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Poetry: "A Messy Business"

In THE ART OF RECKLESSNESS, poet Dean Young says, "[The writing of a poem] needs to be a messy business, a devotion to unpredictability, the papers blowing around the room as the wind comes in."

            How can recklessness be an art? How can we develop a “devotion to unpredictability”? What would happen if the wind blew in and swooped up all our carefully ordered pages, tossed them to the ceiling, some even blowing away through the open window, and rearranged those left into a joyful chaos? How would we cope? What treasures might we find?

            Unpredictability is linked to joy and joy comes out of the unexpected pleasures of life, the sudden insights, metaphorical connections, surprising words in contexts that can elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary, the daily grind to unforgettable experience.

            One of the ways my teaching gets elevated from the ordinary for me is the way my students respond to their reading. One of them, Kristin Quisgard, after reading Stanley Kunitz and Genine Lentine’s The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, wrote in an annotation:  “This poet is so adept at seeing things. The essays, the poems, the language are enough to fry the mind, and the images are enough to burn the retinas.”

            What is it that is so intriguing to Kristin? What is it that makes her feel like the language can fry the mind and the images burn the retinas? At least in part, it might be the unpredictability, the surprise, the joy of the unexpected, and the use of those means to allow the discoveries made by the poet to foster discovery in the reader. Poet Stephen Dobyns says, “It is always dangerous for the reader to think the poet is giving answers rather than seeking them. What we partly look for in a piece of writing is discovery. That discovery cannot be imparted, it must be enacted.”

            This discovery, not imparted or dictated through content, must be shown or enacted through poetic techniques, the music and shape of the poem, the sound and rhythm, the lines and stanzas, the white space on the page that takes the eye time to move across and thus provides the mental space between musical beats, the rests, pauses, crescendos, the echo of the last notes hanging in the silence.


            So, what can we do in our writing to get the most of it, to make our poems more than the sum of their parts? For me, the idea is to play with lines and line breaks, mixing them up, moving them around. You can take scissors to the poems and slice into lines, phrases, even words that you can move around and make of them new combinations that may lead to a more powerful juxtaposition of idea and image than a straightforward format can do.

            You can take a look at the two most important positions in each line and see what you’ve got there. In a workshop in Chicago some years ago, the poet and former TriQuarterly editor, Reginald Gibbons, in teaching about the integrity of the line, lineation and enjambment, said that the most important position in each line is the last word and the second most important is the first word. In reading down the right margin, we should see some very strong image-filled words with good sounds that contribute to the tone and richness of a poem, especially, as we all know, in rhyming poetry. However, reading down the left margin can be almost as strong an experience. We can make more interesting lines by making that first word as strong as possible and employing other means of lineation, using enjambment to create interest and to shore up or undercut the ostensible meaning of the sentence in which the lines fall. Enjambment is one of my favorite things to work with in revision as I try to avoid the auditory monotone that end-stopped lines can produce.

            Enjambment is the carrying over of the sentence from one line to the next so as not to end each line with a period or comma or some other visual or aural stoppage of the line in the way that simple breath phrases might do. Gibbons also suggested mixing up the stanzas to find more jump and surprise, more delight. Even mixing up the lines inside the stanzas is useful at times. Keep the poem’s syntax open as long as possible. You might find a treasure. If you haven’t ever printed out your work and actually cut it up with scissors, give it a try.

            Now, I’m going to show you some of my revisions into poetry of a prose journal entry I wrote one bright rain-washed Vermont morning. Maybe some of what I do could work for you. Unless I have already chosen a specific form to work within, I’ll start with regular prose sentences or quickly written lines that are somewhat more like breath phrases and then move to other lines that work on more than one level. Next, I’ll break the lines into stanzas that seem to have some integral interest of their own (as opposed to a kind of paragraph look and downward drive from top to bottom), and then decide placement on the page and whether to keep a left margin. In my poems, I keep playing, keep pushing for more electricity in the positions of the words and lines, and continue to experiment with the order of stanzas and/or lines as I try to get the feeling of the piece onto the page visually as well as in the words and juxtapositions.

            Here’s an example of my process.

1. Prose sentences:

Look at this morning, my love, this blue, blue sky, this sun. Oh, to dive deep into life, just like this, one moment taken to its very depths. Look at that—one drop of rain on a leaf, making rainbows.


2. Prose sentences broken into lines with a little revision:

Look at this morning, my love,

this blue sky, this sun.

Oh, to dive deep into life

like this, one tiny moment

taken to its depths,

one raindrop on one leaf,

rainbow colors prisming.


You can see that I removed one “blue,” “just,” “very,” and “look at that,” (all extra words), repeated “one” and added “tiny.” I made the last two lines more rhythmic and graceful and found a word I fell in love with: “prisming.”


3. Lines refined into free verse breath phrases:

Love, look at this morning,

this blue sky, this sun.

To dive into life like this,

one tiny moment

taken to its depths

one raindrop on one leaf,

colors prisming.


Here, in reading aloud I decided “Love, look” was more musical and a little less sentimental than “my love,” which is also why I got rid of the “Oh,” in the third line along with “deep,” which was redundant with “depths” later on in the stanza and I had to choose between them. The same goes for “rainbow” and “prisming.” And, as you can see, I was still loving that word, “prisming,” even though I’d begun to realize it was a bit awkward to read aloud.


4. Enjambment adds resonance and subtle undertones of meaning to each line so that the sentence can still be read and its apparent meaning apprehended, but a subliminal expression can also exist, shoring up or, perhaps, even undercutting the surface meaning.

Attention to enjambment:

Love, look at this morning, this blue

sky, this sun. To dive into

life, like this, one tiny moment

taken to its depths, one raindrop

on one leaf, prisming.


Here, I made conscious choices about the little “packets” of information each line

would deliver and how they might stand both inside and outside the sentence to build resonance of meaning. I also realized colors and prisming were pretty much the same image.


5. Now, I began to assess the stanza and didn’t like how square it looked. I saw more could be done and broke the first two and last two lines into lines I liked better and produced a more organic rounded look, emphasizing that word I’d fallen in love with and thinking if it were on its own line, it might work better, be easier to say:

Love, look at this

morning, this blue

sky, this sun. To dive into

life, like this, one tiny moment

taken to its depths,

one raindrop on one leaf,



Continuing to refine lines, cut extra words, juggle around line breaks, making it look even more raindroppy, playing around:


Love, look at this

morning, blue sky,

this sun. To dive into

life, one tiny moment

taken to its depths,

one raindrop on one

leaf, prisming.



6. Positioning on the page:  The stanza still looked too tight, so I decided to try a form I use a lot and open the poem up across the page, as well as give it a title and stanzas.



                                                love, look:


                        morning-blue sky

                                    sun                         to dive into



                                                                         one                 tiny             moment

                                                            taken to its depths




                                    one leaf                        one raindrop

                                                               a prism



I deleted ‘life’, which had begun to seem heavy handed to me and too obvious, and ‘-ing’ on ‘prisming’, a word that when I first found it seemed fresh and fun, but by this time had begun to appear too cute and called attention to itself rather than to the image I wanted to convey, and I had ‘leaf’ and ‘raindrop’ trade places so that the reader would see the leaf first then the raindrop upon it, then the prisming colors.


7. Even at this late stage, I might still be looking at word, stanza, and line order, maybe even trying for more logic and clarity using a title that states the circumstances or occasion for the poem. In the next revision, I added a title stating that this is after a rainy night. I even tried reversing the order of the stanzas and arranged the words in a kind of leaning forward shape, as if the poem were about to dive off the page:


after night rain


                                    one leaf                        one raindrop

                                                                    a prism


            one                 tiny                         moment

                                          taken                         to its depths           


            love           look:

                          morning-blue sky

                      sun            life                       to dive into


I’ve heard it said that joy is the “pleasurable disruption of expectation” and for me that isn’t just the expectation of the reader, but of my own expectations as the writer. I need to do something to disrupt my usual way of writing, my usual way of thinking and patterning. Doing something as seemingly strange and counterintuitive as reversing the stanzas surprises me and actually reveals the true feeling and meaning of this poem—at last. Also, as a side note—I strive to find strong words for the ends and beginnings of lines, but especially at the end of lines, and I mentally resisted the “to dive into” line ending throughout the whole process, sort of hoping to hide it if I couldn’t figure out another way of getting rid of it. However, it finally showed itself to be the true pivot of the poem, not at the middle, but at the end, a dive into the white space of thought after the poem’s end, I suppose. And, somehow, the word “life” came back and seemed to fit in a more practical and realistic way instead of what had become a kind of sappy, almost melodramatic way in the earlier revisions.


            From the paragraph to the sentence, from the line to the word, the most elegant arrangement will allow your stories and poems to become more than simply the sum of their parts. Sometimes the most elegant is not the first discovered or the easiest or even the most regimented. Sometimes the most elegant arrangement of words on the page is the reckless one, the one abandoned to wind and intuition, where play and chance enter and rules become notions and we each find our own best solutions in the joy of the “pleasurable disruption of expectation,” in which the whole becomes not just a sum of its parts but a multiple of its parts, its form and content, exponential music.




( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Stephanie Parsley Ledyard
Jan. 23rd, 2012 02:35 am (UTC)
Sharon, I enjoyed your post and especially the example of your poem as you revised it. Wish I could have heard your lecture in person! It's nice to read you here.
xo Stephanie Parsley
Jan. 27th, 2012 02:44 pm (UTC)
Cynsational News & Giveaways
User cynleitichsmith referenced to your post from Cynsational News & Giveaways saying: [...] p; More News & Giveaways Poetry: A Messy Business [...]
Mar. 27th, 2012 05:25 pm (UTC)
Sharon, you work wonders with form and mind-expanding exploration. I have loved all of my work with you and with poetry, because you open windows I would have never dreamed were not shuttered and closed to me. Sally
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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