Yesterday at the Dodge, I attended a session with Dorianne Laux, a conversation about craft. She talked about sound devices and meter, the structure of a poem and the power of the monosyllable (as well as the polysyllable), mirroring a poem in the text itself and finding the moment when everything falls, sonically, into place. I’ll put it out there: this is the first session of this kind I’ve ever attended, where there was a poet I admire sitting there and just talking casually about her thoughts on the work of process, and I found her thoughts tremendously helpful. So I’m going to re-assemble a few of them into a Reverie, in the hopes you’ll be helped as well…
This week: “right placement, right timing”
Ms. Laux talked about how wasps, when building a nest, will wander about with their raw materials aimlessly until they recognize the sound of material slapping against material: the cornerstone, maybe. At that moment, the chaos will cease immediately and they will begin to construct a hive out of nowhere. Her point was that you always recognize when you find that stride in a poem: it might not be every poem, but you know it when you see it (or hear it, rather), and you only achieve it through practice, practice, practice. Write bad poetry; write mediocre poetry. Now and then, something will come back and dazzle you, which you might not even notice until you’re back and editing, and very often it will be some turn of the meter or an idle consonant that does it.
There are two elements that I want to bring up in this prompt, and I’ll use one of the examples from yesterday to demonstrate them. This is a short poem by Li-Young Lee called “One Heart”:
Look at the birds. Even flying
out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you, friend, open
at either end of day.
The work of wings
was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.
There are several things to love about the poem: beautiful metaphors, the simple and friendly tone, alliteration and assonance and internal rhyme, a mystifying message, etc. But it’s the rhythm we want to talk about first. If you imagine that monosyllabic words convey a certain kind of power, and disyllabic words convey another, even the first line shows a nice dichotomy. Look at the birds has an imperative, demanding force to it; even flying lilts and rings out immediately afterward. Keep going: is born / out of nothing. If you sieved out all the monosyllables from the poem, you’d be left with:
even flying / nothing / inside, open / either / always freedom, fastening / falling
It’s practically a poem itself. And most of the monosyllables still pull their weight — the work of wings — while there are some iambs (such as those two, which also feature some lovely alliteration) snuck in throughout. It’s as though you’re reading two poems, woven seamlessly through each other, and that’s the kind of power you want when you select your poem’s vocabulary. Never waste a word! Ms. Laux talked about the almost mathematical precision that seems to be in the placement of those monosyllables against the disyllables, and suggests that Lee knew exactly what he was doing, maybe even on a subconscious level after practicing this element of the craft so often. And what he did evokes a particularly kind of emotion in us: that juxtaposition makes the directive side and the elated sides of the poem stand out against each other, complementing each other.
But then, notice that trisyllable I highlighted in purple above. What’s that about? In my high school creative writing class, I remember the teacher illustrating a valuable principle of mimetic prose. I don’t mean this in the philosophical sense of representing reality, but in the very literal idea of showing what the poem (or story) is talking about through the structure of the text itself. Concrete poetry is the ultimate extension of this, but you see it all the time with poems about rain or whatever, featuring short, clipped lines that suggest its fall. I would argue that Lee does this with the word “fastening”: very literally, he’s attached “one heart” (the exact phrase) to a “falling thing” (his poem, that descends down the page), and the lone trisyllable in the whole text serves to call attention to the connection. (The fact that it rhymes is an added bonus.)
Another example from yesterday was Ruth Stone’s poem “Curtains“:
I want to dig you up and say, look,
it’s like the time, remember,
when I ran into our living room naked
to get rid of that fire inspector.
See what you miss by being dead?
This is the end of the poem, which as a whole transitions back and forth, talking about life’s humorous and emotional moments, and an address to Mr. Stone (who has long since been buried). You can feel the rawness in that phrase, I want to dig you up, which builds one end of a frame around this lilting, almost sing-song story about the fire inspector, which matches the story’s humorous conclusion– and then, at the end, that last line of the poem, which is like a bullet in the chest. Two modes, built against each other: that is what a poem is, or rather, can be. (You don’t have to write poetry with this tension all the time, and indeed, it’s probably not healthy.) And notice that last disyllable snuck into the last line, being, which can be picked apart indefinitely for its meanings. I prefer to think of it as the last gasp of hope and memory before that dead comes crashing down, with a question mark that almost gives it the sound of a rising wail. Horrible and beautiful at once: that’s a poem, too.
Another of my favorite poems entitled “Curtains” is this one by the inestimable Sarah J. Sloat. The beauty of picking a poem apart like this is, you can find these correspondences in almost everything you read: once you internalize the process of doing this subconsciously, I think it worms its way into everything you write. Now that you’ve seen me try and take apart two poems (or, parrot how Ms. Laux took apart two poems), try it on your own with this one. What do the monosyllables and disyllables (and trisyllables! hmm) each suggest to you, as whole categories? Look at the sounds that are used for each (there is lots of internal rhyme and skeletal consonance in here). Does the poem’s structure reflect its content? It’s ok to say no or disagree: a reader’s interpretation often differs from the author’s, or another reader’s.
But in the end, the goal is for you to write your own piece while bearing these issues in the front of your mind. First, choose your theme and think about how you will represent two sides (or more) of it. Then consider what structure will be best: instead of trying to pour flesh and blood into the bones of a sonnet, consider that maybe you have the bones of something else. Build each side of the theme with a series of words that have the heavy shock of one syllable, or the complications of two. And then go in and fill in the blanks as needed. The most important, and final step, is to read through it again and see what stands out. Have a friend read it and do the same. Do the things that stand out do so because they break the meter in interesting ways? Do they have completely unexpected effects? Do they add a layer to the poem you adore and didn’t think of, or do you want to trim the fat and keep your poem lean? Sometimes your right brain knows what it’s doing; trust it.
Come and share what you have! We’d love to see it. :)