Yes, I take poetry seriously.
As seriously as I take a mountain. A lake. A river. A face.
Poetry is indistinguishable from life. Sure, poetry is made of words. But so is life. Try to imagine getting through life without any words. Not even the words in your head. Not even your name.
I submit to you that words, like the four cardinal directions (or numbers themselves), are archetypal. This means they exist outside of the speaker, but they also create the speaker.
In some sense, we're all poets. The archetypal nature of our consciousness makes any other possibility impossible. The poet in me may be very different than the poet in you -- at least on the surface -- but the impulse to sing, to explore, explain, and even confess is equally alive in all of us, without exception.
That's why we should take poetry seriously.
The word geas stands atop an interesting etymology. To do magic, one commonly casts a spell; to make poetry, one must spell. The grammar of magic is found in grimoires, whereas the grimoire of consciousness is found in the grammar of poetry.
No matter who the poet, or what the theme, the spell of poetry is intrinsically joyous. It's born of the pure levity that abides in the Universal or Kether mind. If you prefer, it's the language of the unconscious, which holds in its unknowable abyss, the purest joys of the cosmos.
In any case, we can take poetry seriously without fear of injury or sickness because it's the stream of life. It's life that threatens to turn us ill, particularly when we forget, willfully or not, that whoever we happen to be standing next to, texting, or even ignoring is also a poet just like we are.
Every poem has a villain. From the gentlest haiku to the stormiest saga. Yet, I've the feeling many poets (myself included) seldom reflect deeply enough on this aspect of poetry. That's understandable -- there are simply too many other fascinating (read: less prosaic) facets of a poem to consider than the banal concept of antagonist. Villains are for novels, stories, comics, and movies!
Well, they're also for poems. Some are very easy to find, such as Plath's titular "Daddy," or mortality in Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay. " Some villains are archetypal, like Poe's Raven, while others are deeply specific, such as Katharyn Howd Machan's "On Learning That My Daughter’s Rapist Has Been Taught to Write a Poem."
Even when you think a poem has no antagonist, it usually does. Take a poem like James Dickey's "The Dusk of Horses." Read as a pastorale, the poem seems enemy-free. The tip-off is the opening words "Right under their noses..." This shows that something has been hidden. The antagonist is implied in the act of "blinding." Of course, we all know this poem is an allegory for political apathy, right?
Let's look at a poem where the antagonist might be a bit harder to find. A full poem. A famous poem. This poem:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
I'm sure you're now saying, "The antagonist in Pound's poem is also mortality. So it wasn't hard to find." Well I beg to differ. I think the antagonist in this poem is the "apparition" of life, the veil of it. Which tells us that the "black bough" is where the real action is.
This is all quite easy to follow. The real question is: how can you use villains in your poems? The answer is astoundingly straightforward: just do it. But try to think outside the box. And be careful not to let your villain take over your poem.
Here's a few tips on poetic villains that should even work for prose writers:
I make the same plea to you!
I've got two words for you: Cunliffe rules. In fact, Michael Cunliffe is so gifted, he's the first poet other than Sylvia Plath and Camille Ralphs to get his own category on my blog. That's fine company -- I'd love to be mentioned in the same breath as either of those poets.
Cunliffe earned this distinction despite two formidable hurdles. First, as far as I know he never formally publishes his work, which is not a big deal, but it makes it harder for poets like me who read mainly in the literary journals to discover him.
The second problem is a bit more problematic. It's that Michael Cunliffe doesn't exist.
Sure he has a name, a body, an enthusiastic Facebook following, and maybe even a wife, kids, grandkids, cousins and uncles and dogs and chickens. He's exactly the kind of guy I'd like to smoke a pipe with, chug an ale with, sip some wine with -- or talk poetry with because he's got game.
The problem is: there is no Michael Cunliffe. Every day in every way, poetry is eating the Michael we all know and love and replacing him with pure creativity. In other words, Cunliffe's swimming so freely in the Kether mind of Bell's interconnectedness and Buber's I-and-Thou, that he's breathing in pure archetypes and exhaling mind-bending poems.
Take a look at, "Michael is not a Poet," which you can read by clicking the picture above.
Notice anything? Of course. There's actually two poems. It's a dialogue. One might say, a concrete expression of eudaimonia (in an esoteric sense) if one were a gnostic magus. Since most of us probably aren't, let's try another angle of attack.
What Michael's doing here is digging just about as far into the nature of being that can be accomplished in what must be called accessible language. One can perhaps plumb more deeply into the nature of being with other forms of language, but Being wants expression in all forms of language. If you read the poem, you'll quickly see that the message is up-front; the words slip easy into your mind and soul.
And yet, the poem is a mystical event, no less than Crane's "Atlantis" or Roethke's ""The Far Field." Don't believe me? Try these lines:
I am the spark in the cells--
No, not just in the brain.
In each and every cell.
Electrons and I dance hand in hand.
Compare them with Crane's:
Forever Deity’s glittering Pledge, O Thou
Whose canticle fresh chemistry assigns
To wrapt inception and beatitude,--
Hear me: no thematic difference exists between "Atlantis" and "Michael is not a Poet." Both speak to the Divine and to the celebration of the ego's destruction. Yes, this means Cunliffe has channeled the same message that Crane (and many other artists) picked up from the aether, but he's done so with ordinary aplomb.
And for that, he deserves extraordinary praise!
Shelley Wong's poem "The Winter Forecast" from New England Review 42.4 is a tough nut to crack. So tough that I've put off blogging about it for just about as long as I dare. It's a remarkable piece of work that quite possibly slashes at some uncut underbrush and points a thorny way forward for those of us interested in following poetry to inspiring terrains. By this I don't necessarily mean new forms or even themes, but simply a fascinating way of looking at how language unveils our world and ourselves.
Read the poem in full by clicking the picture above and be patient with me as I try to distill this wine into gadfly brandy. Actually, absinthe might make a better analogy, a fact that's evident from the first line:
this open interval: when nightgowns glow & stalk the field
Stunning use of muted surrealism with a bit of a Gothic flare. But the "interval" is "open" -- so this sip of spookiness is, indeed, just a pawn push. The true takeoff comes next.
Go on, read the next lines...but imagine they're prose! That's right. I want you to mash up Wong's poetry and spit it back out in prose. I won't do it. I'm a gentleman. But I want you to see something spectacular.
It won't work. No matter what you do to these words, they won't make decent prose. They only make poetry. That's an incredible achievement and it means something.
It means: when you read this poem, you're reading pure poetry. There's nothing in this piece that isn't built out of poetry. Well, shouldn't that, alone, be enough to blow W.S. back to Stratford-upon-Avon to polish up Cleopatra's death scene?
Nope. But it does tell us something about the nature of poetry and language. What it tells us is that language is a key that opens up the hidden (sacred) nature of our world. Let's look at a couple of examples.
we can hear tree rings rendered as sound
diamonds shine in icicles, in a spidering necklace
aboard the single swan boat,
This is beautiful poetry. It shows us the connectivity of all things, and the promise of continued (endless?) growth and exploration. Synesthesia is objective reality. Even the banal words you're reading now are neither sound, nor sight, but touch on soul-sensations that glitter... like well, spiderwebs and diamonds! But it doesn't sound as good in bloggy prose!
Wong's mastery of poetic language is notably sophisticated; so much that it'd be easy to write a proper essay on this poem. Perhaps I will, but for now let's skip to the closing line, something I rarely do in these posts.
women in black embroider orchids in the orchestra pit
Poets: this is a call to action. Music's starting. Do you hear it?
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A march can really get your feet moving. It can make crowds move, and sometimes rally teams and armies to victory -- never mind pillage and murder. But what happens when that same inspiring feeling is expressed through the lilting melodies of a pan flute, or the rainbow surface of a drifting soap bubble?
Is this even possible? If so, is it an example of transcendence?
Yes. And emphatically yes.
Take a look at Nancy Miller Gomez's poem, "Still," posted at Rattle on January 26, 2022. Click the picture above to read the full poem.
The first stanza describes a wilted apple via one of the more striking similes for death I've encountered lately:
Shriveled and brown as a shrunken head,
it holds onto the branch even while falling
The next images carry this same sense forward:
The woman who shows up daily
for her dose of methadone.
The man punching the clock shift after shift
though he carries his heart through each day
in a cold, empty chest.
Finally, we see a boy who struggles in the classroom, a father on his deathbed. All of these images tie together with Gomez's single anthemic line:
Isn’t persistence beautiful?
Do you see the march now? Of course you do. The march of those of us who are wounded, suffering, flummoxed, defeated, lonely, stranded...
We're all in it. And we're all in it together. No matter who you are, you're broken in some way or, I'm sorry to say, probably will be someday. The good news is: persistence is beautiful . And when we persist and overcome our challenges, we are as the bird in this eloquent stanza:
The bird drops its song, over and over,
picking it up and dropping it,
little notes spilling down the mountain.
Gomez's tune is delicate and empathetic. But her theme booms like the most infectious (and righteous) of marches. It's the march of humanity and we're all in the ranks, following the beat (and overcoming the beatings) of life.
Let me know your thoughts and follow me on Twitter @BlackstonDan
Some poems unlock with a single word. "Spillage" by Nisha Atalie from Breakwater Review, Issue 31, is such a poem. If you speed past the key word in this poem, you're liable to lose the whole thing. Read the poem through by clicking the picture above and see if you can spot the key.
That's right, it's the word "mixed." Without this single word, it's unlikely that even a close reader would Sherlock out the poem's deeper theme. Yes, it's about race and identity, but it's actually about going beyond race and identity to find selfhood. I've got essays on perceptual psychology, poetry, Plath, philosophy, and mysticism that fall right in line with Atalie's theme, you can find them in the navigation menu up top, and I truly hope you'll read and think about them, but poems are a lot more fun.
So, if "mixed" is the key word, what does it unlock? It unlocks the "lie of apparition" that's anything or anyone that appears to be, or believes themselves to be, unmixed.
The word "mixed" actually means the imperceptible fine gradations of Self, the Alchemy of the Soul. Or if you prefer a more mundane nomenclature: the endlessness of self-identify.
Lines like these refute the default notion that heritage or race defines Self:
... Ancestors laugh
in opposing cadences. Who will edit me now,
who will pluck or disentangle,
decipher me all the way into the deep?
The "spillage" of the self reaches a place without name:
predicated on exception.
The entire poem is a masterful display of what figurative language can accomplish. The big lesson here is: whoever you now think you are, it's a metaphor. And every metaphor you read or write, brings you closer to another self. You can despair at the "mix" or start adding in your own colors.
Let me know your thoughts and follow me on Twitter @BlackstonDan
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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Titles are important. So important, you'll see more posts on this blog about how to sharpen them and make them pop. The reason titles are so important is because they're the first thing readers see when they encounter your poem. The title of a poem is like a face; it makes an immediate, virtually irreversible, first impression.
A title is also like a scent. It tells the reader what kind of dish has been cooking. If your look or scent is wrong, you'll scare people. If your poem title is confusing, dull, or misleading, you'll either lose readers before they read the first line of your poem or make them wish they never read it. The title sets more than expectations; it whets appetites.
It's the job of your poem to satisfy the hunger.
Great, Daniel. But how?
Like I said, it's a deep topic. For this post, I'm only going to offer two tips. See how these work out for you and make sure to follow me at Twitter and friend me at Facebook so you'll be first in line for future tips.
The first tip is fairly straightforward: don't be boring. The best way to do this is also the easiest. Be sure your title is a sequence of words that's never been used before. It's easier than it sounds, believe me. Just take a moment to add, subtract, or substitute something from your draft title.
Here's some examples:
"The Birthday Cake" to "A Frosted Year"
"Letting Go" to "Losing Wounds"
"Echoes and Memories" to "Time Bounces"
"Walk With God" to "My God Legs"
It's perfectly fine to write a "used" title for your first draft because that helps you focus on theme. Take a few minutes after you're done writing the poem to play with the title and make something new. It's a lot of fun.
The second tip's super easy. And very powerful. After you finish your poem, read the title and the last line, skipping everything in between. Do you feel excited or moved in any way? If not, you need a new title. It's possible you need a new ending line, but in my experience, it's the usually the title.
In any case, look for that motion between your title and closing line. The more it sizzles; the better chance you're on to something good.
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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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