Sunday, September 13, 2009

4 contemporary poems illustrate choices for poets

The poems are Schuyler's "Dining Out with Doug and Frank," O'Hara's "Why I Am Not a Painter," Sylvia Plath's "Daddy," and Robert Lowell's "The Drunken Fisherman." While they may seem fairly similar in a broad sense, these poems provide a range of options for structuring your work.

Every poem, even the most loose-knit, should have some structure. The first clue to the structure is often the type of speech represented by the poem. That is: is it like a letter to someone? Is it someone thinking? Is it casual conversation?

This is one of the main things that separates "postmodern" poetry from traditional stuff. Very often, traditional poetry (before the 19th century) is an address to the whole world. Poets still do this. But modern & postmodern styles have created a lot of options. And choice is good, right?

O'Hara: "Why I Am Not a Painter" is not a story per se, but a reflection on a question about oneself. This, as well as the tone, marks it as casual conversation. It is the sort of thing we discuss in conversation; we describe ourselves often. However, O'Hara tells a story to illustrate why he is not a painter, and this story makes a point about art. It also comes together at the end in a neat and effortless way. Well done! So, the poem is ultimately not about himself; the putative subject is a bit of a trick he plays on the reader. Options for poets: i) use the confidential tone O'Hara employs in this poem, like he's whispering in your ear - note all the techniques he uses to liven it up and make it engaging; ii) make light use of line breaks - O'Hara doesn't use them to complicate the meaning, just to slightly speed up or slow down the piece; ii) use the "making a point about myself" mode - note that O'Hara rescues this poem from the too-personal-to-matter trap by making a rather Romantic point about art.

Plath: "Daddy" is an address to a partly real, partly fictional person. Where O'Hara uses the personal meditation to make a point about art or love & ambivalence, Plath's focus is expressive. She expresses emotion. Her poetry does not explore the Holocaust or the nature of father-daughter relationships in general. Since emotion is her stock-in-trade, she heightens it with intense, shocking,imagery. She uses public imagery to express private feelings. This undercuts any sense that her poetry may be overly self-concerned. She also evokes a complicated or conflicted emotional landscape. Options for poets: i) use the personal address or "letter" format - bear in mind that poets like Plat lard their letters with "public" material (such as the Holocaust or Freudian references); ii) use Plath's clipped, varied line structure; she uses a lot of alliteration and strong stresses and few flowing lines; iii) the "intense" mode in poetry means that your poem has to build in intensity or reach a climax and descend from there; Plath's "Lady Lazarus" is a better example of pulling this off, I think.

Schuyler: James Schuyler's "Dining Out with Doug and Frank" is a record of the poet's thoughts, with elements of speech. It reads like a transcript of these thoughts during the specific time of the poem's composition. This gives it a musical quality in the sense that the poem must be "played" from beginning to end to be properly experienced. Unlike a traditional poem, you cannot pick out key passages or lines and try to understand the poem from them. You have to take it as a whole process. You could call this a thought process poem. Schuyler, like other successful contemporary poets, uses a variety of techniques to keep the reader's interest: humor, specific references, a brazenly self-obsessed and self-indulgent voice, assorted facts, and anecdotes. Options for poets: i) you can write a "transcript of thought" type poem - it is a compelling mode, because it creates a sense of immediacy: "As I sit/ writing these words/ the rain begins to fall/ and I think of you...." ii) remember, though, that Schuyler works hard to be an engaging presence and decorates his poem with specifics as discussed above. You do not have to do this exactly as he did it, but you would have to find another way. iii) Schuyler's poem is not about himself, ultimately, but about the ways we deal with loss through art. A successful spontaneous poem should have a similar theme.

Lowell: One of the most celebrated of the "Confessional" school of poetry, Lowell is a remarkably traditional poet with ties to Robert Frost. "The Drunken Fisherman" has a regular rhythm that gives it a grounded feel. It has a central image, and sticks with it. The voice is not the voice of "Robert Lowell," but that of a character who has an archetypal feel. This archetypal feel, a classic technique in poetry, makes the piece seem grounded and significant. The poem deals with aging and death. Options for Poets: i) you can use a single, central image to unify your poem, one with a mythic feel to it. This is sure to give your poem a substantial feeling, but can also put you in danger of seeming cliched. ii) you can use regular meter. When you do, it makes the poem feel like an object, not like speech. It grounds the poem and prevents it from feeling loose or trivial. Regular meter gives you a chance to emphasize certain words and passges by letting them break the rules of the meter.

Note that all of these poems are unified through the use of a specific "scenario" for the poem. In other words, they are specific acts of communication (a letter, a transcript of thought, a conversation) - and they stick with this mode. They all have a unified expressive purpose, usually mixing the personal with a universal question. And they all use "public" material of some sort.

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