January 28, 2010

VCCA: 9 (on Moves)

In My Craft or Sullen Art

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.

--Dylan Thomas

There's an interesting discussion going on inspired by the list of "poetry moves" compiled by HTMLGIANT and Elisa Gabbert. Some folks debating what makes for a move versus a cliche or a tic. Personally, I do think they are different beasts. Some folks are responding as if the list is an implicit criticism of said moves, though Elisa clarifies that it's meant as a catalyst for self awareness (i.e., nothing inherently wrong with using them--just don't overuse them). Some folks think the list takes the magic out of poetry.

Hell, if all poets were forbidden from using all these moves, there'd be no one left. And then who would drink those big bottles of Bella Sera pinot grigio? Save the cheap wine industry! Keep writing.

The list is pretty accurate and, like Robert Andrew Perez, I admire how the examples chosen create a continuum between "big name" poets and emerging contemporaries. If you're a poet, and recognize your own work in these moves (and who doesn't?), your reaction to the list probably depends on the connotations you attach to "moves." If you're thinking "moves" = cheap seduction technique ("that Paris Review editor is totally putting the moves on that NYU undergrad") then this list may make you feel sleazy. If you're thinking "moves" = strategic tactics ("she's a conservative in her moves--Queen's pawn to d4, etc.") then this list may make you feel conventional.

In chess, as in poetry, there is often tension between those who refer to the "craft" and those who focus on the "art." I don't think those two approaches are mutually exclusive. Where poems thrive is in the overlap, just as the greatest chess masters made wildcard or irrational moves from time to time. But when people commit to terms for manufactured discussions such as these, "art" versus "craft" tends to be where the fault line lies.

It's a little strange that people are alarmed by this degree of navel-gazing toward one's style. To assemble a full-length manuscript is to confront your worst writing habits, isn't it? That's when you notice the things you do too much, even if they work on the level of individual poems. Speaking of which, on tics, cliches, and moves...

I end too many poems on the word "you" or "me." That's a tic; a bad habit of the muscle, a laziness particular to the author. When ordering Theories of Falling, I was embarrassed to have to re-shuffle some pages to avoid having two poems in a row end on the word "you."

A cliche, on the other hand, is a specific bit of language found everywhere. A cliche is defined by its lack of attachment to a particular author. Cliches are inert and neutral. They can be employed well (to ironic effect) or poorly (merely echoing previous usage).

A move is when I use "the humorous O" (HTMLGIANT's #17) as in this poem, "The Plays of Lilliput."    Judging from the list, a move is any phrasing that connects to a larger trend of syntactical construction, or invokes a known figuration/iconography, or references historical tradition. So...yep. My modern-day "O" only has meaning because of the precedent of tragic Greek apostrophe and no, I'm not the only poet to see humor in that contrast.

I am totally trying to pick up that 19-year-old. And I'll capture your bishop while I'm at it.


Reen said...

I followed the "moves" discussion with interest, but mostly because it made me think of my own tics. To wit: I need some kind of Microsoft Word Spellcheck add-on that goes through my poems and takes out all emphatics: just, still, even, very.

I often use these words in drafting, because I like endings to END, as in, we are done now, it is all over, but often the actual effect is . . . overdone.

It feels good at the time, but when I come back after a while and find a poem peppered with "evens," I cringe. It's even worse when you seem them in print!

Elisa Gabbert said...

Sandra, I love this response. Thanks! I find the "it takes the magic out of poetry" reactions the strangest. If a reductive list of maneuvers were all the magic that was in poetry, why would any of us read it? Good poetry doesn't eschew "craft" or techniques, it transcends them.

p.s. I'm guilty of overusing several of the moves on the list ... like ending on a slant rhyme.

Jessie Carty said...

i don't think we can avoid our obsessions when we write and i don't think they are necessarily a bad thing. although i use the word so WAY too much :)

The Storialist said...

I loved reading this list. Totally delightful, actually, and not magic-removing at all.

Ending a question with a period--Yup. Who hasn't.

This was fun indeed.

I like Jessie's comment regarding avoiding or not avoiding our words and ideas that we obsess over. I know for myself, these tics are easiest, and sometimes not the best, so I do keep watch over words.