Everything one invents is true, you may be perfectly sure of that. Poetry is as precise as geometry.
It's time for a progress update on The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop
. I'm happy to report that I've finished proofreading the galleys. The edits (mercifully few of them) have been sent to my publisher. The cover is also underway. It won't be too long now before the book is a reality. Quite a few of you are in it. Again, I am grateful for your participation.
Happy July 4th!
Poem and Prompt
This month's poem is by Deborah Miranda. It's from her book The Zen of La Llorona
They hang her in the barn, head down, tongue fat,
dripping blood. I am left alone
for a moment, venture close to stroke dark fur
made rough by winter; that is when she is whole,
intact before butchering. I'm not sure
if they shot her, or hit her by accident
with the truck, but she comes from the mountains
out of season so it is the darkness that counts, not
how she died. All winter long we'll eat her
in secret: steaks, stews, bones boiled for broth
and the dogs. But what I will remember is
the rough way men's hands turn back the hide, jerk
down hard to tear it off her body. A dull hunting
knife cracks and disjoints the carcass.
Dismembers it piece by piece.
The hide disappears—left untanned, taken
to the dump. For years afterward I walk
out to the barn, scrape my foot against
the stained floor beneath the crossbeam,
never tell anyone
I've been taken like that.
In this poem Miranda describes in detail the gutting and skinning of a deer. As the deer has been caught out of season, there is an element of the clandestine here. The first person speaker, a woman, observes the men who do the action; thus, there is a feeling of objective distancing—that is, until the end of the poem which stuns us with its simplicity and its brutality, even though the speaker does not specify how she has "been taken like that."
This poem illustrates that free verse does not mean that no attention is paid to form or music. Note, for example, the strategic use of indentation so that the entire poem hangs from the first line. Then notice towards the end the dropped line to suspend the telling of the secret. The poem is written in a series of declarative sentences with just one fragment. The sentences add to the tone of cold objectivity. This tone makes the ending all the more powerful. Although it becomes clear that the event occurred in the past, the poem is written in present tense which gives it immediacy and turns us into witnesses. Notice also the hard sounds that dominate throughout the poem—the b
sound in barn, blood, by, before butchering
; the p
in dripping, piece by piece
, disappears, dump, scrape
; the k
in stroke dark, accident, truck, darkness, steaks, back, jerk
; and the t
in tongue, fat, left, moment, hit, truck
. These sounds are perfect for the hard subject matter.
For your poem, choose a dramatic action to describe. Let it be something dark, even brutal, e.g., a car accident, a dog fight, a snake swallowing a rodent, a cat stalking a bird. Use first person, present tense. Let your speaker observe but not participate. Then bring it on home with a stark revelation at the end. Move your draft into metaphor. As you write the descriptive part, ask yourself, What is this like? What happened to me or someone I know that was like this action? It might take you days to arrive at the metaphor part. Or, if you're lucky, it might come to you as a gift.
As you revise your draft, pay careful attention to sounds. Which sounds dominate? Can you exploit them a bit? Are they the right sounds? Do they convey some understated repressed passion? Make diction changes to get better sounds. Let the sounds echo the sense of the poem.
In After Confession: Poetry As Autobiography
editors Kate Sontag and David Graham take on the ever-controversial topic of truth in poetry. Must the poem be factual or is there some other kind of truth? If the lyric I
is used, can we/should we assume that that I
is the poet? Is it allowable to usurp someone else's experience? Is it ethical to create an experience and present it as factual? Is it ethical to combine fact and fiction in poetry? Does the poet owe the reader an explanation? Clearly, this book is as relevant today as it was when published in 2001.
The book contains two poems (one by Sharon Olds and one by Adrienne Rich) and twenty-eight essays divided into four sections: "Staying News: Critical & Historical Perspectives"; "Our Better Halves: Autobiographical Musings"; "Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical & Aesthetic Considerations"; and "Codes of Silence: Women & Autobiography." Contributors include Billy Collins with "My Grandfather's Tackle Box: The Limitations of Memory-Driven Poetry," Colette Inez with "Family Talk: Confessional Poet? Not Me," Stephen Dunn with "Degrees of Fidelity," and Louise Gluck with "The Forbidden." The list of contributors is truly stellar and the range of topics is impressive.
I like that the book does not take a single position and then include only what advances that position. Instead, you will find essays and ideas that argue with each other. We poets all struggle with the questions and moral issues this book addresses. Reading these essays should help you clarify your own position.
Sue Ellen Thompson is the author of four poetry books, most recently The Golden Hour
(Autumn House, 2006). A fifth collection is forthcoming in 2015. She is also the editor of The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry
(2005). Her poems have been read on National Public Radio by Garrison Keillor and featured in Ted Kooser’s nationally syndicated newspaper column. Her numerous awards include the 1986 Samuel French Morse Prize, the 2003 Pablo Neruda Prize, two Individual Artist’s Grants from the State of Connecticut, and a 2010 Maryland Author Award. She was the 1998 poet-in-residence at The Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire, and participated for 13 summers in the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. She is now teaching at The Writers’ Center in Bethesda and tutoring adult poets.
Telling Lies in Poetry
As a poet who draws inspiration primarily from the events of her own life and the lives of those around her, I often take liberties with the truth. I usually do so for a good reason—to simplify the dramatic situation, to head off confusion on the reader’s part, or to underscore the emotional content of the poem. Do I think of myself as lying? No, not really.
Back in the 1980s, when I was a regular participant at The Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, I attended a reading by a poet I thought I knew fairly well. One of the poems he read that day included the line, “Our son is dead.” I sat up straight in my seat: I didn’t know that he and his wife ever had a son. I went up to him after the reading and whispered in his ear, “I’m so sorry about your son. I didn’t know.” He threw back his head and laughed. “It’s poetry,” he said, “not journalism.” I felt stung. Duped.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser has an essay, called “Lying for the Sake of Making Poems,” in which he expresses his concern about poets who present themselves as a first person narrator and then proceed to describe events that are not true but that are designed to trigger sympathy or “to affect the reader’s feelings about the poet.” He goes on to explain the “litmus test” he uses when evaluating whether the lies that he or another poet tells are permissible. He asks himself, “Does the poet get some extra-literary credit or sympathy from the lie?” If the answer is No, he doesn’t waste time worrying about it.
This seems a useful approach to me. We all tell lies in poems that present themselves as autobiographical—invent details that will heighten tension or reveal something about the speaker’s inner nature, add to or subtract from the cast of characters, manufacture encounters that never took place, and so on—but we must be ruthlessly honest with ourselves about our motivation in doing so. We must ask ourselves, “Why am I saying this? Is it because I want my readers to think I am kinder, braver, more deeply affected, more caring or more deserving of admiration or sympathy than I really am?” In other words, if our primary motivation is to win some of that “extra-literary credit” for ourselves, we should think twice about telling that particular lie.
My own advice is that if you’re writing a personal poem in which you, as the speaker, are front and center, don’t set out to tell the truth exactly as you remember it. Be willing to relinquish some control over the writing process and see where the poem leads you. It may not be the “truth” as you remember it, but it may lead you to something more important than the truth. And whatever lies you tell will be justified.
Mother, May I? Writing with Love
Essay by Kate Sontag explores topic of which lies are allowable in poetry, from After Confession
The Daily Routines of Famous Writers
The Benefits of Freewriting
Summer, a Dog Poem
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