Harvest of Hunger
Flawless poems may be rare, but they do spring to life sometimes, in the hands of a capable artist. Sher Ting's poem, "Hunger," is that kind of poem. Flawless in conception; smooth in execution, with a clarion resolution to a provocative theme. The poem is from December 22, 2021 and is posted at The Citron Review. Read it in full by clicking the picture above.
If it sounds like I'm gushing, that may well be, but reserve judgement a moment. The poem is virtually flawless from a technical point of view, but what are we to make of a flawless poem, in this throwaway age? Is it realistic to expect readers to notice, let alone appreciate such brilliant lines as:
How 饭 was the ivory harvest from fields of salt and rain,
ploughed to fruition through thunderclouds and a wrist of light.
You and I may soar at the assonance (and thematic concord) of "ivory" and "light" or the dactylic boom of "thunderclouds" in this otherwise pensive unrhymed couplet.
Even the poem's most explicit lines demand phone-less introspection:
Maybe that was what I was—wild rice,
the amalgamation of two entities,
A beautiful conception, particularly if you take the repetition of "was" as a plastic symbol for the "two entities" in question. This is linguistic alchemy. A High Order of logopoeia, melopoeia, and phanopoeia... So, we're making Ezra Pound happy.
But what's the overall impact of the poem. How does it hit?
Read the last two lines to find out. But, as I said, we're dealing with a true artist here, so the final lines of the poem open up new ideas, new potentials, new imaginings. Ting's alchemy is strong.
This is a flawless poem, but it might take a poet to see just how flawless. Which brings us back to my original question: how much of this (or any) poem goes unseen and how much needs to be seen?
I'd love to know your thoughts.
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Michael Cunliffe is an interesting poet with quite a lot of range and insight. You'll find him on Facebook most days, posting clean, imaginative poems. For the most part, Cunliffe plays to his strong suits by writing on traditional themes and delivering what can be best described as warmly expected (and received) lyrics.
Every now and again, though, the poetry angels sprinkle a bit of transcendental confetti across Cunliffe's virtual pages, and the result is almost always a pleasant wisp of Zen.
For example, Cunliffe's, "Other Hand Clapping," (read by clicking the pic) is a pleasantly astonishing concrete poem, based on the classic koan: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Here, Cunliffe decides to plunge past the paradox and deliberately identify one hand (the right) with the thunderous sound of ego and self-applause, while the left hand remains a singer of soulful silence.
I actually think this is the "answer" to that old koan -- at least one answer anyway. The sound of one hand clapping is the boundless music of the soul. The silence of the eternal one. And I thank Cunliffe for sharing his gnosis. Imagining the two hands in dialogue, on the precipice of "shaking" or uniting, is a brilliant poetic image, so brilliant it should be painted, or sculpted, or... made concrete.
This is why Cunliffe deserves a double-brilliancy prize here. Not only did he realize the theme deserved visual representation, he was able to pull it off with aplomb. That's poetic instinct. You can't buy it and few are born with it. So how do you get it? Oh, by writing and writing and reading poets like Cunliffe who are solidly following the footsteps of the Muse.
Let's take a look at a couple of other fine points from the poem. The first is the plainness of the diction. Cunliffe realizes that the concrete form provides enough spectacle, so the language can and should be pared down.
Second, the two hands, visualized on the page, are in dialogue, both linguistically and visually. It's a dialogue of the soul and the flesh, but the flesh ain't listening.
Feels not mine
isn't an admission of defeat. It's a declaration of spiritual epiphany. It's the answer to the koan.
Last thing: this poem had to be concrete to work. That's the only, and I mean only, justification for making a concrete poem. It may feel brilliant and inventive to shape your words this way, but unless the poem has to be concrete, you'll just look silly most of the time.
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The Darkest Poem in the World?
The title, primary image, narrative, and setting of Byron’s poem “Darkness” (click pic above to read) reflect a sustained nihilism. The poem defies the cultural and artistic conventions of its time and the past. It challenges everything. “Darkness” stands as a rebuke of the Victorian mores and ideals. That rejection is of all existing ideals and philosophies; virtually all aesthetic theories, and all known facts and assumptions. The only thing that's spared (and therefore exalted) in the poem is the power of the imagination.
Byron pens the destruction of every meaningful Victorian value in the poem from human love and rationality, to faith in science or God. The idea of the abyss is very important in “Darkness” and functions as a way for Byron to imagine the destruction of all contemporary mores and strictures. With them go the limitations of imagination and expression that they hold over individuals, poets included. Byron’s imagined destruction is a purposeful imagining. His goal is to see what remains in the face of total apocalypse.
Early in the poem, Byron strikes straight to the heart of what most of us consider the most basic elements of humanity. When the sun and stars disappear and the entire word is engulfed in darkness, connections between people are quickly forgotten in the struggle for survival:
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light:
The word “prayer” is an inversion of the socially accepted idea of prayer. Instead of praying for goodness or peace or the well-being of others, the instinctual prayer that emerges during the apocalypse of darkness is based purely on selfishness. Byron alludes rather cryptically to the hypocrisy of religion, rather than simply declaring it in a straightforward way. He uses the idea of all-consuming darkness to ironically shed light on what the world had previously kept hidden.
As the darkness becomes more absolute, more and more hypocrisies and fallacies are revealed. This is in keeping with the romantic tendency to at once delve deeply for truth but also somewhat hide the revelation of what is discovered. The central inversion of the poem, turning darkness into a kind of penetrating light, is Byron’s way of revealing through “resistance.” Darkness is a force of nature; in fact the underlying, primary force of nature and it's this force of nature, rather than Byron-as-commentator, that appears to initiate the nihilistic revelations.
There's no relief even for those poetic or religious traditions of the past that viewed the earth as sacred. Byron rejects the pagan an animistic traditions of the past. His darkness spares nothing. Even the earth itself is reduced to nothing but a heatless, dead rock:
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless--
A lump of death--a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirr'd within their silent depths;
The darkness stretches past the earth -- into the reaches of space where the stars and planets were traditionally used as guides for myth, astrology, astronomy, and time-keeping, blotting them out along with everything else:
The moon, their mistress, had expir'd before;
The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish'd
Darkness had no need
Of aid from them--She was the Universe.
Finally, only darkness remains. If anything can be taken as an articulation of “moral truth” in the poem, it is that there is no moral truth.
Instead of truth, there is only darkness. If we want to glean anything further from Byron on this matter we will have to probe the darkness itself, because that is all he leaves us. The interesting twist here is that, while Byron’s nihilism is authentic, it may be that the destruction of the universe is not quite complete.
What remains is: the imagination. To see this in the poem, it is necessary to view the darkness of the poem as being analogous to what later thinkers and scientists, particularly Carl Jung, called the unconscious.
Jung also referred to the creative aspect of the unconscious as the “abyss” and he viewed this as the source of all creativity. While the length of the current discussion prevents any meaningful discussion of Jung’s concept of the abyss, it is enough to simply state that, because the unconscious can only be known indirectly, by its effect, it is clearly associated in dreams, cross-cultural myths, and religious traditions as being connected with images of night and darkness.
When Byron’s central image of darkness is viewed from this perspective, it is not only a symbol for the unconscious and creativity, but for the revealing aspect of art, previously mentioned above. Byron’s rejection of not only the Victorian social and artistic mores of his time but of all times, is an uncompromising affirmation of the power of creativity divorced from any social or cultural meaning.
Darkness is a meditation on the power of absolute creativity, the “prime mover” of all things, which he conceives of in such a way as to maximize the liberation of individuality and creative self-expression. In doing so, darkness becomes the ultimate form of light, the poet’s light, the light of truth. This places Byron’s poem outside of the artistic and cultural traditions of the past but well within the expressed ideals of the romantics.
Absolute radio silence on my recent "Prose or Doze" post, which asked you to define prose poetry.
Not one reply.
To be honest, I'm not surprised. That's because 1) it's incredibly difficult to define prose poetry 2) most people don't seem to have much of an interest in prose poems. Personally, I find them tempting. And I think a meaningful, if not complete, definition for what makes a prose poem could be attempted.
"A prose poem is a poem without stanzas that combines poetic and prose devices, emphasizing mood, theme, and emotion over plot."
Not so in a prose poem.
Allow me to demonstrate these principles with a single prose poem. The poem is "All Girl Band" by Utahna Faith. It's posted at The Cafe Irreal. You can read the full text by clicking the picture above.
Your first reaction is probably going to be: "But, Daniel, it's flash fiction, not a prose poem."
Wrong I say!
This is a prose poem. And it's a really good one. Even better that Faith has pushed the form just about as close to prose as you could go without crossing over. That will prove my definition true!
Reading over the poem, the first thing we notice is the plot does not resolve. We never know what crime the all girl band is guilty of or why these pretty vamps are headed to jail. The second thing we notice is that the lack of resolution doesn't seem wrong for the work, artistically.
It seems, in fact, perfect for the mood and emotion. That we don't know makes the all girl band more than Stoker groupies; it paints them into myth. Into imagination. Which is where they originated.
So, we're actually talking about poetic ideas like maturity, nostalgia, karma, self-expression, wisdom, and individuation. Yes, those are themes equally applicable to prose, but prose tends to resolve them for good or bad. In this case, the ghosts of the girls hover forever in a blood-craving precipice of lost youth; in a loop of language and imagery that proves that a talented poet like Faith is not only free to swim in fantasy and nostalgia, but can emerge from the depths with captivating, somehow still "living" relics.
The girls are sexual freedom youth and rebellion lost in the prison of adulthood. Yes, but did you see this coming? They can get free whenever they want. They did so when Faith wrote this poem which defies all convention, is very sexy and rebellious, and about as free as any piece of comprehensible writing can be.
I think the poem demonstrates harmony of age and youth -- reflected in harmony of prose and poetry. Get it? Sure you do! But it can be either way. The prose can be youth or age. Which, again, defies convention, and frees us up if we really engage with that poetic koan.
Finally, here are two solid examples of how Faith "straightens" poetic lines into shining prose poetry:
"How can I be so white-skinned, ebony-haired, red-lipped and ethereal, when my mother, at my age with the same face and body, was suntanned, golden-haired, peach-lipped and earthbound?"
"I am back in our old house, bad house, in my old room, changing clothes. What does one wear to jail? I am frightened."
We know that the "jail" here must be metaphorical so that resolves the issue of whether the line above is just good, honest prose. It's not allegory. It's more akin to tone-painting and expressionism. The idea of "jail" and eternal youth make a beautiful poetic statement, but to effectively pull it off in prose you'd need at least 10k words. You'd have to make the reader know and care for the characters and their histories. Here, this isn't a consideration because, as I've been saying, this is poetry.
So why arrange it in paragraphs and not stanzas?
Because in paragraphs it moves like a narrative and makes the lack of resolution more powerful. It's a brilliant artistic choice. An analogy might be a song like "Sympathy for the Devil" where the Rolling Stones tried numerous traditional formats for the song before finally hitting on the calypso beat that gives the song a sinister edge to Western ears. Without that sinister edge, you've still got Jagger's amazing lyrics but Lucifer / Legba is only half-materialized.
If you wrote "All Girl Band" as a short story or novel it would be YA vampire fiction? That's light years from what we have here which is more like accomplished Confessional poetry combined with surrealism. Anne Sexton might crib something here, if she could look past her dogeared copy of Illuminations.
I rest my case?
Plumes of Death
I recently had the chance to do something you'll now never get to do. That's read "Death and the Miser" by Jeff Fearnside over at Plume Journal without having first viewed the Hieronymus Bosch painting on which the poem is based.
Setting aside this now remedied gap in my education for a moment, let me say, like most of you out there, I'm a big fan of ekphrasis. Poetry and painting, in particular, seem to be a match made in Heaven, so I'll just let that speak for itself as we turn to Fearnside's poem. (Click the pic above to read the full text.)
In an ekphrastic poem, we routinely expect to be dazzled by color, images, passion, and other painterly devices. Not so, in this case. The poem starts in a prosy, almost banal way:
When death comes, it all goes:
the fine clothing,
chest of treasures,
And continues on in this fashion, listing all the losses anyone would expect to see in a poem about death. Nothing eye-catching or spine tingling to be seen as we dig further down into the poem, deeper in the grave, so to speak.
We then reach what is almost a transliteration of the images on the canvas:
Death’s minions see it all.
One peers from above
the death bed’s canopy.
You're now wondering: why is this poem about death so...boring? So far, anyway.
Well, Fearnside has a point and it's a brilliant one. When we reach the seventh stanza (yes, Holy Seven), the dolor breaks away thunderously and we wake to sudden revelation:
Your one hope
is the angel behind you,
hand on your pale, bony shoulder,
eyes on the beam
of light from the high
window with the crucifix.
Now this is not only original; it's startlingly original. You'll need to read the closing lines to get the full effect of the turn in stanza seven, but you can surely see now that the poem is epiphanic, just as Bosch's painting. What they're both saying is that death, despite all the hype, is really just another banal, materialistic illusion.
It's the angel waiting to take you to a higher life that's the exciting part.
But to follow your angel, you'll need to put away your money, your "wasted gut," and your whole earthly life.
So, a neatly effective ekphrastic poem that's as much an allusion to the great vanitas painting traditions of the past as it is to this specific painting by Borsch.
So why am I lucky that I didn't see the painting before I read the poem? To get an angle for this post, of course!
Political poetry. As soon as you read those two words, an opinion flashes through your mind. You either think it works, or you think it's generally a bad idea.
My mission, in this post, is to change your mind either way.
I'm going to focus discussion on a magnificent poem by Rick Lupert, a wonderfully imaginative poet, who also happens to helm Poetry Super Highway. Rick is an incredible creative talent; I encourage you to check out his numerous books, his poetry blog, his daily web-comic, Cat and Banana, and everything else he does. But for now, we're going to focus on his poem "RBG" from the September 23rd, 2020 issue of Oddball Magazine.
Click the pic above to read the poem in full.
The poem's title clearly states Lupert's political intentions. He wants to place deceased Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in the same place of memory as JFK or MLK. This is an understandable impulse, but what's amazing is how Lupert starts the poem:
In a year that has taught my stomach
how to take a punch
Bringing the body into a poem is always a good idea. Here, Lupert accomplishes three things at once: he gets your attention, he brings you into the poem bodily, and he sets up a confessional element. This isn't a poem about beauty or nature or falling in love.
Despite the open political theme, nothing truly divisive or even potentially controversial appears until the lines:
With evil across the street
you were the balance.
This is outright jingoism. Or is it?
I think we have to look very closely at the poem here. If we read these lines too literally, we miss Lupert's authentic originality. Instead of editorializing, what he's doing here is continuing the "gut-punch" reaction from the opening line. The speaker remains so dazed that, for an instant, spouting easy platitudes is all that seems possible -- that is, until we reach the crucial word "balance."
What the speaker seeks here is a sense of closure. And that closure is found through purpose. Read the closing line to see how Lupert expertly turns the poem around from despair and confusion to optimism and resolve. This is what you want to do in any poem, make a dramatic arc of emotion, but it's particularly effective in political poetry because it wards off dogmatism.
OK. A brilliant piece of work to be sure. But I promised to challenge your assumptions. If you think political poetry is a good idea, I'd like you to read the poem and consider the fact that it's impossible for some people to read the poem without seeing only gushing propaganda. Simply by taking up such a theme, you've alienated potential readers.
If you're of the mind that politics and poetry should remain separate, let me say: a poem like this proves that assumption false. The poem succeeds on any technical or aesthetic level you care to name. I've only scratched the surface here.
It's truly inspired work.
So, again, I ask: is politics a good fit for poetry? You tell me.
In a bit of unrelated news: I've put out a call for poetry submissions -- paying $1.00 per line. I'm buying all rights. Click the "submit" button below.
Thanks, btw, to D.D., E.B., D.P., and R.H. for your recent poems and comments!
Jessica Kim's "Whalien 52" may seem like a strange selection for the year's first poem spotlight. After-all, the poem's from the May 2021 issue of Oxidant|Engine, a pub that's currently on hiatus. You've probably never heard of Oxidant|Engine or Jessica Kim and that's a shame. Click on the pic above to take a look around the journal and also to read the full text of Kim's gem.
The first thing to note is how Kim angles right for the heart from the poem's opening lines:
It’s strange how the beach in winter
makes her even lonelier.
Never underestimate the power of tying powerful conflicts to archetypes. In this case, loneliness and the sea provide what can only be called an elemental setting, meaning this is as human and primary as poetry gets. So how does Kim twist newness out of such a massive mythic footprint? Well, she promises something unexpected with a single word: "lonelier."
We're all lonely, but we're all also very curious to know if our loneliness marks the extremity of the experience. Or can it get worse?
Let's do something really crazy now and jump immediately to the last line of the poem:
a signal that does not reach her.
Clearly, Kim has touched a deeper loneliness. She wants us to touch it, too. Not out of spite or malice. Not out of poetic opportunity. She wants us to feel the loneliness of the world. She wants us to see that our personal loneliness is connected to the whole globe, the seas, and everything that swims in them.
These lines show us the purpose of loneliness:
She wails into the curvature
of her backbone, sculpted with abandoned
girlhood. On the other side of the earth,
even the blind whales can see her.
However we are broken, it is nature that heals us. When we feel that certain loneliness that no friend, no family member, and no social media can fill, it's a call from that world we've left behind. Our childhood world when animals, stars, tress, and planets swam with possibility through our imaginations. When we not only wanted to run barefoot over mud, sand, and grass, we did it, and usually with someone we loved (or wanted to love) chasing us or running away.
This is masterful poem not only because it sees so deeply, but because in order to see so deeply, Kim had to feel this for us; she had to drown in what we mostly try to avoid. The poem is evidence that the whale-song, that signal of earth and childhood joy she speaks of in the poem, reached her fully intact.
I, for one, would like to thank her for sharing the music with us.
Let me start off by saying that, "The Poem of the World," by Scudder Parker more than lives up to its title. A very tall order, indeed.
I was skeptical until I read the first three lines:
like a doe’s hoof tapping ice
till she can drink.
I spend a lot of time in nature; this is an authentic and beautiful image. It also works poetically. Once you feel and experience the opening, you quickly realize you're in for a true lyric poem, rooted in nature, that builds tercet after tercet toward revelation.
But this poem's not only about theme. Of course, the epiphanic climax is suitably mystical and more than uplifting enough to fulfill titular expectations. But what's remarkable about this poem beyond its archetypal theme is the "melody" of its composition. Even more precisely, the music of its metaphors.
For example, Parker compares "the rust of purple on this fall’s / forsythia leaves" to a "small voice /
every year, unheard." This bit of synesthesia is but an opening gambit in what is a poem bursting with figurative flights such as a "beach of pebbles that suddenly /starts singing" or "the subtraction / of birds, taking summer with them," -- all stunning and quite exact.
Of course, a deeply metaphorical nature poem that builds tercet by tercet toward epiphany also needs beautiful diction, or at the very least, a high degree of melopoeia. Let's taste the penultimate stanza:
The poem of the world wants me to wake
in my own body; it is astonished I might let
these supple bones grow brittle.
Say it aloud and realize as you read, that this closing stanza is probably the least sonorous of the nine. That's right, I used the word "sonorous" and I'll continue to do so if it pleases me.
I need your opinion on the closing line. Is is satisfying? Go to The Lascaux Review by clicking the pic above and read the poem in full. Then give me your opinion.
Mirrors and Maids
I'm angry about, "Girl, Hotel Mirror," by Laurie Bolger, a poem posted back in September at The London Magazine. Read it in full by clicking the pic above. It's inventive. It's funny. It's sad. And it's a bull's-eye dart right into the heart of our narcissistic, digital age.
Add to that, Bolger ushers in a dark, psychedelic tone that lifts to ironic crescendo at the poem's close. So, the poem is musically minded, to say the least.
And this is where I start to get angry, because with a piece like this, Bolger's making it a lot tougher on the rest of us who write poems. The poem not only features the crescendo I mentioned, which is constructed almost entirely out of increasingly inventive (and disturbing) surrealistic images; it also features a cast of characters that could (and probably should) round out a provocative one-act play. It has dialogue, dialect, slang, motion, conflict, class struggle, and well, virtually everything but pratfalls.
And pratfalls are strongly implied.
I count thirty-one total lines. I've seen novelists do much less in 500 pages.
Fine, Daniel, but what about the poetry? Well, how's this for an opening?
In a hotel mirror, a woman
is snogging her own face.
The image of a woman kissing her own face is quite funny, but the word "snogging" makes it much more funny. That word does something else, by the way, it sets the speaker of the poem on a superior plane. The quasi-sanctimonious tone persists for most of the poem. When it dissolves, it does so into the previously mentioned crescendo of surrealism, so Bolger washes her speaker right down the drain with everything else.
Yet the poem remains. A stunning work of art. There's much more to applaud in terms of pure poetry here, like the enjambment on lines 30-31 that rolls through an onomatopoeic alliteration, then sputters out just as the rational sense of the poem simultaneously dissipates.
Have we just watched a maestro smash a violin? Or a rock-star smashing up a guitar? That is exactly what I think we're seeing here. Bolger's smashing up the whole "selfie" culture by not failing at the poem. It's a hit while everything it's about fails. The music survives, not the medium.
So, I guess I should be a little less angry, but stay a bit envious and let that inspire me.
How We Fall
When we read a good poem, we fall. You might say we fall deeper into ourselves, deeper into each other, deeper into language, deeper into consciousness.
You might even say deeper in love. With poetry. With creativity. With possibility.
"Lines Written at Dog’s Head Falls, Johnson, Vermont" by K.A. Hays is one of those poems that will make you tumble. In fact, that's what it's about. Check out the full poem at Agni Online by clicking the picture above.
While I usually spotlight one or more technical aspects of a featured poem; in this case, I'm going to focus on theme. Hays plays a bit of game with her theme in this poem. It's a fun game and a thought-provoking one.
It starts from the opening line:
On a stone by the river what pools in boulders
If you wrote the line out like this: "On a stone by the river, what pools in boulders...." it might almost sound like the opening of a thriller or horror story. Instead, this line sets the stage for a confrontation -- or more exactly -- an encounter with nature.
The speaker of the poem gazes into the water at pebbles swirled around "a stick bug" -- an image that rapidly gives way to a succession of deeper images of nature-in-motion. The speaker describes "beings" in the water that "hang suspended / head to spine to tail that twists & flicks..."
We, along with he speaker, see a microcosm of nature played out in a glance. But there's also epiphany. In the midst of the cycles of life and death, two profound thoughts shine like flares:
as the planet heats
And the closing line:
what were you early what will you become?
Clearly, the vision has caused the speaker to sense a connection with nature, with the cycle of life and death, and also to feel the sinister threat of climate change and nature's fall...
But is this poem really about nature's fall?
Or personal rebirth?
Do this. Read the poem straight through. Then read it backwards, straight through left to right, but moving up line by line.
It's the cycle of life (and mystery) that never ends. So the true theme of the poem isn't nature's fall; it's our connection to the rhythms of the universe that cycle always, it seems, toward ambiguous but somehow necessary growth.