Thursday, March 17, 2011


When starting this project, Todd asked me the direction I wanted to go with the poems for the manuscript, a question we returned to last week. We talked about series and themes, how they can add unity to a manuscript. Until this talk and the further thinking that evolved from it, I hadn’t really contemplated the importance of a definable theme or even style, assuming naively it just comes. Reading Four of a Kind by Mark Neely, I was reminded of the ability of a series to right away solidify a manuscript in some sort of a way. These poems, each titled things like “Four Accidents” or “Four Threads,” are constructed on the page in four equally-sized “windows” of text, two on top and two on bottom. Beyond being formatted and sized the same, the content of the poems, at once, hold their own as individual pieces but more importantly pull themselves together under each umbrella of “Four Somethings.”

Maybe the most, I appreciate Neely’s use of the image to play on and delve into the title. A sense of purpose unfolded as I moved from block to block. The poem “Four Fields” is an excellent example of such, as the first one begins, “The locust trees could hiss like snakes,/then still to painted leaves—the wind playing with its paper toys” leading to the first line of the last section, beginning, “These nights the silence has a human shape.” To me, throughout this poem, the associative quality, in this case nature-oriented, of each section pushes them together, while each still makes an impact of its own.

I think this complexity and unique design is what makes this a solid foundation for the collection. While I do very much enjoy the language and the content of the poems, I’m going to focus on the larger structure here, as it pertains to my process of developing this manuscript with Todd. Basically, I have two series of poems developing. One is the set that I’m using for this class, what Todd calls “The Stoked Poems,” where my voice is excited, often using caps, my slang, and energetic association (hopefully well). The other is “The On Poems,” which because of their stage of development and (GASP) simpler construct, I’ve decided to develop on my own, with some help from pals. These have a similar set-up to the Stoked Poems in general style, but they pay less attention to poetic sensibilities and more attention to the relationship between thinking and feeling as expressed in writing. Sometimes, I even feel guilty calling them poems.

There, I think I found it, my point to this post. When thinking about series, especially in the vein of the On Poems, but certainly in generally, I often wonder when something becomes less about the poetry and more about the exercise or the act of behaving a certain way on the page. Before I delve deeper into Neely’s book with this idea in mind, along with Descriptive Sketches by Nate Pritts and Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! by Peter Davis, I want to consider my series with this idea in mind.

Last summer, I started these pieces as an attempt to “calm down.” Often, I was getting lost in the “coolness” of language, and I’d end up with this emotionally-empty but (hopefully) cool sounding thing. When trying to correct it, I’d end up writing these thoughtful poems that were boring. The solution: state a simple topic of concern or interest, disregard linebreaks/rhyme/other poetic conventions, and simply merge the thinking and the feeling. I’ve written about 60 of these and I’m proud of maybe 40 of them for accomplishing my task. The concern I have is about the artifice of it. Of course, as Todd says, all poetry is artifice, but how does such an artifice become relevant, legitimate, and poetic? I guess I have similar concerns about the stoked poems, especially because a lot of readers won’t know me, and might think that this is just a ploy, not me really saying my guts sincerely.

Where Neely’s collection takes a step above simply being a series or exercise is the way the language, the construct, and the poems themselves come together. Though not always aesthetically pleasing for me, I appreciate his sense of the image, the sense of how things unfold in these little windows, which says a lot about the power of the way they are presented, automatically creating a balance in the purpose, the content, and the delivery. Most importantly for me, when together, these poems create their own image about the author, about the style, about the scenes laid out, piled together, that pushes this collection to be a true achievement in series writing.

Because of the descriptive style of Neely, I was reminded of another chapbook with a unique style and construction called Descriptive Sketches by Nate Pritts. On the acknowledgements page, Pritts explains that “each sketch is a haze of language built out of the first line” with the point “to explore the tensile strength of language itself.” While I certainly appreciate that attempt and style as an exercise, these pieces together as a chapbook of poems clashed with my understanding of what makes a solidified work.

Maybe it is a result of differences in aesthetics, though I certainly love other poems of Pritts, I feel that these poems run their course and lose their uniqueness only a few poems in. This is not to say the writing or the language exploration is bad. Here, I am talking about how a series comes together. Looking at the first and last of the bunch might help this point. The first one begins with an onslaught of autumn-devolving-into-winter imagery:

this spinning snow fall leaves scattered bird bright in grey
bright leaves scattered spinning fall snow this bird in grey
snowfall in grey this bird spinning scattered leaves bright

This continues for four more stanzas. Certainly, the ability to refigure language in this way is notable, but when the last one, and the ones in between, look, feel, and resonate so similarly, it is difficult to grasp onto the collection as a whole, as in the beginning of the last one:

I am right now more than ever feeling again
I am feeling again right now more than ever
again more now feeling I am ever right than

While certainly the content and even diction is different, the result for me, merely thinking about how the poems work together does not illicit any sort of overall response from me as a reader, a fear I constantly have with my poems.

Neely’s book on the other hand sticks with me because of how the stark images and underlying emotion are framed within the artifice of the series in a way that lets them breath their own life, but are even stronger in such a contained series.
This reminds me of Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! by Peter Davis. With all poems titled “Poems Addressing…”, everything from Babies to People Who Read My First Book Of Poems, so Are Checking This Out, Davis comes at the audience in a straight forward way that at first can seem unpoetic and plain.

However, what makes this book so impactful for me is the unrelenting assault on the reader of this back and forth between the deeper emotions Davis expresses and the humor as the guise. For instance, several poems address people, such as universities or reviewers, that Davis is seeking approval and recognition from. While the style and the series makes this humorous, the underlying emotion is astounding. When these are packed and repeated in a full length collection, the quality and the quantity of emotional honesty breaks through the humor, creating a lasting set of poems.

I suppose my point with this post is to not necessarily criticize Pritts, as he did do some cool things in those sketches, or point to Davis’ or Neely’s books as any revolutionary works. Rather, they all three are helping me deal with coming to grips with my project, the focus of it, and how I can improve it to make the lasting impression on the readers that I want.

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