Sunday 15 March 2020

Waxing poetical

many lines read like attempts to get as many “poetry words” as possible into a single sentence. “A sepia/ penumbra clears round a moon of blood” comes close but “Shadow-green patina, faint turquoise wash/ over wafer-thin kaolin” probably takes the biscuit. Such lines are interspersed with fridge-magnet wisdom: “The past is not lost/ but covered up by time."

That comes from a review by Paul Batchelor about Padel's poetry. Recently I read the following in a poem

       Awestruck, he obeys and dogtrots after her,
            language now lost, but one pudgy digit an arrow

on the cusp of pointing

It's about a child who sees a colourful mobile. He tells his mother about it but she just tells him to get a move on. It's a common enough episode, and could have been conveyed in a more mundane, minimalist way. Here it's poetized by livening the verb choice and saying things in a rather prolix, dramatic way - "cusp of pointing" is particularly figurative. Of course, the layout is part of the poetizing (indeed, the sole purpose of the layout might be to stop reading the piece as "mere" prose).

This souping-up of language is what can happen during re-writes. In some eras it was discouraged in both poetry and prose, in others it was ok in poetry but considered too flowery or distracting for prose. It can appear ornamental, the way forced rhymes do. Or it can be praised for its density and richness.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with these features. Fashion and personal taste influence choices. Some fads come and go so rapidly that you need to be a bulk reader of poetry to notice them. On his moves in contemporary poetry page from 2010, Mike Young lists some popular poetisms - e.g. "Exposed revision" ("I almost admire it. I almost wrote despise") and "Comparing something to itself".

Nell Nelson at the end of her yearly submission windows sometimes provided a snapshot of features that repeatedly cropped up in the thousands of poems she'd recently read - see thirty poem snags and are your modifiers dangling. Examples include "Certain kinds of 'trendy' titles, leading into list poems" and "References to Edward Hopper (and especially 'Nighthawks')"

I'm going through a phrase of flattening the language, of studiously avoiding melodrama. What this means in practice is that the outcome looks more like prose.


  1. It might look and feel like prose at first if you write it and read it with the eye of someone who's used to souped-up stuff. However, the real skill is in chipping away over months and years until it turns into poetry that can be enjoyed by anyone who's dialled down their superficial taste for fluff and fireworks.

  2. I have pondered on this too: How little technique is needed for a string of text to be called a poem? And I’d love to be all clever and give you a definitive answer but what I can say (pretty much definitively) is that technique and accessibility are inversely proportional. It’s like listening to something by Boulez or Stockhausen after they adopted integral serialism. Now I’ve no doubt they’re both clever men but their music in completely beyond me. Great fun to analyse but that’s not what music’s all about.

    Yesterday I ran across a savage one-star review in The Guardian
    of Ludovico Einaudi’s latest work Seven Days Walking and this guy does not pull his punches but even he had to acknowledge that the audience was—appeared to be (his words)—mesmerised. I’ve heard some of the pieces and while I admit he pales beside Philip Glass I have no issues with it.

    The links you provided were interesting. I particularly noted Helena Nelson’s mentioning of ellipses. I used one in my last poem and, although I’m not going to pick through my back catalogue to check, I would guess the last time was about forty years ago; I’m sorry to say I did have an ellipsis period that lasted for several years. And, of course, her excerpt from Heaney’s poem illustrates my own personal stance perfectly.

    As regards your recent work all I have to say is if prose can be poetic (and that’s often seen as a good thing) why can’t poetry be prosaic. (Yes, I know I should’ve ended my sentence with a question mark but Mike Young says that’s not what the cool kids are doing these days.)

  3. I agree with both of you. I'm not concerned about my stuff looking prosaic, but I'm wondering how to authentically package it.

    I've recently read a Lighthouse Journal issue that had poetry and flash fiction. I've also read an issue of the US poetry mag Rattle (11,000+ subscribers). To me, some of the texts have the pacing, language foregrounding, etc of prose though sometimes they're in ruthless couplets. I don't mind, except that I'm more puzzled than ever about where to send things, and I'd be grumpy if one of those texts won a poetry competition - if they're illegible, what isn't?

    When, as in the Lighthouse issue, "Flash" and "poems" are interspersed, there were times when the poetry looked less compact and poetic than the prose on the facing page. More glitzy and pretentious too.

    When Wordsworth in his Preface wrote "I will not take upon me to determine the exact import of the promise which, by the act of writing in verse, an Author in the present day makes to his reader", he had certain readers in mind. I wonder nowadays what "promise" people make when they call their pieces poems? Is it just marketing? Do they hope readers will be more forgiving?

    One of the Rattle pieces begins with "Like a priest about to bestow a blessing, the President raised his hand over the blue and crimson head of the snow-white turkey, flashed his winning smile at the cameras, and said: By the power vested in me". Why did the author decide to make this into 6 lines and 3 stanzas? What's the deal?

    I know this is an old argument, but the context is new. Nowadays there are many short-text markets so writers don't have to produce fake poems. And nowadays although things/people might "identify as" whatever they like, the audience isn't passive - it has rights and freedoms too.