Always be a poet, even in prose.
Those of us living on the East Coast recently weathered the wrath of Hurricane Sandy. My own house was without power for four days and then without phone, tv, and internet for three more days. It was frustrating and inconvenient, but we consider ourselves fortunate to still have a house. I was able to get out the November 1 Poetry Newsletter thanks to the Cloud and my daughter's intact internet service. I suspect, though, that some of you may not have received it, depending upon your own service. If you missed it and would like to receive it, let me know and I'll forward the missing newsletter to you.
Note to those who use Outlook for your emails: I have attempted to eliminate the problem with the wide screen that some of you routinely experienced with the Newsletter. Please let me know if I've been successful.
Poem and Prompt
This month's poem comes from Adele Kenny who previously contributed a Craft Tip on imagery. The poem is from Adele's new book, What Matters.
She was the main event when
the carnival came to town.
Fourteen and oh, so young,
we stood inside her tent with
boys who spoke among themselves
of things that made them men.
Had we been older, we might
have understood – their helpless
fascination as the snake slid
between her breasts and made its
thick descent along her thighs.
Those boys never blinked until
her fingers stroked the coils
straight, tightened on the head,
and coaxed it to a sudden milky
venom. With an innocence we
didn’t think we had, we blushed
and turned from the sure and
easy way she made them burn.
Adele's poem initially appears simple enough. The speaker describes a memory of something she observed when she was 14. However, the poet has built in several layers of complication. The speaker does not merely observe the scene; she observes someone else observing it. Then instead of using first person singular, the poet uses first person plural; a group of girls observes a group of boys observing an action. The poet also recounts the incident from the distance of Time. The speaker is no longer on the threshold of adolescence but is an adult looking back on the scene. As such, she can have perceptions that the 14-year-old girl could not have had. Finally, the entire poem rests on a metaphor, a very sexy one, indeed!
Let's see if we can do something similar. Let's begin with a simple draft and then add layers of complication.
First, choose a potentially sensuous and sensual scene to describe, perhaps someone eating a peach or a tomato, someone shampooing or bathing, someone turning on a water faucet or drinking from a fountain, someone planting bulbs or dancing or making a salad.
For your first draft, describe the scene, first person singular, present tense. The speaker can be you or someone you pretend to be. The action can be real or imagined.
Now let's add some layers to that basic draft. Complete each step before moving on to the next one.
1. Bring in a third character, someone to stand between the speaker and the person doing the action. Rewrite the draft so that your speaker not only describes the action but also observes and describes the new character observing the scene. Stick with first person singular and present tense.
2. Revise using past tense. The scene now becomes a memory.
3. Revise again, this time using first person plural. Who else could be with your speaker? Who else could be with the other observer?
Think about how each revision changes the poem. (For example, the shift in time, from present to past tense, might alter the tone of the poem.) Choose the version you like best and continue to work on that one. But keep all the steps in your arsenal.
One final consideration: Notice how Adele indents every other line. That nicely parallels the back and forth between past and present and between the speaker and the other characters. Aim for a form that enhances meaning.
Edited by Diana Raab and James Brown, Writers on the Edge: 22 Writers Speak about Addiction and Dependency should put to rest forever any last vestige of the romantic view of the addicted writer and writing life as well as the idea that addiction heightens creativity. The essays cover a wide range of addictions and the authors represent a wide variety of literary genres.
Scott Russell Sanders, a fiction and non-fiction writer, writes about the nightmare of growing up as the child of an alcoholic father and the legacy of guilt he inherited: "Guilt burns like acid in my veins." Linda Gray Sexton, a memoirist and the daughter of Anne Sexton, writes about her obsession with cutting after her own failed suicide attempt. Sue William Silverman writes about her sex addiction, her anorexia, and her entry into a therapy facility. Brothers Frederick and Steven Barthelme write about the shared gambling addiction that eventually landed them in court. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas offers us a glimpse into the world of a food addict while Maud Casey writes about her years battling depression. Not surprisingly, these pieces, many of them excerpted from longer works, are well-written and powerful.
Scattered among the essays are poems by Molly Peacock, Denise Duhamel, David Huddle, and others.
Linda Pastan served as the Poet Laureate of Maryland from 1991 to 1995. She also served on the staff of the Breadloaf Writers Conference for twenty years. She is the author of 13 books of poetry, most recently Traveling Light (W. W. Norton & Co., 2012). Her many awards and honors include a Pushcart Prize, a Dylan Thomas Award, the Di Castagnola Award, the Bess Hokin Prize, the Maurice English Award, the Charity Randall Citation, and a Radcliffe College Distinguished Alumnae Award. She has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award and in 2003 received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for Lifetime Achievement.
The poem included in today's Craft Tip is from Linda's first book, A Perfect Circle of Sun (1971).
Some Uses of Myth
The sun is scarcely
a shadow if itself,
it bled into the sea
all last week
and now, bandaged away,
waits out with me the long, long
month of rain.
Grey fades to grey.
The horizon is
the finest seam between
water and water, sky and sky.
Only the tide still moves,
leaving the print of its ribbed bones
on the abandoned sand
as you left yours on me
when you moved imperceptibly from my embrace.
I must wring out the towels,
wring out the swimsuits,
wring my eyes dry of tears,
watching at a window
on one leg, then the other,
like the almost extinct heron.
This is a poem I started one summer, my husband away for a week, as I stared out at the Atlantic and felt lonely and sorry for myself. The result was not so much sentimental as self indulgent—two sides of the same coin. Then, during one of those wonderful, if rare, moments of insight, it occurred to me that Penelope herself must have stood in much the same way I was standing, her husband also gone, looking out at a very different body of water.
I decided I would call my poem “Penelope.” And though I kept it in the first person, though I actually didn’t change anything but the title, a sudden distance was created between me, Linda Pastan, and the woman speaking the poem. A universal quality was added, as if by magic, to words that would otherwise have been simply personal.
Since that time, Penelope has become a sort of second self (I have written dozens of poems in her name) as have Eve, Daphne, Gretel, even Dido (though I never contemplated suicide myself). Using figures from story or myth can add depth to a poem, and, like changing the voice from the first to the third person, the perception of objectivity.
And it can also help when one’s own creative well is running dry. Think of a favorite fable or myth, use it as the basis for any kind of poem you want to write, and suddenly there will be a wealth of material for you to turn to.
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