Craft Annotation: Nonlinear Time and Poetic Structure

Image of spiral clock credit: Chris Limb via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.

An issue I’ve struggled with time and again is how to incorporate multiple scenes in a single poem while still maintaining unity and clarity. Dividing a poem into separate sections with roman numerals or asterisks may work, but not all poems are long enough to justify multiple parts, nor does this method evoke the seamless way a particular sense perception or situation can trigger associations with another time and place. Proust and his madeleine are a famous example: the taste of a cookie kicks off the epic, multi-volume novel Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). Few modern poets have the luxury of such sprawl. But regardless of the length of the poem, one must still learn how to deal with nonlinear time in a way that mitigates the possibility of a confused reader. We experience time in a single dimension (past to present), but the way we think about time is multi-dimensional. It includes past, present, future, and possible divergences from a single outcome.

I set out in search of poems that dealt with the issue of multiple moments (past, present, future, and possible). Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Nonlinear Time and Poetic Structure”

Craft Annotation: Szymborska, Imagery, and Abstraction

As I discussed in my craft annotation on Rilke, modern poetry favors a particular aesthetic quite the opposite of the era preceding it. The rise of the Imagist movement in the early 20th century heralds this shift. As the name implies, the movement was toward concrete, visceral imagery and away from sentimentality and meditations on abstract concepts such as love or death – or if the poem is a meditation on love or death, it’s never explicitly named as such. In the preface to the 1915 anthology Some Imagists Poets, the school listed some of its common principles. These two in particular stood out for me:

  • To present an image (hence the name: “Imagist”). We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of his art.
  • To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred or indefinite. [i]

William Carlos Williams explores this principle in his long poem “Paterson,” Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Szymborska, Imagery, and Abstraction”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Final Packet

Read on for the cover letter to the final packet of my first semester at the Lesley MFA program, written to my teacher Sharon Bryan. The cover letter of a packet is meant to be a meditation on your writing and study process over the course of the previous month — a sort of “making of” the finished work that accompanies it:

Dear Sharon:

How strange to think that this is the last packet I will be sending you. The semester has gone by so quickly. I was really worried about being able to finish all the work on time, but it turned out to be possible after all. About halfway through each packet I would get incredibly anxious. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish the work on time, and that what I sent wouldn’t be good enough. It’s natural to want to get the most out of a degree program as possible, but it’s also important not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. The fact that the course work is pass/fail helps, but ultimately it’s a question of whether I think I am doing the best that I can. Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Final Packet”

Heather McHugh’s Poetic Music

Photograph of hands on a piano keyboard with sheet music

When I first picked up Heather McHugh’s work[i], I delighted in her witty use of language – the way she was able to pick out a word’s multiple meanings in the course of tightly musical and lyrical verse. Some examples:

From “Spectacles:”[ii]

I don’t move
but the grass in the window
does an utter
smear campaign…

From “Politics:”[iii]

The dog pauses before the fire,
watches, gains
weight, can’t make
light of it, lies
heavy down…

By themselves, these puns and surprising twists of language might suffice, but McHugh combines this wordplay with an unerring attention to the sound and rhythm of her lines as well. Continue reading “Heather McHugh’s Poetic Music”

Rainier Maria Rilke’s Use of Imagery

Photograph of a bowl of multicolored roses

In The Discovery of Poetry[i], Frances Mayes breaks imagery into three categories: literal imagery (the thing itself), figurative imagery (images used to describe the thing), and symbols (an image or action that stands for more than itself). A symbol differs from a literal or figurative because of the far-reaching semantic ripples that surround it. The red wheelbarrow is an image; the American flag is a symbol.

Rilke’s work returns again and again to the symbol of the rose. What sorts of associations does the symbol of the rose evoke? Love, femininity, openness, vulnerability, romantic and sexual love, impermanence. The rose is a symbol for the Madonna in Catholic tradition, and was a symbol for her predecessor Venus. The medieval French poem, “Le Roman de la Rose,” tells an allegorical story of courtly love. At the heart of Dante’s Paradiso lies a rose. On St. Valentine’s Day, lovers give one another red roses as a symbol of their love for one another. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet, exhorting her lover Romeo to give up his family name.
Continue reading “Rainier Maria Rilke’s Use of Imagery”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Third Packet

Here’s the cover letter to the third packet I sent to my teacher Sharon Bryan during the first semester of my Lesley MFA.

Dear Sharon:

It was such a pleasure to meet up with you in person last week. Written correspondence is a thing to treasure but there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. And it’s always great to have an excuse to sit and chat at the Algiers.

As I said to you via email, I really enjoyed Heather McHugh’s playful approach to language – especially the way that she plays with the multiple meanings and connotations of a single word. Picking her up reminded me that working for an MFA is something I undertook for the pleasure of the task rather than the obligation of the schoolwork. Here’s one example of her wordplay that I didn’t include in my craft annotation: Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Third Packet”

Craft Annotation: Poetic Line in the Work of William Carlos Williams

The poet Robert Hass says “the metrical poem begins with an assumption of human life which takes place in a pattern of orderly recurrence with which the poet must come to terms, the free verse poem with an assumption of openness or chaos in which an order must be discovered.”[1] This fundamental shift in the craft of poetry coincides with – and some would say arises out of – fundamental upheavals in Western civilization, most notably the erosion of traditional, rigid class systems that followed the World Wars.

If a poet abandons both rhyme and meter, how does she give a poem shape or music? What elements of craft remain, and what new tools must we create? Without meter, poetic line becomes one of the primary means of affecting a poem’s trajectory.

Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Poetic Line in the Work of William Carlos Williams”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Second Packet

Below is the cover letter for the second packet of my first semester at the Lesley MFA program. I was fortunate enough to work with Sharon Bryan that term.

Dear Sharon:

Receiving your feedback on the first packet was inspiring. It managed to set just the right balance between encouragement and challenge. I agree with you that I should focus on free verse line for the rest of the semester. I did want to try my hand at some forms I’d seen in Plath’s and Bishop’s writing – especially the aba / bcb tercets with long-short-long alternations in addition to the rhymes. They were forms I hadn’t worked with before, especially with the use of off-rhymes. It’s so easy to want to emulate the style and voice of the poet one is reading rather than applying some of their craft to one’s own voice.

Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester One, Second Packet”

Craft Annotation: Elizabeth Bishop’s Use of Rhyme

Photograph of a fish, subject of a famous poem by Elizabeth Bishop

In her book The Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes discusses rhyme within the context of repetition. This element of craft goes far beyond the end-stopped pure rhymes (mop/top) most people associate with poetry. Rhyme can be any kind of repetition of sound: slant rhymes (month/up); internal rhymes (the loud cloud growled); alliteration, consonance, and assonance (“tremendous fish,” “speckled with barnacles,” “coarse white flesh”); repetition of words, or repetition of entire lines.

Elizabeth Bishop uses all these techniques. Rhyme runs through her poetry like a subtle thread: always there, but not often when or how it’s expected. Even her prose poems (“Rainy Season: Sub-Tropics”) contain internal rhyme, alliteration, consonance, and assonance: “My sides move in rhythmic waves, just off the ground, from front to back, the wake of a ship, a wax-white water, or a slowly melting floe.” One can also interpret the overlap of events in these prose poems as a kind of rhyme. In each piece, the titular animal speaks but portrays the same encounters from a different perspective: “Beware, you frivolous crab,” says the toad. “And I want nothing to do with you either, sulking toad,” says the crab. “Cheer up, O grievous snail. I tap your shell, encouragingly,” says the crab. “What’s that tapping on my shell?” asks the snail.

Continue reading “Craft Annotation: Elizabeth Bishop’s Use of Rhyme”

The Martha Collins Race Trilogy

Cover art for three books of poems by Martha Collins: Admit One (in red), White Papers, and Blue Front

I first met Martha Collins at a seminar on taboo at the Mass Poetry Festival. Sharon Olds read a poem about testicles. Jill McDonough read a poem that included a line about a stripper’s “perfect pink asshole.” And Martha Collins read a poem about race. It was the Collins poem that made me the most uncomfortable. I’ve spoken about race plenty in conversation with people of color, but for a white person to initialize the discussion seemed uncouth in a way that frank talk about sex is not.

Collins read from White Papers, the second in a trilogy about race in the United States. White Papers focuses on the poet’s own recollections of race growing up in the Midwest and living in New England. Blue Front is a book-length poem that spirals around a brutal lynching that her father witnessed in 1909 in Cairo, Illinois. Admit One uses the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (which her grandparents attended) as a jumping-off point to speak about “scientific racism,” the eugenics movement of the 20th century, and the continuing legacy of racism in the United States. Continue reading “The Martha Collins Race Trilogy”