The poems inside the poem


parts of poem flipchart

This sad object you see above is the flipchart chart from my Tuesday night class last week. (Yes, I took a picture of it. We’re all sad now and it’s what I do instead of a selfie.) It was the start of term, and we’re doing lineation, and I decided it might be nice to begin with an overview of the Parts of the Poem.

Albers, Study for Homage to the Square

I was imagining something neat and tidy and meaningful, like a Josef Albers painting, where the stanza fits inside the poem, and the line fits inside the stanza, and the word fits inside the line, and the letter fits inside the word… you get the idea.

Instead we got this mishmash of squiggles and dots where the only reason we stopped finding more particles – more tiny working parts of the poem, more dimensions, more bits of space dust – was because we ran out of room, and time. So that by the time we got done discussing actual lines, and went to read some poems, we only had time for one.

For the curious, here’s the key:

Ohhhh, the poem bone’s connected to the stanza bone,
The stanza bone’s connected to the line bone.
The line bone’s connected to the word bone,
Now hear the word of the Lord!

The word bones connected to the vowel bone,
The word bone’s connected to the consonant bone.
The line bone’s connected to the caesura bone,
And that’s before we talk about the gaps between the words!

Er, and that’s as far as I can go with that one. The black dots at the ends are what I talk about in my essay, ‘The Line’,* which I based on a book of wire-walking lore written by Philippe Petit, where he talks at great length about the tensile properties of the line, and the importance of tethering it properly at both ends. Literally, what you do with it at the ends keeps it up. Also, there is an intimate relationship between the end of one line and the beginning of the next – duh, right, but I feel this is often overlooked. The black, the words of the poem, is like positive space in a painting, i.e., it is the subject. The whiteness of the page around it – each one unique, like an idiolect (that part of your vocabulary not fond in a dictionary), is the negative space. In Glyn Maxwell’s book On Poetry (buy it, don’t borrow it), he says essentially that the black is you and the white is time.

He says, ‘After all, what is punctuation but a polite request to time?’ We talked about the poem as being a notation. Breath is involved, which leads us to the notion of the iambic pentameter line being roughly equivalent in English to a breath. The different speeds and weights of a long line (more and faster words in one breath) and a short one (each word spare, spacious, or maybe portentous) (or pretentious: can it bear that much weight?).

The caesura as a device for pacing, adding meaning, controlling tone, creating counterpoint.

Oh, and ‘stanza’ means ‘room’, so that affects your lines. And the gaps between things are like antechambers or corridors or even windows. Those little cloud things at the ends and beginnings of lines are half-breaths, little suspended moments where anything is possible.

We touched, as you can see by the list at the bottom, on syntactical units, units of meaning, units of image, what makes an image, what IS an image, the uses of suspense and completion (within a line, across lines), what happens if you break your line on a preposition or an article. (The one poem we had time to look at that first week was ‘I Go Back to May, 1937’, by Sharon Olds.)

And THIS, dear reader, is the beginnings of structure! It’s the beginnings of the difference between ‘chopped up prose’ and skillful free verse. What people CALL ‘form’ – metre and rhyme – is only a certain type of arrangements of the rhythm of the language and the repetition of sound as a rhetorical device.

We ended up beginning this week’s class with a recap of the whole thing and a new discussion – about caesurae, this time – that is, the stop or space or gap in the middle of a line – which diverged into an explanation of Miltonic blank verse (I swear some of the students had no idea what they were getting themselves into), and the best discussion I’ve ever been part of on James Merrill’s wonderful dinner party poem, ‘Charles on Fire’. (Basically, there were violent disagreements, a lot of personal investment, and it went on so long we had to skate over Craig Arnold’s poem ‘Asunder’ in about eight minutes.) (N.b., this link is a video of Craig Arnold reading the poem – it’s not the best video I’ve seen of him but it has this and several other poems. You should buy his books, too. AND Merrill. But this is another discussion.)

Er, and that’s that.

More soon. I do intend to do better!

* of which a much longer version is published in the book Stress Fractures, published by Penned in the Margins


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