One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it,
lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place
in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.
Annie Dillard's words above struck a responsive chord with me. I have always saved my new outfit for something special. Too often nothing was ever quite special enough and by the time I got around to wearing the new outfit, it was out of style. Maybe this practice is why I sometimes find myself saving a good idea for another day, a day with less competition, less aggravation, a day more special. Then the idea fizzles and loses its appeal. I will henceforth be parading my new outfits shortly after buying them and nailing those good ideas while they're hot. Let's hope some good ideas come my way. And yours.
Poem and Prompt
This month's poem is by Judith Barrington, from her book Horses and the Human Soul.
Rimas Dissolutas at Chacala Beach
Not waving but drowning
Not even your hand reaching from the past as you go down
into the Atlantic keeps me from the sea. Pacific waves like trucks
crash down on me, my legs tugged away in an avalanche of sand.
Sometimes I fall, suck in a snatch of salty air
and skid into the cave of the next wave, only to be hauled
back to the tideline with bottle caps, shells and small green beads.
With an arm raised, that visual cliché, is not how you went down
I'm sure—it's how we went down in the pool at Black Rock:
leggy ten-year-olds each holding her nose with one hand
and reaching up with the other in that mocking gesture of despair.
Down we went, face to face, our hair loosing small
bubbles as it streamed upwards and we stared like mermaids
into that liquid underworld, clear and paint blue, its only known
danger a dose of chlorine that left us headachy and pink-
eyed, our swimsuits smelling of hospital by the long day's end.
Did we sense then, as our lungs screamed for air
and our cheeks bulged with held breath, that this transparent wall
could surge into the hollows of our lungs and turn us to weed?
The fact is that after a while I couldn't stop. Rhythmically, alone,
I surged up, grabbed a mouthful of air and sank,
my arm marking the spot in a drama that would never end.
As it turned out, it was a kind of defiance of the future
as it is now of the past when I breast the Pacific, ignoring the call
of your hand in the air as Atlantic swells cover your head.
This poem is written in a form known as rimas dissolutas. I like this form as it allows a lot of freedom. You can, for example, have as many stanzas as you like. You can determine how many lines in each stanza, though each stanza must have the same number of lines. Line lengths are up to you and may be uniform or variable.
The single strict rule pertains to the rhyme pattern. Each line in the first stanza must end with a new sound. The pattern of sounds in that first stanza becomes the pattern for subsequent stanzas. The first line in each stanza must rhyme with the first line of all stanzas. The second line must rhyme with the second line of all stanzas, and so on.
Because Barrington has six lines in each stanza, she has six rhyming sounds. Your number of rhymes will depend on the number of lines in each of your stanzas.
The beauty of this form is the subtlety of the rhymes. Notice that Barrington has used some perfect rhymes, some near rhymes, and a few repeated words.
Your assignment is, of course, to write a rimas dissolutas. Begin with a line you love and go from there.
Remember that your poem must be about more than its rhymes. Read Barrington's poem aloud and listen for its other sound devices. Notice, too, the serious content of the poem. Notice the circular structure. Notice the imagery, similes, and metaphors.
These words from Oscar Hijuelos appear on the front and back covers of Gary Soto's book, What Poets Are Like: "It is funny, heartfelt, instructive, and erudite while remaining, in a storyteller's way, wryly entertaining." That's a perfect description of this book. In 60 short, highly readable vignettes, Soto details his life as a poet. Just a handful of the titles should give you a sense of the book: "Angry Poet," "City Lights," "The Failure of Memory," "Fable of Lost Poets," and "Be That Fame?"
Soto says that's it's okay to write some bad poems; his ratio is one bad one for every two or three keepers (though I suspect that for many of us the ratio is quite the opposite). He talks about dealing with rejection—it puts him in a bad mood. He also talks quite a bit about giving public readings and the humiliation of a low turnout and the annoyance of traveling miles to an important function only to discover that his publisher had neglected to send books. He worries about having been a bad teacher and reveals the mortification of finding his own books on the table at a used book sale.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's a quick read. At several points I found myself nodding in agreement. Sometimes I found myself laughing out loud. Those of us who are poets will see something of ourselves in this book.
Lance Larsen’s fourth collection of poems, Genius Loci, was recently published by the University of Tampa Press. His earlier collections include Backyard Alchemy (2009), In All Their Animal Brilliance (2005), and Erasable Walls (1998). His work appears in such venues as Georgia Review, Southern Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and Poetry Daily. He collects antiques, plays basketball, occasionally walks on his hands, grows daylilies, hikes, and loves Indian and Thai food. He sometimes collaborates with his wife, Jacqui Biggs Larsen, a painter and multi-media artist, who provided the art for the cover of Genius Loci. Since 1993 he has taught literature and creative writing at BYU, where he currently serves as associate chair. In 2012, he was named to a five-year term as Utah Poet Laureate.
Turning a Poem
For a time I served as a first reader of a national poetry competition that draws over 700 book-length manuscripts each year. There were a handful of us, each reading over a hundred submissions and passing along the cream of the cream to the national judge. I had two distinct impressions about the manuscripts that didn’t make the cut. First, most possessed an impressive overall competence in execution and verbal nuance. Second, despite many cosmetic virtues, individual poems from these same manuscripts were largely forgettable. By forgettable, I mean they didn’t take off the top of my head or make me so cold no fire would ever warm me—Emily Dickinson’s litmus test for true poetry. The missing ingredient? Among other things: reversal. That is, a change of scenery, opposition, an altered course, emotional fire. In short, they lacked what nearly any good sonnet possesses: a successful volta, or turn.
I’m not advocating that we abandon the poetic pluralism of the current moment in favor of Renaissance fourteen liners that predictably shift direction in line 9 (Italian sonnets) or line 13 (English sonnets). Certainly not all poems need to end in a sestet or a closing couplet. I am advocating that we more consciously incorporate the virtues of the volta in whatever poetry we practice, whether free verse, prose poems, or more avant garde departures.
Sometimes one can learn a great deal about poems by looking elsewhere. Consider this nano short short Hemingway was fond of quoting long before the term sudden fiction came into common parlance: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” Here we have an entire story in six words, a story that isn’t even a sentence, a story whose devastating volta arrives in the last two words. And here’s a joke by Woody Allen, whose volta requires the reader to supply a curse that isn’t even on the page: “Some guy hit my fender, and I said to him, ‘Be fruitful and multiply,’ but not in those words.” Successful turns, whether in narratives, jokes, or aphorisms for that matter, discombobulate the world just a little, flipping the reader into the New.
As you read this pair of very short poems, the first by Charles Simic, the second by Margaret Atwood, take special note of the strategies used to achieve reversal.
On the fruit stand.
We eat the smile
And spit out the teeth.
You Fit Into Me
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
a fish hook
an open eye
Compression, white space, ambiguity, shifts in meaning and point of view: all are here in spades. Poems like this remind us that the world is built on paradox. What the right hand stabilizes, the left hand flicks into disarray.
For our purposes, let me mention just one final poem, James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” which opens with five sentences of observation. Here we have a butterfly, the sound of cowbells, horse droppings blazing up “into golden stones,” the poet himself, and a chicken hawk “float[ing] over, looking for home.” These observations, zen-like in their understated richness, are followed by this unexpected conclusion: “I have wasted my life.” Just when we thought we were safely ensconced in image, Wright opts for declaration, even confession. But call it a confession filled with more questions, which explode a little differently in each reader. This world is no longer that world.
As you can see, I’ve barely scratched the surface here. I hope each reader will re-read his or her favorite cache of free verse poems and examine the role of reversal. How many of the poems depend on turns that fly under the radar? And as you examine these examples, I encourage you to think more liberally about the volta, not as a Renaissance workhorse trapped in a 10 x 14 corral (10 syllables x 14 lines) but as a wilder creature of unknown parentage. Let the volta kick a little and snort its impatience, let it wild up the domesticated herd.
31 Ways to Find Inspiration for Your Writing
Aimed at fiction writers but poets might also find it useful. Not prompts but suggestions for infiltrating life and finding ideas therein.
20 Poets on the Meaning of Poetry
A rimas dissolutas by Sylvia Plath
Poets & Writers has listed The Crafty Poet as a Best Book for Writers in its newsletter and at the P&W website.
Article in The Jersey Tomato Press about The Crafty Poet.
Guest Blog Post at Adele Kenny's The Music In It with bonus prompt from The Crafty Poet.
Check out Martha Silano's review of The Crafty Poet at Blue Positive.
"It would make an excellent gift for a poetry writer, and would be extremely useful in a poetry writing group."—NB
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