Poetry

Lark on Church Ave

9:12 am, 11-3 at Lark, Church Avenue

The time was 9:11
but I wouldn’t type that
(still) so the lyrical
universe lurched
forward a minute.
No one knows
anything unless
we tell on ourselves.
There were only a few
bagels in the basket.
From yesterday.
I ordered the cinnamon
raisin with butter.
The bagel for people
who don’t know better.
What if nothing ever
happens to me again?
In the extra room,
there’s a toddler music
thing happening,
tambourines and drums
and chanting. A riot
(My Sunshine My Only)
of happiness and a room full
of gleeful emperors.

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What Can be Done in Two Lines and Why You Aren’t Elizabeth Bishop

Here are the first two lines of the Elizabeth Bishop poem, Filling Station:

Oh, but it is dirty!
—this little filling station,

Bishop is famous for her imagery. That is why this poem gets assigned, for the absolute thunderclap, once in a lifetime, “superbowl” level image coming near the end of the poem. But the first two lines are almost an anti-image. Why do these lines work?  Let’s acknowledge what isn’t there. The descriptions stop at the depth of “dirty’ and “little.” We get one weak verb of being. No unusual language, no strange but apt word choice.  What keeps these lines from flat-lining into prose?

Poems have personas or speakers and their speeches need a reason or a place to issue forth from. The importance of this element can be a large part of the poem as in a poem like My Last Duchess or it might just be a sense a gravitas working on some abstract problem of humanity. Here is the dramatic scene. Her car has arrived at a filling station.  The speaker is far enough from her home to be unfamiliar with the filling station. The speaker registers surprise at the dirtiness of the station. Which tells you that dirty locales must not be her usual environment.

This is a lot of information in just two lines that are not overtly trying to explain anything. But that isn’t all that is being conveyed here. The first line starts with the interjection, “Oh,” and ends with an exclamation point.  This line is trying to capture the sensation of coming upon this station and not quite understanding it. It feels like she is speaking to herself. Instead of unpacking already understood images, the speaker of this poem is trying to bring you with her as she discovers or sees this filling station. The technique used in fiction would be called stream of consciousness. The second line shows the persona regaining her composure. She is moving from surprise to understanding. Now that she has composed herself, she can describe what is there. There is still a bit of uncontrolled emotion in the line.  The use of the word “little” doesn’t do much to describe the station but does a lot to convey her affection for it. The rest of the poem will follow the pattern set in these two lines. The poet will alternate between description and surprise or maybe more accurately delight. This movement is the drama of the poem as we follow the speaker from this moment of surprise to an understanding of the place that is bigger than the place. All this is set up in two very quick lines that most people blow through looking for that famous Bishop imagery.

One other thing about these lines, they feel casual. And they should because Bishop is putting us as close to this speaker as she can. There is very little narrative distance. However, the casualness of these lines is an illusion. Bishop is in full control of the rhythm in these lines. We start with the interjection “Oh.” This long syllable takes a long time to say and because it is an interjection we go slowly through that emotion. Then we get a comma and the word, “but.” This further slows us down and the effect is to capture that feeling of time slowing after a surprise. The end of the first line is an exclamation mark and the second line begins with a dash.  This gives us longer to consider that surprise and adds a little suspense. From that dash on, the pace of the lines pick up. The second line falls into smooth flowing iambics. The line ends with an extra unstressed syllable that keeps the speed going. The sound in the second line reinforces that speed. The “i” sounds in “it,’ and “is” and “dirty” are repeated in the second line.  Poetic technique doesn’t get more invisible and effective than what you see in those lines.

Here are the lines that everybody remembers about the row of oil cans:

so that they softly say:
Esso—So—So—So

In two lines, she gives you an image that you can see and hear at the same time. Go off and do that if you can. Just kidding, that kind of thing is for giants only.

Here are some things to take away from the first two lines:

Don’t ignore the persona of the poem. That persona can be surprised. That persona can learn as it goes, can be uncertain or wrong or boorish or tyrannical. This is true even if that persona is you.

Don’t be afraid of small words. If you used the words, “dirty” or “little” in a poem at a workshop, you would likely receive quite a few comments to be more specific. Those words are fine to use if they serve the poem. In this case, we have a poem about a person slowly understanding a place.

(ps. Those workshoppers will be right 95% of the time, but do it anyway. The mistake free mindset of writing poems won’t generate any masterpieces.)

Casual speech is not flat speech. It should get most of its charge dramatically, but rhythm and sound are important even in the most casual seeming utterances. The more casual, the more invisible the machinery has to be.

Full text

Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
—this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color—
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
ESSO—SO—SO—SO
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

The Journal as Object: Rabbit Catastrophe Review, No. 6

I just got my contributor’s copy for the journal. Before I tell you what a beautiful object this is, I’m going to tell you what I have been doing for the last dozen or so years. I work for a large publisher. No, I’m not an editor (the answer to one of my least favorite questions). Recently, I have other duties but for the bulk of my time there, my job was to arrange printing. I was the contact between the publishing house and the printing presses. The books were always of high quality and part of my job was to maintain that quality. However, we printed on a large scale. What I am holding is a handmade piece of art.

It is a soft cover journal. The cover is a thick cream stock. There is no coating, nothing to get between you and the texture of the paper. This cover has to be touched to be completely experienced. The design is minimal. The front cover just has “06” in the rough center of the cover. The effect is to give an abstract charge at viewing the “06” in isolation. The back cover has a small logo and an ISSN in the bottom center. The minimalism means very little gets in the way of the look of this paper.  As someone that has had to do many many manufacturing estimates on books, it is exciting to see a paper that no one in their right minds would choose if they were responsible for making money on a book. This is labor of love kind of paper. It gets better. The edges are frayed. It doesn’t end with a neat machine slice on a coated stock. The edges are indefinite.  And there are flaps! These flaps are as big they can be.  They stop a quarter inch from the gutter. More of the luscious paper and a heft to the journal.

The journal is sewn with a thick black thread. This binding is incorporated in the look of the book. On the spine there are two sections cut away so that you can see the three threads. I think if I were part of the team that spent hours sewing these books, I would want those threads to be visible. I would have also wanted beer.

It is hard to follow that cover but the interior is on nice stock as well: 60# paper. None of the novels on your bookshelf use paper that nice unless you have some one hundred year old books. Don’t worry I’m not some savant that can touch paper and tell the weight of it. The last page of the journal gives all the spec’s on the paper and the fonts used.

The poems?

Mostly lyrics, charming and quick like Frank O’Hara. If you are the type that doesn’t read front to back, start with Jeremy Paden’s, “The Angel of Awkward Kisses.” That was my favorite. In an effort not to be like that angel who “bores all of heaven with notes,” I’ll stop here.

Here’s the link:

http://rabbitcatastrophepress.com/rcr06

 

Why I Capitalize the First Letter in Each Line of Poetry

It is an old fashioned thing to do. I would even say it is a cuss-ed thing to do. I don’t do it all the time but when I do, it is like standing on my porch, an old man shaking my fisteth at the kids who, in my defense, are being a little loud and, clearly, nothing any good is going to happen if they keep tossing that ball around. I also know that it is a kind of poetic hot button. There may be hurried editors who see that capitalization and are relieved that they don’t have to read any further.  Phew, another poem dodged. What passes for politics in poetry might be in play. The initial impulse against capitalization was good. I get it. Poetry with a capital P speaking from on high down to the ordinary world where people use the facilities and step in gum and worse. It was part of a move towards writing like we speak, stripping the empty ornamentation off poetry. I’m sure it worked but now isn’t it a bit of lie? Well meaning but still not quite truthful. Even when we want our poetry to be informal and seem casual, we don’t want it to be prose, do we? Yes, we want it to move fast. Yes, we want it to have access to our vernacular and it is hard to work the capital letters into the start of every line when we are speaking to our co-workers by the vending machine. I do it but sometimes I have to stand on my toes and point at the ceiling to really make it stick. That capital letter reminds me that I still think that I’m making art. That every element could be humble, the diction, the setting, but something about the language has to be elevated.  It is not a faithful recording of nature. It is an exaggeration, an improvement, a lie about as truthful as not capitalizing at all. Of course, when I fail and that flat line that I need and can’t quite revise away gets that fancy cap to wear, it can seem silly. Looking through my work, I seem to do it the most when I’m writing formal poetry and when I am taking a myth or a setting from the past. It appears to be in about half my poems. I’m surprised at the results of this informal poll. I thought I did it most of the time. Maybe I only remember what I’m doing when I’m being cuss-ed.

Another Informal Poll: Who does it and who doesn’t? (You can see now why I didn’t quite make it as a scholar. The methodology is just paging through the Oxford Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Near the end of the anthology, there are no poets who have chosen to capitalize the initial letters of each line. Look-ee at how special I am. )

Big letters:

Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Wallace Stevens, Eliot, Millay, Cummings, Langston Hughes, RPWarren, Roethke, Jarrell, Ashberry, Plath, Primm

Small letters:

William Carlos Williams, H.D., Marianne Moore, Cummings, Kunitz, Bishop, Berryman, Lowell, Ammons, Levine, Rich, Lucille Clifton, Gluck, Hass, Frank O’Hara, Primm