DISCOURSE as quilting

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remnant 8: what makes poetry, poetry?

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In an effort to create meaning out of the symmetry of life and death found in Kurt Vonnegut being born November 11 (1922) and dying April 11 (2007)—eleven to eleven, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as it were—I posted a poem of mine about the sadness, and even tears, I experienced at Vonnegut’s death and then again as I read a biography of him:

reading a biography (in the absence of you)

The poem is a musing about absence and loss, and I also Tweeted the poem as a nod to National Poetry Month, and my own experiences with how life and art merge and intersect to spur my own attempts at art.

And then all of that leads to this, a brief post about raising a piece of writing to the level of poetry—since I have for many years worked with people of all ages themselves on a journey to write poetry.


In my sincere but flawed larva years of teaching, I spent a tremendous amount of poorly invested energy telling students what poetry is as well as what poems mean and how to mine that meaning.

With age and experience came wisdom, of sorts, a wisdom that grew from my own evolution as a teacher and writer/poet.

Instead of telling students this or that about poetry (all of which was so much hokum), I allowed our poetry unit to revolve around a question: What makes poetry, poetry?

And the answer we came back to again and again is so simple it seems simplistic, but it is instead enduring: Poetry primarily comes from a purposefulness of language committed to shaping a piece of writing around the format of lines and stanzas (as distinct from sentences and paragraphs).

While I have found nothing better than this explanation, I also know that it contributes almost nothing to anyone writing poetry or reading poetry. It is both nearly perfect as an explanation and nearly completely useless in any practical sense.

My poetry unit always weaved the songs and lyrics of R.E.M. with poems, and the process allowed us to consider each poem for its poetic qualities—always asking, What makes this poem a poem?

A few cautions I offered about song lyrics and poetry, however, include that they are distinct—song lyrics conform to some conventional and genre/medium conventions absent in poetry, although poetry often remains an oral form of text. As I’ve noted before, my poetry rests on an Imagist tradition that highlights another distinction about lination and stanza formation, typically less important or absent in lyrics.

A common response I make when someone new to writing poetry shows me a poem for my feedback is, “This is a good idea for a poem, but it hasn’t yet been lifted to the level of poetry.” This alone isn’t much help, but I do follow up, and here are some of my usual recommendations:

• Form lines and stanzas with purpose; seek some pattern, some guiding structure. Traditional guides include meter and/or syllable count, but thousands of mechanisms can guide line and stanza formation. The key is purpose—having, discovering, and then remaining faithful to that purpose.

• Identify and decrease the use of abstract words (love, hope, etc.); identify and increase the use of concrete words. For a lyric example, consider the power of the concrete in The National’s “Demons”: “crying underwater,” “drowning friends,” “buzzards,” “Alligators in the sewers,” “huddle,” “drink the blood and hang the palms,” “pythons.” These are all concrete, vivid, and provocative, and they help create and expand motifs. For a poem example, read carefully “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theordore Roethke.

• Draft, revise, reshape, and allow the poem to lead you as you reshape it. Discover what you are chasing, and then help breath life into those motifs and ideas by the craft of language—sound devices (alliteration, assonance, rhyme), imagery, metaphor/simile, parallelism, grammar and mechanics (both conforming to and stepping beyond conventions)…

Let me turn to speaking directly about “the economy of mix tapes (bygone),” a recent poem of mine.

This poem began as two lines that simply came to me: “you taught me how to say ‘i love you'” and “a certain concision of mix tapes.”

As you can see, the first line survived as the first line of the poem, but as I drafted, “concision” (which I wanted to stress that making a mix tape was like writing a poem, and that one of the key aspects of what makes poetry, poetry is concision) gave way to “economy.”

As I played with the mix tape idea, I recognized the poem seeking a way to explore doing things for and with someone you love, and ultimately someone you love but from whom you are now separated or distant.

That led to the shower scene that attempts to blur memory, dream, and regret.

Many of my poems come back to and repeat exact lines and stanzas (like song lyrics/refrains), but repeating a line/stanza later in a poem is never exactly the same because it has space to breath and grow from what has come in between.

The odd part of composing for me is how the world begins to reach in. I drove to Subway for lunch while still thinking about the draft, and as I switched on my iPod in the car, I thought about a song named “Regret”—initially in error thinking it was a song by The National. Back home, I searched iTunes and found the Fiona Apple song, and included a few lines (although the tones and situations of her song and my poem are quiet different).

Still not sure about the draft, I read further into Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart and was really thrown by the baptism passage, also a motif of my poem.

With the misremembering of the “Regret” song attributed to The National, I later could not get “Everything I can remember/I remember wrong” out of my mind—also another idea my poem is exploring.

A few elements that came late in the drafting but contributed (I think) to lifting the draft to the level of poetry include:

• Playing with words—”bygone” began to nag at me and it remains such an odd word in the way it looks and its grammar of “let bygones be bygones”; the odd plural and the concept of being a bygone both disorient me.

• Seeking simple but vivid images, I added the walking on eggshells motif.

• The armband tattoo image/motif was maybe the last revision that really engages me because the tattoo itself is technically both finite and infinite.

It may seem odd to someone not a poet, or not yet a poet, but the drafting phase of a poem is long and tedious. For me, it involves 5 or 6 hours mixed with washing and drying clothes, washing dishes, reading, listening to songs, writing other pieces—and it is often spawned from dreams or sudden lines coming to me or lingering in my mind for days.

So I’ll end with a poem I just posted: “tears remain tears (time travel pt. 2).”

After a night of a very vivid and long dreams, I was haunted by the act at the center of the poem, the brief hooking of a person’s hand to get someone’s attention, the seed of affection that would bloom. My habit of the parenthetical addition to many of my titles here helps connect this poem with another time travel piece, although the two exist in parallel but different universes, “time travel (in this time after the End).” I also include The National lyrics that prompted me seeing the image of a person sitting at the bottom of the pool, crying to hide.

What makes poetry, poetry?

Written by plthomasedd

April 12, 2013 at 5:40 pm