Saturday, July 21, 2012

Writing is hard, poetry is harder.

I've written a lot of stuff in my life, from 30-second TV commercials to a 317-page novel, with stops along the way including a biography, short stories and plays. But I had never taken a serious shot at poetry. Couldn't be too tough, right? A few lines or stanzas, whatever you call them, some vague thoughts, words that don't rhyme at the end of the line, and an esoteric title having no relationship to the real world. The New Yorker publishes stuff like that every week. 

With that in mind, I submitted two poems to a poetry contest recently. One, a very long poem which I called "Echoes in B-Flat." Very cool, I thought: jazz oriented, musical, visual; a sure winner. First line: "The cool blue neon beckons through the window." Hard to stop reading, right?

 The other poem, much shorter...3 stanzas or paragraphs or whatever...I called "Transplant." Intriguing, you must admit. Opening line: "The first time I met her I knew she was not right for him." That's a grabber, for sure, like the start of a Stephen King or John Grisham novel. I could hear the comments now. "I couldn't put it down." "The fastest three stanzas I've ever read." Things like that.

I mailed the poems in, with my check for $15. I was sure I could add "Poetry Winner" to my list of accomplishments. The results were announced two weeks ago. Nothing. Not a prize, not an Honorable Mention. Not even an addendum to the tally, like "The judges were impressed by a new poet... etc etc." 

Maybe I didn't know enough about the art of poetry. So I got a book from the library. "next word, better word: the craft of writing poetry." Yes, the title was all in lower case, an example of how weird the subject is. Author is stephen dobyns. I picked this book because he wrote a poem once which I actually liked a lot, about a guy and his dog going for a late night ride. And the dog talks to him. Hey, it's poetry.

The book is a revelation. It's like opening a tool box and seeing a bunch of tools you've never seen before and, worse, have no idea how to use. These were the tools of poetry. Let me tell what's in there. First, there's this over-arching premise which sounds exquisite, though I haven't yet conquered its meaning.
"What makes human beings different from any other creature is their sense of possibility. We can speculate about things that don't exist..... This, as well as art and metaphor, dream and humor, is a product of the right brain. The left brain can analyze, but it cannot imagine....It cannot hypothesize. A metaphor - and all art is metaphor - presents us all at once with a complete  totality of meaning that we dwell upon and continue to learn from as we consider its implications."

And I was still on page 6 of the introduction. Skipping nimbly ahead to page 90, I encountered this:
"The two main reasons to have line breaks are rhythm and meaning....A poem's rhythm is by and large influenced by the fact that English is a stressed language...But if the line is broken where no punctuation or syntactic pause exists - if the line is enjambed - then we have an artificial pause, a brief hiccup in the flow of the sentence."

The only person I can imagine understanding that is a proctologist.
Next, a thought I can empathize with.
"In a poem, unlike an anecdote, the reader's question - 'what does this mean?' - is not fully answered by its syntactic closure. We have a sense of more, and so we move past the syntactic closure to reread the poem in search of the scope of that 'more.'"

Now I was really on dobyn's side. He knew I didn't have a clue about writing or reading a poem, and I constantly asked myself - or my dog, if she were nearby - "Just what the hell does THAT mean???" Finally I got near the end of the book, scanning much of it, I admit. Then I came across this section, which turns an analysis of a poem into an accurate description of how those scientists in Geneva recently found the Higgs boson, aka The God Particle.
"The first line begins with a trochee and ends with a pyrrhic and spondee; the second ends with a pyrrhic and spondee, the third beings with a trochee... Affecting our sense of what exists and what should exist is our psychology, our belief system, our history and even comparatively superficial factors such as whether we got a good night's sleep."

I understood the "good night's sleep" concept.

So this is a long-winded way of my telling you, Don't expect any more poetry from this writer. I find it much easier to write a novel, a play, the biography of a failedcaterer, than to attempt another conflict between the two sides of my brain. I can't leave you without naming 3 of my favorite poets. They write poems I can understand. I think. They are Stephen Dobyns, Billy Collins, and George Bilgere. I've attached links to Dobyns and Bilgere. A few poems by Dobyns  A few poems by George Bilgere

So you don't have to wonder about my "Transplant" poem, here's how it begins:

"The first time I met her I knew she was not right for him.
Don't get me wrong, I didn't dislike her.
She smiled and laughed and said the proper things.
I just knew she would wear him down, 
a perpetual grindstone on weathered wood.
She was the oddly shape piece of a puzzle that couldn't
possibly fit into the portrait of a complicated man."

I still think it's pretty good. Just not enough metaphors probably.


  1. You underestimate yourself, Gerry. "a perpetual grindstone on weathered wood" is fantastic!

  2. Loved this! You write ABOUT poetry well, and I do think there is a poem in this "Transplant"--just perhaps maybe a few too many words.

    If I were doing a quick workshop edit, your poem might look like this:

    [Retitle it--"Transplant" isn't right. Feels like a kidney. Perhaps "Mismatch"?]

    She was not right
    for him. She smiled,
    laughed, said the proper
    words to wear him down,
    a perpetual grindstone
    on weathered wood.
    She was the odd-shaped puzzle
    piece that couldn't fit
    the portrait of a complicated man.

  3. Hi Gerry, I feel your comments about poetry. I don't know much about it myself although I do have quite a collection of poems that I have written. I'm the type who believes that poetry should rhyme; of course, we all know it doesn't have to and many times it doesn't. I also think it was brave - yes brave - of you to talk about your rejection. I've never talked about mine to anyone. I think that in the writing business you have to grow a thick skin though or you won't survive. Since you shared, I would like to share one of my poems; let me know what you think.


    I had such hope; you showed such promise;
    you had so much potential.
    I saw those things I knew I needed,
    for me they were essential.
    But things have changed,
    the appeal I saw has slowly seeped away.
    You’re not the same,
    you’ve changed somehow,
    much to my dismay.
    So, there you sit hour after hour
    motionless as a rock.
    Like solid matter clinging tight
    immobile and unmoving.
    Embedded in your easy chair,
    like a slab of rock, muddy brown,
    emerging from the ground.
    Worn and pitted, a lumpy
    cap perched atop your pate.
    You volunteer no answers,
    nor do you reciprocate.
    You make no observations,
    nor do you participate.
    Day after day you just exist
    unchanged except by time.
    You sit in silence oh so still
    and its you the TV’s watching,
    while you emit the occasional noise
    that sounds like granite shifting.
    You sit so quiet your face like stone,
    I wonder, are you still living?
    And so I lean, and reach to nudge,
    to see if you’re still breathing.
    There is no more that I can say,
    I’ve said it all before.
    The threats, the talks, the ultimatums,
    but I’ll try them all once more.
    I’ve often wished that you would change,
    but it’s just not in your nature.
    I’m tired of trying, should I accept it?
    But no I can’t inure.
    It’s obvious that you’ll never leave
    you’re here to stay for sure,
    But will I stay? Can I stay?
    And how can I endure?
    © By Muriel Muex