July 10, 2006


I have always been a predominantly narrative, predominantly biographical, poet. Polished. Reliable. If you think I'm being arrogant, here's my outside reference point: Charles Wright described my work, years ago, as "often good, always competent."

I am not suggesting he meant it as a high compliment.

A few months ago I began working toward poems that spun off the energy of a dramatic speaker and a defined motivation, without having a particular "story" to tell. The decision sprang from some of poets I was reading--Sarah Manguso is one--who navigate emotional space as if it were a metaphysical matter, and give themselves over completely to the voice, rather than a discernible setting. There's something risky about that. I wanted to give it a shot.

This has caused some consternation in my writing group, a group of a half-dozen accomplished local writers I have been working with for over a year. I took a bit of a beating last time around over a draft that was too opaque in places. I can take that--it was a draft, after all, and I've worked on it since, taking into account their comments. Some of the metaphors are unruly, outright strange. Here's an excerpt:

I took him in, and the bitch in me begs you for eviction:

Turn loose my eyes, let my jaw drop. Tongue like a leash
on the bad dog. Marble knuckles, fatty and loud.

Punch the sweat from my collarbone—
rainwater off a cheap awning. Blood untunneling.

I am stubborn with tenants that no one will miss.

I am a bathtub of dumb machine parts, sometimes mistaken for a plan.

That last line "just didn't work for me," said one poet--who also said he likes poems constructed "brick-by-brick," with a foundation and a clear rhetorical conclusion--and though it was hard to hear, I can respect it, because he expressed it as a preference based on his own writing style.

But one poet made the global observation, about my writing, that "because the language and images are so consistently strong," I was letting the voice make connections that the explicit structure and narrative of the poem "didn't support." Symbolic leaps were being taken that couldn't be rationally justified by the given story. That it was something I ought to "watch out for"--to curb against in the future. This was offered in the mode of a workshop, so I didn't rebut. And I keep trying to absorb it as just another facet of critique, and find a way to make it serve the development of my poems. But after three weeks it is still gnawing at me.

If a poet makes a move over and over, based on her strengths, isn't that...her style? What makes her poems distinct? Isn't that where we locate the tension?

Don't get me wrong. One of my day jobs is in journalism. I'm all about clarity on the sentence level. If my writing is cluttered with a dangling modifier, a sloppy word choice or a vague pronoun, I want to know. I don't want the whole poem to be derailed because I didn't make it clear who the "she" was in the opening line.

But I don't owe the reader something that goes down easy. I'm not sure how I feel about the idea of clarity as applied to the total poem. I know a lot of good poems with diamond-cut, absolutely clear meanings, systematically derived from a sequence of observations. I know a lot of truly great poems with no such thing. And though my workshop was frustrated by moments in the poem that they couldn't explicate, they were able to talk about the emotional stance of the speaker, the relationships being explored. So something fundamental was working.

I'm going to go back to Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin, who I think made an excellent point about clarity in the introduction to Legitimate Dangers, using these lines from Joyelle McSweeney's "Persuasion":

"Others were more economical than I. but I / had my red marble."

Okay, the syntax is clear. No confusion on the sentence level. But no, there's no easy origin for the red marble. The speaker is not in a school yard, playing. She isn't a glass blower. And yet, the covetous specificity of the "red marble" is such that you grasp the contrast to the world of bland, ephemeral economy. The confidence of the voice carries the moment.

At least, for me it does. Maybe I'm being whiny; I'm sure I'm being defensive. But it's not always easy, in the workshop world, to sift out the comments that sharpen from the comments that dilute. A few years ago, a poem of mine described "the window slow-hunkering down upon itself, molecule upon jukebox molecule, toward the hungry earth." My entire MFA workshop voted to cut the word "jukebox." The setting was modern Pompeii, the speaker a lover, the other metaphors bridal in theme--the jukebox was deemed "out of place" and "random." Myra Sklarew, the professor, was the only one to defend it.

"Sometimes the inexplicable," she said, "is where the true poetry is happening."


Don said...

I sometimes think with workshops we should do the opposite of what the other poets say. That's because they're like market test groups: you get middle of the road if you listen to them completely. Therefore, I wonder what would happen if you rewrote a poem that kept what they disliked, and went further in that direction.

I think you're going the right direction by trying to use different types of syntax, going away from clarity toward stranger, weirder images. I think a good mixture can be found, an approach that combines your strengths in developing realistic narratives/images and a more voice-driven, surreal style. I would say experiment more; just do exercises, change things up, without worrying about the results.

My style is seemingly surreal, but I also use a lot of sentences, straight prose syntax. Mark Doty wanted me to change things up, to use phrases, break things up, etc. But I have a huge distrust of work that seems to have all style and no content (or comprehensible content). Jorie Graham is my main example of that. I worry about an elliptical style, all voice, overwhelming the meaning or story I'm trying to tell. Some of the stuff I read seems like "Emperors New Clothes" poetry. It sounds nice, but waht does it really say?

Carly said...

I think you know where the poetry is and that is what matters. This is what I say to my students. Workshop is meant to open your eyes to process, but you are the one to turn process to product. If you feel this resistance to their comments, that means you strongly want to go where you are. That's where I want my chariot!

radmom said...

i think you should keep doing what you're doing. after a while you will know whether the continuity is amounting to something you value...something that represents a voice you trust, that others might not yet have seen, including yourself. it seems wrong to trust someone else's criticisms about an experiment you've just begun. follow the experiment through for a few months, then choose the best few, present them as a whole, and try to get an judgement from someone who is more objective than a criticism based on what style they prefer...

Sandra said...

Thanks Don, Carly and radmom, for the comments. The caveat against "all style and no content" rings *very* true for me--I always want to have the sense of an outside situation/conflict that is being addressed, even if the speaker is skating around a clear narrative.

I like that idea of experimenting with the style for a bit (say, through my time at Millay), then taking the best-of and appealing to an outside reader. Which pinpoints one of those basic writer tics: I want to go my own way, yet I still seek outside validation. Eh.

Carly, I think the point that resistance = intent is encouraging...unless I'm just being defensive. It's like the kids who refuse to ever use basic grammatical marks or experiment with line breaks, and respond to prodding with "but it's my style!" Here's to hoping I may be *slightly* more experienced, and therefore maybe a bit better equipped to experiment. Maybe.

Unknown said...

meathouse floor. that's all i'm saying.