This writing tip from Rick Bursky, poet and UCLA Extension Writers' Program instructor, is ostensibly about "losing your constraints," but the far more fascinating piece for me is the simple assertion that "poetry is the art of language." POETRY IS THE ART OF LANGUAGE.
Well, duh. It's not exactly that I didn't know that...but hearing it contrasted so clearly with fiction, "the art of story," has been really striking to me, perhaps because I'm deep into a collection of novels-in-verse. I'm noodling over questions of attributes and categories of writing and also working to uncover my unconscious biases about what makes poetry poetry and where my strong preferences come from (because as you may know, none of my preferences tend to be weak).
I recently led a poetry workshop at my congregation where we ventured into the deep woods of "difficult poetry," where I hoped to help folks meet poems in a new way. Some readers step up to a poem with hand thrust out, making confident, direct eye contact, ready to take a firm grip and have it introduce itself. (Here in these geopolitical parts in and around the DC beltway, it's also customary to include "And what do you do?" as we introduce ourselves, and some folks also hope for that--that the poem will announce its own achievements, or at least its intent.)
In my workshop (titled "Your Heart Has Excellent Peripheral Vision"), I suggested that not all poems respond well to that brain-first approach. I encouraged people to glance sidelong at a poem, to greet it as you would someone else's pet--smelling each other out, watching to see how it takes to you and maybe not staring it straight in the eye. We worked with the idea that the poem's meaning might not come through normal intellectual channels but through its workings on our first-responder senses--which is why the sounds and feels of a poem's language are so important, and why, as Rick Bursky advises, changing the subject can be helpful in writing a poem. If there IS straight-up narrative, it's like "an almond in a Hershey Bar--nice if it's there but not necessary."
Now then. Having lived elsewhere in the world, I know that there are many better chocolate bars than a Hershey Bar, and I do tend to like nuts in my chocolate (Ritter Sport Dark Chocolate with Whole Hazelnuts for preference). But the verse novels that I've read, while mainly beautifully written and grippingly plotted and paced, are a different kind of treat--more like nuts enrobed in chocolate than a mainly-chocolate bar studded with some well-placed, protein-rich nuts. (As I write this I'm continuing my research by comparing a handful of Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Almonds with Sea Salt and Turbinado Sugar.) So there's my principal bias, unwrapped in tasty detail.
From a book I read some time ago, entitled Why Women Need Chocolate by Debra Waterhouse, I learned that one of the delights of really good chocolate is that its melting point is just under our body temperature, which leads to that melt-in-your-mouth experience that chocolate lovers love. Take a bite and wait a bit--don't rush to chomp it to bits--and there it goes, liquefying and spreading all through your mouth, releasing flavors as complex as those of a fine wine. Senses of sight, smell, taste and touch are reached, and maybe also sound, just as when you crunch a chocolate-covered nut--but the experience is wholly different, warmer and wetter, and the feeling is more of you swimming in it rather than it swimming in you.
This to me is the difference between reading poetry versus reading a novel-in-verse. The experience is similar, yes, but when it comes to the fundamental character of each genre, they are very distinct...which is making this judging job a mighty interesting challenge.
I want to thank the Poetry Friday blogger who posted the link to Rick Bursky's UCLAXWP tip a couple of weeks ago--there are a lot more 49-second videos there to enjoy. And now I leave you with a poem I wrote when my elder child, now approaching 17, was a tiny toddler and I was reclaiming my poet identity.
Why Women Need Chocolate
Dark flecks riding
the billows on a steaming cup.
Sinking suddenly through
after the sugar.
It was potable
and I spelled podible
which seemed entirely
The scissors were left on a low table
during the preparation of dinner.
I couldn’t tell you before
because I didn’t know.
on a white plate
garnished with three raspberries.
It was raining when the alarm went off
and still raining after lunch.
She left her children
at Bright Beginnings
for hours and hours every day.
hot white milk
fudge truffled morsels
The melting point of chocolate is 96.8 degrees.
Minimally, its flavor is composed of 886 elements.
Smear the charred marshmallow
onto the graham crackers,
lay down the slab of chocolate,
and wait while it melts in the dark.
At my wedding she said,
“You look beautiful
but you really must suck in your stomach.”
Finding half a Snickers bar
behind the frozen spinach.
There is more.
©Heidi Mordhorst 2000
The round-up today is with Tara at A Teaching Life, where I know I'll find all kinds of
P.S. Could you guess that school is cancelled for me today? Stay safe in the blizzard, all you Eastern Seaboarders!