Friday, January 22, 2016

the art of language & novels-in-verse

Let's begin here:

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--sniffing 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.

Arranging them
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
bitter dipped
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 chocolate poetry morsels to relish.

P.S.  Could you guess that school is cancelled for me today? Stay safe in the blizzard, all you Eastern Seaboarders!


  1. Thank you for all the thoughtfulness re language and narrative, never mind the chocolate samples. As we're missing the snow in Mass, I am seriously thinking a trip to Trader Joe's is in order.

  2. I'm going to have to savour your ponderings (and my thoughts that you've inspired) all day, Heidi. This is definitely a 'more-ish' post! Thank-you for sharing the video. That contrast was enlightening/enabling. FYI, I am always hiding chocolate in my freezer. Love the fact that I found a block (a whole block!) of white chocolate last night... that I hid almost 12months ago!! And I felt that wedding comment like a slap in the face. And of course, I am so intrigued by those scissors... though I can guess numerous scenarios, all of which bring a knowing (shared) smile.

  3. I'm really having a tough time with the novels-in-verse being part of our little assignment. And, it's probably, in at least one case, as simple as changing the name from novel-in-verse, where the emphasis is on novel, to verse novel. I foresee some interesting discussions. ;-)

    My daughter introduced me to the Trader Joe's almonds. I would love to try one of those Ritter Sports. I'm a big nut fan!

    I'm right there with you in the freezer!

  4. Stanza ii - I've been there, especially in the young-kids-at-home days.

  5. Yes to this whole post.
    "Your Heart Has Excellent Peripheral Vision" -- <3
    "first-responder senses" -- <3
    Hope you all are doing well in the snow. I was very grateful to have power this morning!

  6. I wish I had this post to think about when I was reading those novels in verse. It was difficult to turn off the poet in me. This tasty research just makes me want more chocolate. I really think it's good for us and so much deserved. Like poetry, we should be spoiled by it.

  7. Whoa -- thanks for the nugget -filled post! Interesting thoughts on creativity and reading poetry and novels-in-verse. Like what you said about approaching poems through sidelong glances. To me it's a very instinctual process, approaching a poem, emotional resonance and musicality have to be there initially or I tend to back away. I guess I've read too many obtuse, "intellectual" poems where it's more about the poet showing off technical acrobatics than conveying an experience of truth for the reader. And thanks for the chocolate fix!! Your poem is wonderlicious. :)

  8. Poetry is the art of language-great quote-love the video, Heidi. Chocolate-my downfall. This was a delicious post with many different thoughts. I gravitated toward your presentation-some great ideas!

  9. Poetry and chocolate! A perfect pairing, Heidi. Your poem is so true to life, and your thoughts about poetry really have me thinking. (Like Jeannine, you've got me planning a trip to Trader Joe's!)

  10. We all need chocolate, Heidi! I can completely identify. Poetry and chocolate, indeed, is a divine combination! When judging the CYBILS last year, I remember we discussed how difficult it was to compare a poetry collection with a verse novel, and hoped they would create separate categories...alas, not this year, apparently. But enjoy reading!

  11. Really enjoyed this. Will probably save it to re-read. In addition to being intrigued by the verse collection vs. novel-in-verse differences, that bit about poetry being the art of language while fiction is the art of story flicked a switch in me somewhere. Thank you!

  12. I like to call them verse novels. Looking forward to the discussions. Thank you for this post, so much to think about.

  13. How did I miss this?!? Must have been one of those weeks where life took over and prevented the hours of delight it takes to make it through the roundup.

    This is one to savor, let melt on the tongue and roll around in the mouth like fine wine.

    (And about your preferences... ;-) )

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Thanks for joining in the wild rumpus!