as I’ve said in this space before, not all poetic “I”‘s are the poet; or, in some ways all poems are persona poems. Or none are. Oh, dear, I’m wandering into a wall of mirrors.) 

Am I too much with me? Am I getting in the way of the reader seeing what I’m trying to show? 

I guess every poem has its own requisite distance between the observing self and the observed, and the position of the observer in relation to the observed. This is interesting. I think, for example, about one of my all time favorite poems, a poem I find so powerful, and thrilling every time I read it: Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which although it contains a closely observant eye, contains no “I.” The thing seen is center, the seer is so transparent the reader sees through him. 

I’ve worked to inject my emotional self into my work, but it seems like I’ve done that in some sort of a narrative sense, with the I as a character having an experience in some unfolding scene. I used to rarely put an I in the poem. Now it seems I pop up everywhere, like some Waldo-in-a-Box. 

Now I’m challenged with injecting the work with the deeply felt response I am experiencing in considering whatever I’m considering, but taking out the “I” who considers. Now you see me, now you don’t. 

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Sitting downtown in a railway station; or, On videopoem “Everywhere West” by Chris Green and Mark Neumann

I am mesmerized by this videopoem, linked below, the rapid flash images that nevertheless seem rarely to change, short stops in motel or diner parking lots nothwithstanding, and an occasional glimpse of the changing character of the landscape, but only a glimpse, as the landscape is chiefly anti-land, it’s the roadscape, mostly the highwayscape. We all know it. The blacktop, the yellow lines, the signs flashing by flashing by and the rear ends of trucks, stolid, unimpressed with your own meager mileage-eating.

The voice drones on and I mean that in the nicest way, because it’s saying interesting things, mournful things, meaningful things, and I drift in and out of focus, as I do on the road as the miles slip by and I think suddenly, wait a minute, where am I.

There is music in the background that is meant to live in the background, the way the radio blurbles along as if anyone is really listening, when often times it’s just noise against the great and awful silence, the silence of Life, or Aloneness, or Eternity, or The Grave, and the DJ prattles on, and the songs merge as if one long song and what you thought at one point was your finger bopping to a beat had become many miles before just a nervous tapping, or vice versa.

And arrival becomes a strange and new way of being, disorienting, and for a moment you forget how to live in one place, and you miss, a little bit, the moving road.

I skied today under a wide blue sky, and had the trail to myself, and was thinking about this videopoem, and also wondering, as I often do, what is the purpose of life, if life has a purpose. Sometimes I go down a nihilistic spiral with that question, but often I end up at Rilke: “Maybe we are here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate…”

I could skate away on; or, On Alice Oswald’s Dart

Another book-length poem has come to my attention, and although I don’t think I have the effort of will and attention to create such a thing, I do find I’m attracted to the ambition of them. This one is Dart by Alice Oswald, published back in 2002 by Faber and Faber. The Dart is a river in England, and Oswald traveled the length of it, talking with people who live by and on and with the river, and has created a chorus of these voices and the river itself murmuring and splashing through the length of the book.

In a brief intro she suggests that all the voices should be considered those of the river, but I actually found that conceit distracting. A river, after all, is not necessarily just the water running through a channel, but it’s the walls and marshes of the channel, the rocks in the way, the grasses smoothing the bottom, the fish in the grasses, the woman laying a fly along the surface with her line, the man floating on a tire, the kid kerplashing in from a rope swing. I think about The Wind and the Willows and its river, a character itself, which was the river’s own stories blended with the wind in the reeds and the River Rat in the bank and Toad splashily sculling.

Oswald’s voices include a bailiff seeking poachers, fishermen eluding the bailiff, a worker in a milk production plant that uses the river water, sailors, birdwatchers, kayakers, the dead, the living, the water, its currents. In truth, the first time through, it was not an easy read, so slippery did it move through different tones and material, although the voice changes are signaled with a note in the margin. But the second time through was smoother and I was more easily able to ride the current.

Here’s a bit from the beginning, the source, as it were:

one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones
glides in the trills
eels in the glides
in each eel a fingerwidth of sea.

Here’s another:

how water orders itself like a pack of geese goes up
first in tatters then in shreds then in threads
and shucking its pools crawls into this slate and thin limestone phase…

Not every bit has this level of movement and liquidity, but my favorite portions do. Here, memorably, terribly, the river takes a kayaker:

come warmeth, I can outcanoeuvre you
into the smallest small where it moils up
and masses under the sloosh gates, put your head…

And here:

Sleep was at work and from the mind the mist
spread up like litmus to the moon, the rain
hung glittering in mid-air…

I saw a sheet of seagulls suddenly
flap and lift with a loud clap and up
into the pain of flying, cry and croup
and crowd the light as if in rivalry
to peck the moon-bone empty
then fall all anyhow with arms spread out
and feet stretched towards the earth again.

That’s just a taste and glimpse of all that’s encountered in the book. It was a wonderful ride.

The regular crowd shuffles in; or, More Poems

It’s interesting to go back to old poems. I find I do not have the urge to revise them, nor do I read them with critical eye at all. They were the poems of a moment, a time in my development as a person and a poet. I see them with fondness and appreciation of the places my mind was at, the things I was trying to get at that interested me at the time. They are old friends, flawed and familiar, yet made a bit strange through time. I presume they look at me in the same way.

Here are a few poems from my old chapbook Rugged Means of Grace, which Finishing Line was kind enough to publish back in 2011. A lot of the poems in it I put also in Perpetual Motion. Here are some poems that got left behind.

from Bestiary

2. Lettuce

Such sturdy substance
at my source, one seed,
but risen rosette, now
this labile, sea-
like self, I’m silly,
frilled as a lizard. Unsolid,
I’m salad. What the hell’s
happened to my head?

3. Tulip

You arose striated,
cleft, and dumb.
Became ribald
with attention,
your sex displayed.
You’re all lips now.
If I kiss you once,
you’ll tell me everything.

6. Peel

There are feathers
and things that look like feathers:
a frost edge, a fringed petal, today
a shred of sodden apple
skin left in a bowl’s puddle,
a live thing turned dead, turned
into the leavings
of a live thing flown.

Consumed

I slice a line    from Perlman’s violin concerto.

Suck it down.             Lick

the slice of a lemon sky. Again.  A hunk of Giant

mountain I rip,                                    fists

of lavender, stuff                     them in my mouth.

Wad and gnaw a      photo: wrinkled

Galician woman. On               my lips

smear liver-red zinnias.                       I must eat

beauty. Seeing is not             enough, hearing

not enough. Taste       alone is not enough.

May I           sweat beauty.

May         I stink of. May

I       deliquesce to. May I

    disappear.