My muse took a leave of absence the last two days. I tried every trick I could think of to coax out some verse, but it was like trying to shake tea out of an empty pot. (Actually, a couple drafts came out; nothing worth the time yet, though.) Maybe it’s the heat, or maybe I’m overworking myself. Last night, I got in at 4:30 in the morning, and I can assure you that despite the utterly unbelievable heat we’re dealing with round these parts today, last night-becoming-morning was gorgeous. Now I’m sitting in the cafe, sipping an iced honey-nut latte, and it’s Tanabata, and the creative centers of my brain are uncoiling a bit. Relax, let go, sing.
This week: “the foundry”
We’re going to talk about physics a little bit today. The problem I’ve had with science is that while I find it endlessly fascinating (I’ve been talking about the Higgs boson before it was a thing; yes, I am a particle physics hipster), I lack the technical knowhow to actually be a scientist or anything. I read Scientific American, I keep up on new discoveries, and I surf Wikipedia endlessly, but ultimately I don’t know calculus, I never took physics, and the practical applications of the theories (engineering, etc.) are completely lost on me.
This plays into today’s topic, along with the aforementioned awful heat index: we’re going to talk about changing the state of some poems. They say it could get up to the hottest temperature around here that it’s ever been in July (though I’m nigh-certain it’s broken 100 before, I don’t know what they’re talking about), and poetry can be as sensitive to heat as it can to love, death, politics, beauty, or contemplation. What you will need for this exercise is an existing poem. You can take one that you’ve written (which will be easier), or one by another poet, but make sure that it’s a fully formed poem with punctuation, line breaks, complete themes and imagery, etc. Try to avoid e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, and haiku; pick a good long one with whole sentences. For the sake of examples, I’m going to pull a random stanza to mess with, the beginning of “Our Valley” by Philip Levine:
We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.
Our first technique is going to be melting. For each of these, I’m going to suggest general guidelines, but what exactly you do to the poem will depend on the poem itself, and your general preference. The idea of melting is that all of the essential pieces of the poem should be in place, but in a simpler form. Let complex verb tenses collapse; feel free to cut out tiny words that were chosen for the sake of meter; liquefy a few commas and periods; maybe drip one line into two. Here’s how I did it for the stanza above:
We don’t see ocean, ever– but July and August,
when the worst heat seems to rise from
the hard valley clay
you could walk through a fig orchard–
suddenly the wind cools–
for a moment a whiff of salt, and you can
almost believe something waits beyond the Pass,
massive– irrational– so powerful
the mountains that rise east of here have no words.
Already the poem has changed shape considerably. What I consider the “essential pieces” of this may differ from what you or Philip Levine do, and the spots where I choose to clip words, render grammar, and smudge things around will surely be my own.
So now let’s talk about boiling. A solid holds a regular crystalline (or ordered, at least) structure; the liquid form allows the molecules to move freely over each other, but they still stay together. With a gas, the substance begins to dissipate, losing a piece here and a piece there of itself. Try taking the poem and turning at least one image to allusion, as well as removing at least one descriptor. What I mean by this is to reduce a phrase like “fig orchard” in the stanza above to “figs” or just “orchard”. Either way, the meaning changes; and you could change it to “Eden”, to completely shift the tone (but still alluding to the fig orchard notion, along with many other things). In fact, I think I’ll do that:
We never see it– but July, August,
when the heat seems to rise from
hard valley clay
you walk through Eden
suddenly the wind cools
for a moment a whiff of salt, and you
almost believe it waits beyond the Pass,
massive irrational so powerful
the east mountains have no words.
Now we’re starting to have trouble grasping the original with both hands, like catching the wind. But part of the trade-off for the mystery is that the reader is able to insert their own interpretation into the vacuum. If I hadn’t told you the original lines, would you still pick up that this is a poem about the sea? What might it suggest instead?
One last trick is igniting. The funny thing about the plasma state is that while the substances in the other states are (for the most part) just there, when they combust, they suddenly become much more involved in their environment. They give light and heat; they ignite other things; they have peculiar properties of all the other states at once. Think of how fire behaves versus a wick, or kerosene, or air; then think how we’re going to translate this into simmering our poem even further. At this point, break down even the essential grammar and linguistics of the poem; now you can get as e.e. cummings as you want. But at the same time, add something to show a fundamental change of state. You can condense gas back into liquid and freeze it into ice; you can’t un-burn something. Create your own descriptions that seem to fit with the absolute barest outline that you’ve erased down to, and that is when the poem truly becomes your own.
we never see it–
but red julyaugust
when heat snakes along
hard valley clay
walk through Eden–
a sudden wind
with a memorial whiff of salt–
it waits beyond the Pass,
the mountains keep silent
about what they can’t name
And now we have a different poem entirely. “Our Valley on Fire”, it might be called.
Try going through all three stages, and see how thoroughly you can break down a rigid, regimented poem into this flickering mystery of words. If you want to get fancy, there is sublimation, the transition straight from a solid to a gas (so skip the melting direction, and go straight to boiling); I don’t think it’s possible to go from solid or liquid straight to plasma, but go for it if you want to. Do a bit of physics research and see what’s what. You can also try applying these principles to the phonology of a poem, breaking down the sound rather than the content: maybe melting would first shave -ing down to -in’ and contract “cannot”, “would not”, while boiling would proceed to reduce verbs to yelps and nouns to moans. This gets into Joyce and language poetry stuff, which isn’t my bailiwick, but go for it if you want.
And then come share! Sharing is caring. :)