Voices from a Conversation

by Dawn Potter

Gretel Ehrlich writes, “A writer makes a pact with loneliness. It is her, or his, beach on which waves of desire, wild mind, speculation break. In my work, in my life, I am always moving toward and away from aloneness. To write is to refuse to cover up the rawness of being alive, of facing death.” Within that aloneness comes, now and again, the grace of a conversation—with a poem, with a forest, with a circle of readers, with another burning, lonely mind.

For Robert Frost, that conversation happened with poet Edward Thomas, whom he met in England in about 1913. After Thomas was killed in the war, Frost said, “[he] was the only brother I ever had. I fail to see how we can have been so much to each other, he an Englishman and I an American and our first meeting put off till we were both in middle life. I hadn’t a plan for the future that didn’t include him.” He told Thomas’s wife, “He is all yours. But you must let me cry as if he were almost all mine too.”

I met my friend Jilline Ringle in the mid-1980s, when we were eighteen-year-old college students. She was an aspiring actor, I was an aspiring writer, and we began a burning conversation that lasted until her death in 2005. We wrote to each other when we were callow, hopeful, untrained girls. We wrote to each other when we began to achieve our first tiny successes. We wrote to each other at moments of misery and epiphany. Today she has been dead for nearly a decade, yet our conversation continues, as Frost’s conversation with Thomas continued for the rest of Frost’s long life.

In 1999, when I was overwhelmed by babies and solitude and the struggle to make poems, Jilline sent me a letter:

“I love, I love, she cries into the gust.”

That is our mantra, yours and mine, each for our own reasons, each for our own sanity. This is why we have each other. There is a talismanic charm . . . that we cling to in order to return ourselves to this earth. Keep figuring it out, honey; I will be flat and frank with you if you will as well with me. If it is impossible for us to hold each other’s hands, we will charge each other’s minds telepathically, ethereally, and hopefully we will help turn on some lights in those dark corners.

With love, your lantern bearer.

[from a draft-in-progress of The Conversation (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

What’s the Most Important Sound?

by Dawn Potter

Sound may be our deepest and most instinctive connection to poetry, not only as individuals but also as members of the human community and inheritors of its ancient traditions. “The hearing knowledge we bring to a line of poetry,” writes Robert Pinsky, “is a knowledge of patterns of speech we have known to hear since we were infants.” But that childhood comfort stretches beyond the confines of our private selves, back through the history of language and our species.

In “The Hymn to Earth,” a Greek poem dating from about 650 b.c., the speaker reaches out to his listeners, coaxing them to recognize their agency in his creations:

farewell:
but if you liked what I sang here
give me this life too
then,
in my other poems
I will remember you

No page lay between this poet and his first listeners. Sound was the primary element of communication, and poet and listeners shared a direct physical experience.

Today poetry has become as much a visual as a sonic art. Yet the sound of a poem still transmits an intensely emotional message, even in those moments before a reader begins to engage with the poem’s narrative or thematic threads.

Take the opening couplet of Donald Justice’s “Psalm and Lament”:

The clocks are sorry, the clocks are very sad.
One stops, one goes on striking the wrong hours.

The poem doesn’t rhyme, nor does it scan as blank verse. Except for its couplet format, it looks rather like plain spoken English. Yet if you study these two modest lines, you will see that Justice makes extravagant use of sound: he repeats individual k and s sounds; he repeats entire words and phrases; he uses commas as silent beats within the cadence. Try reading the couplet out loud, and you will feel, too, how his syntax and word choice force you to modify your pacing. It would be almost impossible to read this poem quickly.

For contrast, look at the opening of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous “Recuerdo.”

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.

In certain ways the lines look very similar to Justice’s. The two poems share a simple subject/predicate nominative construction: “The clocks are very sad,” “We were very tired.” Both use comma splices as musical devices. But while Justice’s poem moves slowly and heavily, almost to the point of exhaustion, Millay’s speeds across the page. Her rhymes sparkle; her commas denote breathlessness rather than weighty moments of silence. Like the ferry, her lines go “back and forth,” hustling between the rhymes, riding the alliterative vowels: short e’s, long i’s, the repetition of We.

In other words, as I hope this comparison has shown, a poet’s sound devices are intimate elements of a poem’s essential being. From the very first moments of creation, a poet begins to hear her poem take shape. In my own case, I often feel the pressure of a metrical stress or a letter sound before I begin to consider what words I might choose to try out next in a line. This is true whether I am writing formal or free verse. The sounds in my ear lead me to pursue the sense of what I am trying to articulate.

[from a draft-in-progress of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

Writing a Personal Literary Essay

by Dawn Potter

Early in this book I mentioned how common, almost ubiquitous, the I point of view has become in poetry. So often our poems are outlets for the personal, the private, the spoken secret. Even when it is an outright fiction, a first-person poem can feel as raw as a diary entry.

Literary essays are a different story. While the I does rule over many forms of creative nonfiction, it is conspicuously absent in academic and critical prose. Its scarcity is puzzling because publishers, even scholarly ones, explicitly ask their authors to avoid wordy passive-voice constructions that mute the speaker’s voice and opinions. “The book can be thought of as a waste of time” is a way to evade responsibility for announcing, “I think the book is a waste of time.” Yet time and time again, authors retreat behind that cushion of words. In doing so, they may take themselves off the hot seat, but they also retreat into obscurity, anonymity, invisibility.

As you work to become a poet, you may find yourself in a position of needing, in some deep, personal way, to write about what you are reading. I urge to you to commit yourself to saying I think—not we think, not people think. Work hard to keep yourself from falling into convoluted grammatical “objectivity.” The truth is that you should not be objective when you’re writing a personal literary essay. You should push yourself to write subjectively about your own curiosity, your own reactions. The goal is to discover what you think about a work of literature, not to create an essay that you makes you look well read or professorially remote. Please understand that I am not deriding academic scholarship or theory. Simply I am saying that, like poetry, a personal literary essay comes from a different and far more vulnerable place in the author. It’s important to push yourself to write in ways that cherish that vulnerability, not mask it.

If I sound bossy here, it’s because I believe that for many years my own writing suffered from a timid unwillingness to face head-on some of the many issues I brought up in the Blake and Milton essays I’ve excerpted in previous chapters. How does a contemporary poet speak to a poet of the past? How does an obscure woman speak to a canonized man? How can their speech be an actual conversation rather than rant, polemic, diatribe, or blind adoration? For creative writers who take reading seriously, these are fundamental questions that have never been easy to answer.

In the introduction of this book I mention Countee Cullen’s life-long, necessary conversation with the Romantic poets—and how some of his peers derided that need. Why, they asked, should a twentieth-century African American poet waste his time talking to nineteenth-century English white men? The question I ask is, why shouldn’t he?

[from a chapter in draft of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

Defense of Poetry

By Dawn Potter

Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” makes me proud to be a person who tries to write poems.

Language, colour, and religious and civil habits of action, are all the instruments and materials of poetry; they may be called poetry by that figure of speech which considers the effect as a synonyme of the cause. But poetry in a more restricted sense expresses those arrangements of language, and especially metrical language, which are created by the imperial faculty, whose throne is curtained within the invisible nature of man. And this springs from the nature itself of language, which is a more direct representation of the actions and passions of our internal being, and is susceptible of more various and delicate combinations, than colour, form, or motion, and is more plastic and obedient to the control of that faculty of which it is the creation. For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination, and has relation to thoughts alone.

* * *

Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.

* * *

A single word may be the spark of inextinguishable thought.

* * *

Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.

* * *

Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.

All of this feels true to me. No doubt someone with excellent arguing powers could prove otherwise, but the creation of poetry has nothing to do with argument. I especially love the final line I’ve quoted: “the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of [creation’s] approach or its departure.” I agree: any real poem I’ve written has crept in through an unlocked, unwatched door.

Can a person be taught to be a poet?

by Dawn Potter

Or can she only be taught to appreciate poetry? In other words, are all poets actually self-taught? And are writing workshops essentially useless–either “warm and fuzzy” or “butcher block”?

If you read the exchange here, and can manage to overlook the bad manners, you may find yourself pondering the questions the disputants bring up, questions that I find both tedious and germane. I do get weary of these what’s-the-point-of-an-M.F.A. quarrels, but I also know that nearly all the poetry workshops I’ve attended have been either “warm and fuzzy”–e.g., “This is such a great poem! I love it!,” which is flattering yet unhelpful–or “butcher block,” in which a participant prepares to be publicly humiliated for breaking craft rules, focusing on unfashionable subjects or forms, or not respectfully imitating the teacher’s style. Of course there are variations on these two extremes; of course there is also the personal bond (or lack thereof) between a student and a mentor; of course there are the issues of stage of growth and prior experience.

You can read about approach that Baron and I use at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, which involves neither cuddling nor hatchets. But, in the end, is this method more effective than any other at teaching a writer to be a poet? We work primarily with teachers, who, even if they think of themselves as poets, are for the moment focused on bringing poems to their students. In other words we are trying to teach teachers to be the kind of mentors that we, as young embryo poets, did not have ourselves.

Nonetheless, we grew up to be poets anyway.

____

Why Are Writers Such Idiots When They’re Writing?

by Dawn Potter

Last night Tom was asking me questions about my western Pennsylvania history-in-verse project–my illogical research; my imaginative process; worst of all, my definition of precision–and all I could do was stammer out inanities. Although he was friendly and interested and ready to have an artist-to-artist conversation, I could not give him any coherent explanation for what sounded, in the air, like a really stupid approach to history, diction, narrative structure, character development, etc., etc.

The moment was disheartening, especially given the fact that we have so little opportunity to talk to one another as colleagues. One or the other of us always seems to be doing the grunt work of living while the other is thieving time and money to muddle with art. We pass the ball back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. At the moment it’s on my side of the court, while he is spending his days dealing with a horrible dog-kennel owner who keeps making him tear down the stuff she asks him to build after she suddenly changes her mind about it. Meanwhile, he’s cold and dogs bark at him all day long.

Nonetheless, he smiles at me when he gets home, and this is one of the enormous gifts of our partnership–that he can, more often than not, still manage to smile at me, even though he knows I’ve been sitting in front of the wood stove reading a page, messing around with five words, staring at the ceiling, drinking tea, staring at the ceiling, drinking more tea, staring at the ceiling, reading a page, and earning no money whatsoever. I fear that, when I’m in the grunt position and he’s in the muddling-with-art position, I am not always so forbearing.

Last night I wanted to assure him that I really was accomplishing something, was moving along effectively, was making something beautiful. What I sounded like was a stammering, slack-jawed time waster.

Dear writer friend, if you were telling me this story, I would staunchly declare: “Of course you feel that way. You’re in the zone. Your brain doesn’t have the capacity to do anything other than create the work right now. It can’t talk about the work. Why expect it to?”

You would sigh and look glum and say an unconvinced voice: “I guess you’re right.”

Yesterday I spoke briefly with my friend Teresa, who is also in the zone. We made a few half-hearted jokes about the things that Real Writers do when they’re in the zone, like forget to take showers and drink too much and absent-mindedly seduce their friends’ spouses. Our chatter was supposed to cheer us up, and it sort of did, in a stammering, slack-jawed, time-waster sort of way.

Although it did remind me that I’d forgotten to take a shower.

_____

What’s the Most Important Punctuation?

by Dawn Potter

It’s so easy to overlook punctuation. Our eyes are trained to glide past it, automatically registering the marks as pauses or sentence endings but not otherwise lingering over them. As Baron Wormser and David Cappella note in Teaching the Art of Poetry, “punctuation makes necessary distinctions so that things don’t blur and tangle and confuse.” This is why its absence obscurely distresses us. “Punctuation seems ironclad. There had better be a period at the end of each sentence. It’s the law—and poets flout it.” Well, some poets flout it. In an interview for The Paris Review, Philip Larkin grumbled:

A well-known publisher asked me how one punctuated poetry, and looked flabbergasted when I said, The same as prose. By which I mean that I write, or wrote, as everyone did till the mad lads started, using words and syntax in the normal way to describe recognizable experiences as memorably as possible. That doesn’t seem to me a tradition. The other stuff, the mad stuff, is more an aberration.

And it’s true that some poems seem to taunt us with willful misuse. In “th wundrfulness uv th mountees our secret police,” bill bissett not only ignores punctuation and capitalization but misspells words, creating a narrative that is also a sort of manipulative graffiti:

they opn our mail petulantly
they burn down barns they cant
bug they listn to our politikul
ledrs phone conversashuns what
cud b less inspiring to ovrheer

Sonia Sanchez takes a different tack in her “Song No. 3 (for 2nd and 3rd grade sisters).” Though she, too, ignores capitalization, she does make use of traditional punctuation. Nonetheless, she doesn’t end every sentence with a period, only the last line of the stanza. Her choice affects how we imagine the speaker’s voice and supports our absorption of the poem’s blunt, childish, yet very clear pain.

cain’t nobody tell me any different
i’m ugly and you know it too
you just smiling to make me feel better
but i see how you stare when nobody’s watching you.

Even as many poets experiment with deleting punctuation, others put traditional marks to new uses. For instance, rather than linking images with grammar, Melissa Stein’s “So deeply that it is not heard at all, but” links them with punctuation:

sister: the violin is blue. it plays stars, there was a field—
sister: that swelling in your belly will be a milkweed, a duty, a friend—
sister: goldenrod blossom: stippled ancillary: nonplussed bird—

Russell Edson, on the other hand, gives us long grammatically complex sentences filled with traditional punctuation that, instead of clarifying the situation, contribute to the poem’s ambiguity, as in this dense line from “Out of Whack”:

Too late, too late, because I am wearing the king’s crown: and, in that we are married, and, in that the wearer of the king’s crown is automatically the king, you are now my queen, who broke her crown like a typically silly woman, who doesn’t quite realize the value of things, screamed the queen.

But even when a poet follows less raucous patterns of punctuation, she chooses each comma, each period, each dash, precisely and deliberately. Punctuation marks, as Wormser and Cappella have said, add clarity; but they also are important elements of sound, affecting a line’s cadence and tonality. The silence implied by a dash is longer than the silence implied by a comma. A question mark indicates a lift in tonal pitch, whereas a period indicates a drop. Even a hyphen or its absence has a subtle influence: the pacing of fire truck is different from fire-truck is different from firetruck.

Punctuation marks can also be stylistic tics, as the dash was for Emily Dickinson. They can even be stylistic anathemas. Richard Hugo, for instance, hated semicolons. In his essay “Nuts and Bolts,” he flatly declared, “No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.” Derek Walcott, among many other poets, would disagree passionately with that pronouncement. He uses semicolons throughout his book-length poem The Prodigal, often inserting them at line endings to indicate a pause of recognition or comprehension:

Then through the thinned trees I saw a wraith
of smoke, which I believed came from the house,
but every smoker carries his own wreath;
then I saw that this moving wreath was yours.

In short, punctuation is both a flexible tool for experimentation and a formal structural element with rules and predictable patterns. Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose sonnet “The Soldier” will be the centerpiece of this chapter under construction, was well aware of this duality, and he took advantage of both tradition and strangeness in the way in which he handled punctuation in his poems.

[Draft excerpt from my forthcoming book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014).]

_____

Ode to My Son’s Audiobooks

by Dawn Potter

My younger son, Paul, is an eighth grader at Harmony Elementary School, a down-at-heels K–8 building in rural central Maine that houses about ninety students and a handful of underpaid staff members. So a few weeks ago, when he carelessly remarked, as he was pacing around the kitchen gobbling a pastrami sandwich, “You know, Mom, I think my writing style is most influenced by Dickens and Twain,” I stifled a laugh. Not much Dickens gets read at Harmony Elementary School. Yet with a second sandwich in hand, he continued to chatter on, cogently discussing the novelists’ variable syntax and sentence strategies, their interest in the minutiae of dialogue, his own dependence on hearing the sound of a sentence rhythm before knowing what he was going to write, and on, and on.

My hands buried in bread dough, I turned to gape at him. This boy, devourer of every teen dystopian novel that comes down the pike, not to mention The Comic Book History of the Universe and all of John Tunis’s 1940s baseball novels, was speaking of Dickens and Twain as if the sounds of their sentences were a part of his own brain structure, his own progressions of thought. Yet he had never read their books. What he had done was buy recordings of them from iTunes and then listen to them again and again and again.

“Read to your children!” tout the school-library posters; and, indeed, as long as your kids remain literary naïfs, reading aloud is a reasonably good way to lure them into books. Although five hundred consecutive performances of Good Night, Moon can drive a tired father to near-insanity, repetition is what children long for: they need to hear the same words over and over again; and if that comatose parent happens to mumble “fork” instead of “spoon,” his toddler will give him an earful. But as my husband and I soon discovered, a daily read-aloud menu of mediocre children’s literature was rotting our cerebella. And if it was softening our brains, how could it be really be nourishing our children’s?

Herein lies the problem: listening to literature over and over again is invaluable for growing minds of every age, but listening to stupid literature over and over is analogous to existing on a diet of Doritos. Of course Doritos have their charms, just as a certain amount of stupid literature can be tonic and invigorating. For instance, even though my ear finds the dialogue of the Harry Potter novels excruciating (“Harry, don’t go picking a row with Malfoy, don’t forget, he’s a prefect now, he could make life difficult for you. . . . ” “Wow, I wonder what it’d be like to have a difficult life?” said Harry sarcastically), it thinks that the dialogue of the Hardy Boys’ novels is hilarious. (Meanwhile, Biff had untied Chet. The heavyset teen had slumped to the ground in a dead faint. “Out cold,” Frank said. . . . Chet opened his eyes and blinked. “I’m alive!” he exclaimed. “Thanks, guys.”) But how would I know the difference if I hadn’t read both? The issue, then, isn’t having a reading diet that includes third-rate literature but the importance of developing a close familiarity with complex and various writing styles—of gaining an intense familiarity with their sounds, patterns, shifts, and surprises of language, character, structure, and theme—and learning to ask conscious and unconscious questions about those elements.

My children were not reading prodigies. Although they were always at the top of their primary-grade reading classes, they, like most of their peers, struggled with the exhaustions of decoding multisyllable words and tracking syntactically complex sentences. Yet their ears could comprehend those words and sentences—and they were eager to hear them. As their before-bedtime reader, I could not keep pace with their intense interest in stories—particularly Paul’s enthusiasm for repetition. Thus, I latched onto recorded books as a way to keep him not only engaged in complicated tales but also gainfully distracted from me.

I wasn’t altogether comfortable about taking this route. Those pedantic library posters had convinced me that I was probably a bad parent because I would do almost anything to be allowed to read silently to myself rather than aloud to my children. Moreover, I myself had zero interest in listening to audiobooks. I needed my own imagination to invent the sounds of my favorite characters; I didn’t want to poison them with someone else’s voiceover.

If, in the years of my callow new-parenthood, someone had claimed that listening over and over to a recording of David Copperfield would count as rereading David Copperfield, I would have crankily shouted, “No!” Yet the enormous impact of aural repetition on my son’s reading and writing skills has forced me to retract that reactionary shout once and for all. No, Paul hasn’t learned to love sentences in the same way that I learned to love them. If anything, he’s been luckier. When I was fourteen years old, my Dickens adoration was focused entirely on character and plot: it never occurred to me to listen to how the writer had invented them. In other words, I was learning Dickens by eye, whereas my son is learning Dickens by ear. What’s taken me till middle age to absorb he has absorbed before starting high school.

But a comprehension of sentence craft is not the only gift these books have given him. One day, when he was about nine years old, after a long afternoon spent sorting baseball cards and listening to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, my son walked into the kitchen and said, “Mom, I don’t understand something. How come Jim has to do what Huck says, even though Jim is the grown-up?”

When a rural fourth grader in one of the whitest states in America is able to pinpoint, with a single, wide-eyed question, a central theme not only of Twain’s great, complex, ambiguous novel but also of our national history, of the terrible immoralities embedded in the human condition, then technology has done the author an immeasurable service. For it has helped my young child to learn, in the words of essayist John Berger, that “the boon of language is not tenderness. All that it holds, it holds with exactitude and without pity. Even a term of endearment: the term is impartial; the context is all. The boon of language is that potentially it is complete, it has the potentiality of holding with words the totality of human experience. Everything that has occurred and everything that may occur. It even allows space for the unspeakable.”

If it takes an iPod to deliver that message to our children, then so be it.

[first published in the Sewanee Review, fall 2012]

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What’s the Most Important Detail?

by Dawn Potter

“We know there must be consciousness in things,” writes Mark Jarman:

In bits of gravel pecked up by a hen
To grind inside her crop, and spider silk
Just as it hardens stickily in air.

Many poets might just as easily say, “We know there must be consciousness in words.” By fitting together individual bits and pieces of language, they work to create a facsimile of life, one that may reach even across centuries to touch the most unsuspecting of readers.

A few summers ago, as I sat reading Middlemarch on the front porch of the Robert Frost Museum in Franconia, New Hampshire, a teenage boy came around the corner of the house. He was about eighteen years old—tall, curly-haired, athletic. Plopping himself down on a table, he crossed his arms and looked me in the eye. “Are you a poet?” he asked.

After I admitted that I was, he leaned back. Still holding my gaze, he announced, “‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is the bomb.”

I did what anyone would have done under the circumstances, which was to become slack-jawed and slightly dizzy. Undeterred, the boy remarked that Alfred Tennyson was his favorite poet, that he’d accidentally discovered Tennyson’s poems in a book in his grandfather’s house; also, that he hadn’t quite gotten his brain around “In Memoriam” and that other long stuff but “The Eagle” and “The Kracken” were also the bomb.

We talked. What he liked about these poems, he explained, were the details—those particular combinations of words that pulled him directly into the poet’s imaginative world. “I like that he makes me be there.”

Think of details as a poem’s information. The poet relays this information by choosing words and phrases that evoke specific characters, places, or situations while also advancing narrative action, lyrical intensity, and thematic unity. As Theodore Roethke explains, “The poet must have a sense not only of what words were and are, but also what they are going to be.”

In her memoir The Gift, H.D. wrote of her child self’s growing awareness of the link between observation and the urge to repeat, reframe, reinvent what one has seen : “It was not that I thought of the picture; it was that something was remembered. . . . You saw what was there, you knew that something was reminded of something. That something came true in a perspective and a dimension (though those words, of course, had no part in my mind) that was final.”

Image is the customary poetic term for a mental picture translated into words. Images are constructed of details, and precise nouns are their foundation. For instance, in the opening stanza of her poem “The Burn,” Terry Blackhawk chooses a handful of plain yet exact nouns to solidify the details of place:

I saw it once in a sycamore
at a fishing spot near the lagoon,
one of the tree’s three trunks combusting.

“Sycamore” is the accurate name of the tree. The compound noun “fishing spot” adds a casual connotation to the more exotic “lagoon.” In the last line the poet avoids repeating “sycamore,” this time allowing herself to draw back to the more general “tree,” which visually and sonically reinforces the repeated t sounds in the line. Blackhawk’s only adjective is “three.” Her only verb (until the shock of the participle “combusting) is “saw.” The imagery of this stanza depends primarily on those solid, simple nouns.

In “Christmas Eve in France,” Jessie Redmon Fauset also chooses a handful of basic nouns, but she reveals and varies her details by adding adjectives:

Oh, little Christ, why do you sigh
As you look down tonight
On breathless France, on bleeding France,
And all her dreadful plight?
What bows your childish head so low?
What turns your cheek so white?

Even though “On breathless France, on bleeding France” repeats the same noun twice, Fauset’s shift from “breathless” to “bleeding” entirely reconfigures the imagery. Yet the adjectives are similar in sound, so the line retains its songlike quality even as it disrupts my mental picture of the situation.

Some poets, such as Ted Hughes, choose details of ornament that seem as weighty as the nouns they modify:

Lizard-silk of his lizard-skinny hands,
Hands never still, twist of body never still—
Bounds in for a cup of tea.

The extract’s grammar, like its subject, is jumpy. In “Lizard-silk of his lizard-skinny hands,” the hyphenated repetition shifts from compound noun to compound adjective. Hughes repeats the noun “hands,” the adverb-adjective combination “never still.” In the last line he tosses us the vivid verb “bounds,” yet we’re hardly aware that it’s the first verb in the extract. Thanks to the precise arrangement of his nouns and modifiers, Hughes has created the sensation of action from the details of a physical description.

The details in a poem do more than create specific images. They may also advance narrative action, develop character, hint at a back story, intensify a mood, reinforce sounds, and so on and so on. In the words of Baron Wormser and David Cappella, “Details are the confluence of observant intelligence, apt feeling, and thematic sense.” For example, the details in the opening stanza of Siegfried Sassoon’s “The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still” draw together a present-tense situation and layered memories of other times and places to construct a unified moment of consciousness.

The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still,
And I remember things I’d best forget.
For now we’ve marched to a green, trenchless land
Twelve miles from battering guns: along the grass
Brown lines of tents are hives for snoring men;
Wide radiant water sways the floating sky
Below dark, shivering trees. And living-clean
Comes back with thoughts of home and hours of sleep.

[from a draft-in-progress of The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]
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The North Pond Hermit

by Dawn Potter

This week, the big news around here is the North Pond hermit. You can read all about him in the papers, but the essence of the tale is this: 27 years ago a recent high school graduate vanished from his home in central Maine. His family thought he’d gone to New York City, but no one ever heard from him again.

Meanwhile, along the shores of North Pond, twenty or so miles to the west, owners of camps and vacation cabins began to report odd break-ins. Now and again, this and that would disappear: foodstuffs, clothing, supplies. It’s not like they were being cleaned out; more like the burglar was a borrower, which if you’ve ever read Mary Norton’s 1952 children’s book by the same name, you’ll know is a euphemism for subsistance thievery. A legend began to grow: the culprit was the North Pond hermit. But he was a legend; no one had laid eyes on him or had any evidence that he actually existed–other than the fact that a person was regularly taking their stuff.

Finally someone set up a hidden camera, the first step in breaking the case. And this week, wardens discovered a well-hidden encampment along the shore . . . so well hidden it had been there for 27 years. The North Pond hermit was not a myth. He was a real man, who had lived alone in this place for nearly three decades. He never farmed, fished, or hunted. He spent his days sitting on a plastic bucket watching eagles fly overhead and reading whatever books he’d stolen from the camps. At night he would go out to “borrow” what he needed. He never lit a fire. Once the snows started, he stayed in his camp so that no one ever saw his tracks. He kept warm in layers of sleeping bags.

Now he is in jail, and the wardens have dismantled his home. He doesn’t seem sorry. He says he was getting weary of the business. He is clean and neat and quiet, as he was when he arrived.

Everyone I have spoken to is mesmerized by this story. Even the guys on the local sports radio station can’t stop talking about it. There is a huge outrush of admiration and even a tinge of envy for him. He did not become homeless because he had no other choice. He simply went into the woods. To most people, his thievery has become immaterial.

Like everyone else, I’m fascinated by the North Pond hermit. But as much as anything, I’m intrigued by the way we all want to turn him into literature. Already I’ve referred to the case as a tale. When I first read the news article, I immediately thought, “This should be a ballad.” An acquaintance thought “novel.” My older son, after he read the link I’d sent him, wrote back and said, “Fairy tale.” In yesterday’s paper I saw that someone had already composed a folk song about him. And of course the comparisons to Thoreau are rife.

I’ve been pondering this. Why do we all want to transform what were undoubtedly 27 slow years of silence and tedium into dramatic narrative? I’m sure, eventually, people will start saying, “HBO movie!” or “Northwoods Law!” Maybe they already are. But the initial reactions I’ve heard, even from my tech-soaked son, have reached back to the roots of the oral-written tradition. The North Pond hermit has turned some mysterious key in us.

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The Craft of Poetry

by Dawn Potter

It’s so easy to overlook punctuation. Our eyes are trained to glide past it, automatically registering the marks as pauses or sentence endings but not otherwise lingering over them. As Baron Wormser and David Cappella note in Teaching the Art of Poetry, “punctuation makes necessary distinctions so that things don’t blur and tangle and confuse.” This is why its absence obscurely distresses us. “Punctuation seems ironclad. There had better be a period at the end of each sentence. It’s the law—and poets flout it.”

Well, some poets flout it. In an interview for The Paris Review, Philip Larkin grumbled:

A well-known publisher asked me how one punctuated poetry, and looked flabbergasted when I said, The same as prose. By which I mean that I write, or wrote, as everyone did till the mad lads started, using words and syntax in the normal way to describe recognizable experiences as memorably as possible. That doesn’t seem to me a tradition. The other stuff, the mad stuff, is more an aberration.

And it’s true that some poems seem to taunt us with willful misuse. In “th wundrfulness uv th mountees our secret police,” bill bissett not only ignores punctuation and capitalization but misspells words, creating a narrative that is also a sort of manipulative graffiti:

they opn our mail petulantlythey burn down barns they cantbug they listn to our politikulledrs phone conversashuns whatcud b less inspiring to ovrheer

Sonia Sanchez takes a different tack in her “Song No. 3 (for 2nd and 3rd grade sisters).” Though she, too, ignores capitalization, she does make use of traditional punctuation. Nonetheless, she doesn’t end every sentence with a period, only the last line of the stanza. Her choice affects how we imagine the speaker’s voice and supports our absorption of the poem’s blunt, childish, yet very clear pain.

cain’t nobody tell me any differenti’m ugly and you know it tooyou just smiling to make me feel betterbut i see how you stare when nobody’s watching you.

Even as many poets experiment with deleting punctuation, others put traditional marks to new uses. For instance, rather than linking images with grammar, Melissa Stein’s “So deeply that it is not heard at all, but” links them with punctuation:

sister: the violin is blue. it plays stars, there was a field—sister: that swelling in your belly will be a milkweed, a duty, a friend—sister: goldenrod blossom: stippled ancillary: nonplussed bird—

Russell Edson, on the other hand, gives us long grammatically complex sentences filled with traditional punctuation that, instead of clarifying the situation, contribute to the poem’s ambiguity, as in this dense line from “Out of Whack”:

Too late, too late, because I am wearing the king’s crown: and, in that we are married, and, in that the wearer of the king’s crown is automatically the king, you are now my queen, who broke her crown like a typically silly woman, who doesn’t quite realize the value of things, screamed the queen.

But even when a poet follows less raucous patterns of punctuation, she chooses each comma, each period, each dash, precisely and deliberately. Punctuation marks, as Wormser and Cappella have said, add clarity; but they also are important elements of sound, affecting a line’s cadence and tonality. The silence implied by a dash is longer than the silence implied by a comma. A question mark indicates a lift in tonal pitch, whereas a period indicates a drop. Even a hyphen or its absence has a subtle influence: the pacing of fire truck is different from fire-truck is different from firetruck.

Punctuation marks can also be stylistic tics, as the dash was for Emily Dickinson. They can even be stylistic anathemas. Richard Hugo, for instance, hated semicolons. In his essay “Nuts and Bolts,” he flatly declared, “No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.” Derek Walcott, among many other poets, would disagree passionately with that pronouncement. He uses semicolons throughout his book-length poem The Prodigal, often inserting them at line endings to indicate a pause of recognition or comprehension:

Then through the thinned trees I saw a wraith of smoke, which I believed came from the house, but every smoker carries his own wreath; then I saw that this moving wreath was yours.

In short, punctuation is both a flexible tool for experimentation and a formal structural element with rules and predictable patterns. Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose sonnet “The Soldier” will be the centerpiece of this chapter under construction, was well aware of this duality, and he took advantage of both tradition and strangeness in the way in which he handled punctuation in his poems.

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Who’s the Most Important Character?

by Dawn Potter

Today, most of us automatically equate narrative with prose: stories, novels, memoirs, plays, and biographies that depend on skillful narrative control. This is understandable because many successful poems ride on the strength of their word choice, imagery, or cadence rather than their superior character development or plot construction. Nonetheless, as a narrative form, poetry predates prose by thousands of years. Poetry and storytelling are synonymous in the works of Homer, Virgil, Dante, the Beowulf poet, Chaucer, and many, many others. Even by the nineteenth century, when the novel began to dominate European and American literature, narrative poets such as Coleridge, Tennyson, Longfellow, and Browning remained enormously popular with a reading public hungry for stories.

A few contemporary narrative poets, such as Anne Carson and Rick Mullin, carry on this ancient storytelling tradition. But more often poets seem to turn to anecdotes, or brief narrative vignettes, rather than long, complex, plot-driven tales. Character development—particularly the first-person I character—is the linchpin of many of these anecdotal poems, which, in the guise of memoir scraps, informal conversations, or journal entries, lure a reader’s attention toward the I.Sometimes everything in an anecdotal poem seems to circle that central focus. In “The Quest,” for instance, Sharon Olds recounts the horror of briefly losing track of a child in the city. Yet even though the poem is filled with references to the daughter, the I character is its emotional core. The poem is constructed around how I feels, not how the daughter feels.This is my quest, to know where it is,the evil in the human heart. As I walk home Ilook in face after face for it, Isee the dark beauty, the rage, thegrown-up children of the city she walks as achild, a raw target.

“The Quest” blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. Is the I really Olds herself? Or has Olds invented an I who is disguised as herself? In “Self-Portrait as Van Gogh,” Peter Cooley plays more explicitly with these questions of character identity:Before a mirror at midnight I compose myself,donning the gold straw hat I tilt at just his angleto assure the vision will stay caged.I squint, ruffle my beard, henna the tips.

Cooley’s poem serves as a good reminder: although poems have the unique ability to make us believe in them as truth, we should never assume that the I in a poem is anything other than the poet’s invention. Even the intimate, eloquent, heartbreaking I in Keats’s “Bright Star” is a character framed within a work of art. He’s not the poet but the poet’s creation.In other words, characters, like so many other elements of poetry, can seem solid and simple even as they lead a poet to explore strange territory and make unanticipated disclosures. Like her relationships with real people, a poet’s relationship with her characters can be confusing, resentful, admiring, even dangerous. Yet she is also their creator and manipulator and thus remains separate and, to a certain degree, ambivalent about their behaviors and motivations.In an essay about Shakespeare, Auden wrote about this necessary detachment: “A dramatist’s characters are, normally, men-of-action, but he himself is a maker, not a doer, concerned not with disclosing himself to others in the moment, but with making a work which, unlike himself, will endure, if possible forever. . . . What a man does is irrevocable for good or ill; what he makes, he can always modify or destroy.” In other words, as my sons used to say with exasperation when they discovered that once again I’d borrowed bits and pieces from our shared lives to create characters and a situation, “Mom! You exaggerate everything!” For when she’s creating characters, a poet ruthlessly borrows from all the material she has at hand: her own internal motivations, her family’s actions, her neighbor’s peccadilloes. Sometimes the characters that emerge closely resemble the borrowed material. Sometimes the borrowed material becomes imaginative fodder for an invented persona.Yet in poetry, it’s not the character per se who charms, amuses, or repels the reader. It’s the way in which the poet uses words to construct that character. As D. H. Lawrence noted, without his “language so lovely,” even Shakespeare’s most famous creations would be intolerable company:

And Hamlet, how boring, how boring to live with,
so mean and self-conscious, blowing and snoring
his wonderful speeches, full of other folk’s whoring!

[From another chapter-under-construction for my forthcoming book The Conversation: Learning to Be a Poet (Autumn House Press, 2014)]

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