I would’ve done this post earlier, but there was some unseasonably nice weather that kept me out and about most of the day. And I took the opportunity to undertake phase one of my secret hair-related plot. After two and a half years of stuffy office jobs, I’m finally at a place again where there is no particular hair policy; I have coworkers with red mohawks, pink-and-blue streaks combined with shaved stylings, and one who’s doing a series of facial hair projects shaped like letters of the alphabet. So I think that my intention to do up a blue-green fauxhawk will seem right modest. Phase one — the actual cut/shaping — is complete, to be followed by phase two (highlights with bleach) and phase three (the color!) in swift succession. I’m getting all my half-life crises out of the way now, to save agita later.
Meanwhile, it’s almost the end of February, and I realized I haven’t been doing nearly enough revising/submitting, so that’s going to be a mini-project for the near future. And CSHS already has a number of submissions! Tessa and I will send our first wave of responses soon; in the meantime, if you haven’t been over to the new page already, please do check it out: http://cshsq.wordpress.com is the place to go.
For resonance eight, we’re going to take a cue from T.S. Eliot, and an 18th-century scholar named William Jones (not generally known for his poetry), who took a cue in turn from Marco Girolamo Vida (an obscure 16th century bishop who wrote poetry in Latin), to talk about chess. I remember doing an extended paper/presentation senior year on Eliot’s “A Game of Chess” (from The Waste Land) and its symbolism/significance, which came back to me today while discussing game theory and chess with my brother. This then reminded me of Vida, and in turn Jones, who both wrote poems about “Caïssa”, the purported “goddess of chess”. Wikipedia tells me that as a figure, she’s popped up here and there in various other works, but seems to be more or less an invention of these obscure poets. I love the idea of chess having its own tutelary spirit, and pairing it with Eliot’s use of chess as poetic metaphor. So, why not apply it to the process itself? Why not indeed.
If you’re not a chess player (goodness knows I’m not, at least not habitually), have no fear. I’ll guide you through a bit. Start by drumming up some ideas about theme and concept: I wouldn’t suggest doing something too overdone (in Eliot’s case, signifying a pair of lovers’ relationship with the nuanced and protracted struggle that is chess has been tried and tried again by this point), but nor do you want to be too simple. For the sake of example, let’s say bulldozing a park is the conflict we’re summing up here. Arrange some basic metaphors and images that you want to deploy, almost list-fashion, to do some filling in: these are your pawns. In the first part of the game, you want to trot them out: the poem will have little meat at first, but set the scene. We might have finch down and the snap of roots and a tide of dispossessed spiders carefully arranged. Let the first few lines bring out the idea; hell, you could move out all eight pawns if you want.
Then get the bigger pieces out, the curious linguistic choices of knights and the attention-grabbing slant-rhyme of bishops and the heavy, iambic philosophy expressed by rooks. Let these be your narrative right and left jabs: how will you surprise the reader? (Remember: you only get two of each!) In a sense, you must play to win, persuading the reader to go along with you either to the end of an argument (for a poem that makes a point), or to a place of belief (for a poem that merely seeks to illustrate and envision). Perhaps it’s not entirely clear what’s happening in the first few lines of the poem, but once you throw out the saws begin to chew the ancient sycamore to dust, there can be little mistake. Don’t put it all out there too soon, though; Caïssa must be courted and impressed for you to win the game. Move forward and draw back between showing and telling, the simplicity of image and the directness of narrative. One strategy for getting the better of your opponent (the reader, in this case) is to lull them into accepting the premise as a prelude to understanding.
And that’s where the queen comes in. What do you want to drive home? Not until the midgame of chess, fairly late, should the queen come out. It’s as though all the moves you’ve had to this point — whether they’re on a board with pieces or on the page with choices of line — have constructed a hammer, and the queen is the nail suddenly driven home. But with chess, you have one goal, and in a poem, you have many options: was the park the favorite spot of a lost sibling, whose ghost you now bring into the poem? Does a fallen pear suddenly yield all its fruit at once for all the hungry children watching, who now run forward? Choose the most striking language and image in your arsenal that orbits around the topic at hand, and deploy it. Whatever point you want to make, whatever deeper theme you’re addressing, this is the moment to do it.
The endgame unfolds with the last circulation of images and re-iterations. There isn’t much tale left to tell; and as long as you’ve protected your king, kept your position safe from any holes that a reader may try to poke in your premise, wrap up decisively. (Don’t take too long; Caïssa doesn’t toy with her prey, she goes for the jugular checkmate.) What does the sibling’s ghost do that really cuts with loss? What lessons do all the children scooping up early pears teach us? The poem should be a steady march from start to finish, without digressions and useless moves. By the end, every element must have been necessary for this purpose. As in chess, the mathematical precision of this approach does not mean that there can’t be moments of innovation, surprise, and beauty; it takes skill to see and craft them, and even more to understand how even these moments, too, have a purpose that serves the final goal. Take from that what you will, and hopefully use it to craft a poem; then come back and share, if you’ve a mind to.
(For added bonus fun: you could write two poems that follow the same sort of structure, in conversation with each other; you could even write in tandem with another poet. Let the images reflect but invert each other, as though White is playing against Black. The finch down becomes rust flakes, the spiders become a low, persistent grinding sound. You and your collaborator — who might be yourself — get to decide whose approach gets the better of the reader, and “wins” the day. If you’re lucky, as this is not chess after all, you’ll draw/stalemate, and have created a symbiotic pair of poems that inform each other. Caïssa might call this a “brilliancy“, but I just call it damn good fun.)