Friday, October 29, 2004

Letters to a Young Poet (IV)

Let’s go back to Uncle Bill...

Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.
So what precisely do we mean by “motion,” here? Motion is something you can feel: Motion is what a poem makes you feel. How do we set our machine in motion?

Four: Deployment (Six Green Bottles)

  1. In poetry you are aiming, generally, for a complete and unified impression.

    Your poem is a delivery system for a felt idea. Your aim is communicate that—to make your readers feel that idea as strongly as you do. Make them see. Make them understand. This is best done by giving the reader a discrete chunk, a portrait, a glimpse that implies a larger whole.

    Don’t make the mistake of thinking this means you need to pile on lots of details to bolster case or create your context—in fact a single small, keen observation will often do the job far more effectively. Given the right detail, the reader can usually infer the broader context. You can do this in a very few words. The whole point of haiku, for instance, is not simply that it is short, but that it is self-contained; but haiku is so perfectly self-contained in part because it is so short.

    What this means, given that The hard work of poetry consists of making choices, is...

  2. Of all your choices, the most important is: What to leave in, what to leave out.

    Think about what you want your machine to do, and choose the words of which you will build it accordingly. Eliminate, inasmuch as possible, any word that does not contribute to your machine’s effect. Every choice you make, you must weigh against this single criterion. Prune the machine to perfect economy: the movement is in the economy. Any engineer will tell you that the most reliable machines are the ones with the fewest moving parts.

    Non-moving parts should probably be left out entirely. Ornamentation is lovely in the physical arts, but in poetry it is, generally, unwelcome—simply because it is distracting. When the reader is working to decode the details of the poem, it is bad form to burden hir with extra work just so you, the poet, can show off. By all means Yes to exuberance, Yes to the sheer joy of language—but try to channel that energy towards the actual essentials of the poem. A Swiss watch does not need tail-fins; however lovingly crafted, they are surplus to requirements and therefore pointless.

    Choosing what to leave in and what to leave out will dictate most of your other choices about a poem—level of diction, structure, rhythm, figures, and so forth.

  3. You may ask yourself; How do I work this?

    It’s going to vary from poem to poem, with the desired effect of each—but let’s take a few examples.

    Say you hate your job, and you’ve found the seeds of a poem in that hate. You want your poem to convey the humdrum endlessness of the workday. Okay, then: you might want to consider a regular rhythmic scheme, with each line having the same syllabic pattern—mechanical, singsong, like the tick-tock of a clock that never seems to chime.

    Or maybe your poem has a violent central idea. You might want to convey that through short, choppy lines, direct (even brutal) language, unsettled rhythms, off-rhymes, hard uvular and plosive consonant sounds, primitive grammar—all of which would serve to bring the reader into the heart of the violence; It’s the equivalent of the whip-pans of a hand-held camera, in the movies.

    On the other hand, you might want to view the violence from a distance, ironically or sorrowfully, in a God’s-eye crane shot. You might render that through long, elegantly-constructed lines, intricate figures of speech, the whisper of sibilants and fricatives.

    If you try to have it both ways in a single poem, though, the piece will be a muddle—unless there is a good reason within the context of the poem for the shift in tone. Some of the World War I poets managed this brilliantly, moving from the muddy chaos of the trenches to the cosmic pointlessness of the big picture, in what would be, in cinematic terms, a long zoom. But even in these cases, the shifts in tone are dictated by the felt idea of the poem, rather than imposed upon it.

  4. Familiarity breeds contempt.

    When I read a poem, I want to see words put together in ways I’ve never seen before. Clichés are death. Fairly or unfairly, they mark you as a lazy writer; They can jolt the reader out of the mood you’re trying to create before you’ve even had a chance to establish it; and they are staggeringly ineffective at getting your message across, simply because the meaning of their component words has been lost... as we’ll see below.

  5. Eliminate unnecessary words.

    Unnecessary words slow things down, and make your lines flabby. Eliminating them doesn’t mean that you’re always going to be writing short poems. Far from it. The Waste Land is a long and complex poem—it’s a meal. Some poems are snacks. But keep in mind that The Waste Land was originally twice as long, and by all accounts half as good. Roger Ebert says that a great movie is always just long enough, but that a bad movie, no matter how short, is always too long. He’s not entirely stupid, that man.

    How do you like your meat? A little poem—a haiku, say—is like a slice of prosciutto—brief, flavorful, thin as a host. A bigger poem is like a steak—maybe a nice filet mignon, or maybe something heftier; The Waste Land is a prime rib the size of a toilet seat. Each to hir own taste.

    But nobody wants their entrée served with big nasty rings of fat and gristle; No matter how much good meat is there, it’s more effort than it’s worth just to get at it. The considerate host trims the fat away before he serves up the meal—because he wants (a) to present his dishes in the most appetizing and inviting way possible, and (b) to make less work for his guests. Be a considerate host.

  6. Eliminating clichés helps to eliminate unnecessary words.

    Ah, it all comes together...

    Clichés, you see, are most often expressed in inseparable adjective-noun pairings. Sparkling eyes. Green grass. Dark secret. In most cases, the adjective is completely unnecessary; When is a secret not dark? When is grass not green? It is in these exceptional cases that you want an adjective: The blighted grass. Her happy secret. Those phrases mean something in every word. “Green grass” just means “grass”—two words doing the work of one.

    The sad thing about clichés is that, often, not only does the modifier fail to add anything—it actively detracts from the meaning and impact of the subject. Example from a poem I critiqued a couple of years ago: Respectable citizen. A ubiquitous formulation, this: when was the last time you heard “citizen” without its little helper-word? Using the word on its own gives the tiny shock of expectations unmet—and with its hearkening to classical Rome, its punk-rock and prison-slang meanings, the word has more power and richer connotations on its own.

    If there’s something unique and significant about the respectability of the citizen—something crucial to the poem’s meaning—then find some other way to say it, because the phrase “respectable citizen” is essentially transparent: it registers for the reader simply as “citizen.” And if you just mean “citizen,” why don’t you just write “citizen”?

    Make every word count. Make every motion of your machine an effective motion.

Closing in on the end now...

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