Poems are compressed.
The 17 syllable haiku might say as much as 2000 word story written in prose, or even an entire novel.
Even epic poems spanning thousands of lines, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, are still compressed.
You’ve probably heard the expression: a picture is worth a thousand words.
In last week’s class we looked at how poems are a sequence of images, and today we’re going to continue that exploration.
In the novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, there’s a line where, addressing the reader directly, he says, “I’m going to hand out some picture postcards…”
When you’re composing a poem, if you think of yourself as handing your reader a series of picture postcards you won’t go far wrong.
When we say that poems are compressed we’re not saying that they are merely short––even though poetry can be said to be one of the shorter forms of creative writing––instead we’re saying that the ideas and images are packed in more tightly than in other forms of writing, and yet still contain everything necessary.
So perhaps this class might be about what we can leave out of a poem without compromising its meaning, and without reducing its impact.
In fact compression might even intensify the poem’s impact.
So, what can be left out?
Legal writing includes pages of caveats and exceptions in order to rule out misinterpretation and ambiguity.
In other words legal writing makes every effort to explain its concepts and ideas.
The poet, on the other hand, resists the temptation to explain.
The poet merely presents concepts and ideas to the reader, very much like a traveller showing picture postcards, except the poet offers the bare minimum of commentary on the images.
Because poetry as a form is usually short, poets can hope and expect that their poems might be read slowly, and read thoughtfully. Perhaps read more than once, and perhaps even interpreted. No other form of creative writing is intended to be interpreted.
Here’s a good statement from IMAGINATIVE WRITING by Janet Burroway:
Subjectivity and ambiguity are the creative writer’s stock in trade, and this is never more true than with poetry.
A subjective creative work is one that grows from the author’s own sensibilities, imagination, and opinions.
The opposite of subjective is objective.
You can see that a form of writing such as journalism is objective. At least we expect journalism to be objective although it’s often far from objective. You might choose to read a liberal newspaper and a conservative newspaper in order to get a truly objective view.
Let’s say you want to write a poem about the California Wildfires.
The Subjective Approach:
One approach might be to begin writing, using only your memory of what you’ve seen and read in the news. This would be a subjective approach. You can trust that your memory will cause the most important details to be front and center of your mind. You can also include personal memories of other fires, and perhaps even getting burnt.
The Objective Approach:
Another approach might be to travel to where the fires are raging and make copious notes, interview firefighters and victims; study maps of where the fire has been and where its expected to go. This is the objective approach.
For the journalist the objective approach is the only honest approach.
The poet, though, can be as subjective, and almost has to be subjective. Even if our theoretical poet was to travel to California to see the fires first hand, the end result would still require subjectivity.
If you like, we want the journalist’s facts and the poet’s feelings.
Even though no reader expects objectivity from poetry, a poem’s subjectivity might reveal deep objectivity along the way.
Let’s use War Poetry for a moment to explore the idea of objectivity that is revealed through subjectivity. (I apologize if this seems a little male-oriented, but I will redress the balance in the next class I promise).
When we talk about The War Poets we usually refer to a group of poets who fought in the trenches in World War One. War Poetry has been written at least since the time of the ILIAD. World War One has particular significance though. The war was the first time that all males in a particular age range were drafted into the army. Everyone was marched straight to the front lines, everyone experienced battle, and had close contact with the enemy.
This meant that there were poets and writers serving in the front lines along with everyone else. These poets wrote about the hell-ish conditions they experienced––which was not the type of thing the generals wanted reported.
By the time World War Two came around, those in charge made concerted efforts to keep all poets and writers out of the front lines. Hence there were far fewer war poets in that particular war…and that trend has continued.
(It might be said that if you’re afraid of being drafted into the military, then become a poet. They won’t let you near the front lines).
Here is Attack by the British war poet Siegfried Sassoon, from World War One.
Here in contrast is a battle scene from the ILIAD:
When the two armies came to one common ground,
they smashed into each other—shields, spears, fierce angry men
encased in bronze. Studded shields bashed one another.
A huge din arose—human cries of grief and triumph,
those killing and those killed. Earth flowed with blood.
Just as streams swollen with melting snows pour out,
flow downhill into a pool, and meet some torrent
from a great spring in a hollow gully there,
and the shepherd in the distant hills hears the roar—
so the shouts and turmoil resounded then from warriors,
as they collided.
Antilochus was the first to kill a man—
a well-armed Trojan warrior, Echepolus,
son of Thalysius, a courageous man,
who fought in the front ranks. He hit his helmet crest,
topped with horsehair plumes, spearing his forehead.
The bronze point smashed straight through the frontal bone.
Darkness hid his eyes and he collapsed, like a tower,
falling down into that frenzied battle. As he fell,
powerful Elephenor, son of Chalcodon,
courageous leader of the Abantes, seized his feet,
and started pulling him beyond the range of weapons,
eager to strip him of his armour quickly.
Siegfried Sassoon wrote his poetry in notebooks while he was actually in the front lines during battle. Attack contains few specifics. You don’t know who won or lost, and in fact you wouldn’t even know which side Siegfried Sasson was on (he was British). None of this matters. By the early 1900s battlefields were so enormous that the ordinary soldier would have had no idea who was winning or losing––and battles lasted for months. Which side won or lost might be no more than a matter of opinion––a subjective opinion.
But within the subjectivity of this poem there lies a deep objectivity. What it was like to actually be there. When I was a kid in England there were still plenty of men and women in their sixties who had been on the front lines in WW1. I would look at them and think about the horrors they had witnessed.
The ILIAD was composed by Homer at least 500 years after the events. According to Samuel Butler, the first person to translate it into English, Homer, was an aristocratic Sicilian lady, and I like the idea that the composer of the greatest literary work of western civilization was a woman, so I will refer to Homer as ‘she.’
So, Homer was never on the front lines of the Trojan Wars. Not only that, by the time she was composing the poem the types of weapons and armor had changed entirely. The Siege of Troy occurred during the Bronze Age. Homer lived at the beginning of the Iron Age.
So we could say that the ILIAD is subjective. Homer would probably have based her account on earlier accounts and oral poems which are now lost. She would also have interviewed battle veterans from her own era.
But the bulk of the work must have come from Homer’s amazing imagination.
To be sure the account is violent, vivid, and terrifying, but the battles are related through a series of one-on-one combats––where the combatants knew each other’s names.
And in spite fo the violence and bloodshed, the account is about heroism.
It’s sobering to think that many of the American and British soldiers who marched off to the meat-grinder of World War One, would have been very familiar with Samuel Butler’s English translation of the ILIAD. No doubt there was a German translation too.
If we have progressed at all in the last hundred years, it is because nobody expects war to be like the ILIAD.
So we don’t have to record the factual events that inspired our poem, we just have to concern ourselves with our subjective reaction to what happened. This doesn’t mean we can lie, but we are allowed (even expected) to confine our honesty to our inner senses.
One key method of compressing a poem is to simply take out all the words we don’t need.
Topping the list of superfluous words would be the modifiers: adverbs and adjectives.
I’m not one of those teachers who forbids any use of adverbs, as I believe a well-turned adverb can really energize a text, whether poetry or prose. However I do believe in using them only when there is no alternative––or if the alternative is too complicated and long-winded.
Just so we’re on the same page:
An adjective modifies a noun.
An adverb modifies a verb.
Let’s use the word ‘walk’ to illustrate what I’m talking about.
Walk can be either a noun or a verb.
The sentence: She went for a walk, uses walk as a noun.
The sentence: I walk to work, uses walk as a verb.
Let’s modify them.
She went for a slow walk. The word ‘slow’ is an adjective.
I walk quickly to work. The word quickly is an adverb.
We can easily get rid of the adjective and adverb.
She went for a stroll.
I march to work.
We have now both compressed and intensified our sentences.
Both stroll and march are more intense than walk, as they convey their own imagery, which walk on its own does not.
What’s more we can compress double-adjectives: She went for a very slow walk can become she went for a shuffle. And we can intensify it further: She shuffled.
The most important (to me) aspect of leaving out adverbs and adjectives, is that once you’ve gotten rid of the objective modifiers you can replace them with subjective modifiers. Here’s a poem by Alicia Ostriker (she wrote the poem we read a couple of weeks ago about a poem tying tin cans to its tail).
Homage to Redon
Memory coils like cigarette smoke.
A bit of tobacco sticks to your lip.
Once you were nothing special, you floated,
Tendril in jelly, deaf to the gypsies
Camped near the cathedral square.
Acrid, harsh, their Duende-inflected song,
A guttering candle, a tingling tambourine.
Let’s look at the adjectives: cigarette; special; acrid; harsh; Duende-inflected; guttering; tingling.
See how they evoke intense imagery, and at the same time they provide just the right sound and rhythm for the verse.
Tingling tambourine gives us alliteration.
Nothing special gives us an oxymoron.
Coils like cigarette smoke gives us a simile.
Tendril in jelly… a metaphor.
Here’s another quote from Janet Burroway:
The poet has to mean more than what is literally said.
In physics no two things can occupy the same space at the same time.
But in poetry it happens all the time.
Think of it as ‘more-than-one-thing-at-a-time.’
In all creative writing dialogue has to do more than one thing at a time. For example it: dialogue reports the words a character says, but also conveys that character’s personality. Sometimes the underlying connotation tells us more about the character than it does about the words quoted.
Emma said, “You, of all people, should be ashamed of what you’ve done.”
Tells us a lot more than the words themselves because they carry a tone of sarcasm that leads us back to Emma, rather than the character she’s talking to. The author doesn’t need to go to the trouble of telling the reader that Emma is bitter. We can see it.
The same rule applies to actions.
Emma slumped in her chair and bit her knuckle…
It’s good to ‘see’ Emma in action, and once again there’s no need to tell the reader she’s fed up. We can see it for ourselves.
This is much more so in poetry, and this is why image is better than abstraction.
This is why word choice is crucial.
A concrete noun will do more than a vague noun coupled with an adjective.
A strong verb will do more than a weak verb coupled with an adverb.
Cut vague verbiage, and craft vivid phrases that resonate.
Take a look at this poem, Fire and Ice, by Robert Frost.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Look at the word choices: tasted; desire; destruction; perish; suffice.
None of these words need any modifiers (adjectives or adverbs).
Examples (by Carissa Neff)
Beauty creeps out the window
Wearing nothing but taut bare skin.
Leaving a trail of wrinkles behind her.
Hunger yells in the hallway,
Draped in cymbals;
He stomps and shouts, “Hear me now!”
‘Beauty’ is an abstraction, but as soon as we get to the next word, the verb creeps, we no longer have any doubt about the nature of this particular ‘beauty.’
Hunger is also an abstraction, but this particular vision of hunger ‘yells.’
It’s a little like the anti-metaphor we looked at last week.
A persona is a mask adopted by the author, which may be a public manifestation of the author’s self, a partial version of the self, or something (or someone) quite fictional or mythological.
Adopting a persona is a great way to add double meaning, or to imply more than is actually written, and this is more so in poetry than in any other kind of writing.
You might have come across the ‘Unreliable Narrator’ in a novel. Think of the True Story of the 3 Little Pigs by Jon Scieska. The story is narrated from he point of view of the wolf, and right from the first line we establish that the wolf is dishonest, hence for the rest of the story we know that everything has to be taken with a grain of salt.
The unreliable narrator might not be right for most poetry, but what can you say in your opening line that reveals your world view––your attitude.
This attitude will underscore the rest of the poem and connote hidden meanings.
Look at Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath:
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair.
And I eat men like air.
In Christian tradition the character of Lazarus was brought back to life after being dead for three days. Lady Lazarus is Plath’s account of being revived after an attempted suicide. Look at the imagery! A Nazi Lampshade, grave-cave, the peanut-crushing crowd.
This is a poem that cries out to be unpacked like a huge trunk filled with imagery.
Her Kind: Anne Sexton, 1928 – 1974
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain houses, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
Look again at the Sylvia Plath poem above. Does it seem as though it ought to be yelled rather than spoken? The same might be said for the Ann Sexton poem: look at the word choice in the first verse: witch, haunting, black, evil, out-of-mind…
The poems are rants.
This is your assignment for today: first read the following poem by Alicia Ostriker:
Poem Beginning with a Line by Rumi
for Tess O’Dwyer
“Only those who have felt the knife can understand the wound”
And all the same there are days when to walk a city
–New York, London, Prague–is like feeling completely healed,
With satisfying presents raining down, sheets and squares
Of windowglass, countless apartment and car windows,
Storewindows, objects to buy,
Pebbled traffic lights bouncing from red to green
Like hot deep eyes of boyfriends. Buses and taxis,
Signs and symbols, food, stone on stone
Churches, garbage, clothing and hats,
Steam puffing from grates
Heels striking sidewalk,
Rectangles between buildings a sharp blue on the best days,
Even playgrounds and green parks, and park benches
And wineglass elms, spots of complete happiness
And pride, salary that you haven’t earned.
Confess there exist days when you want to do nothing
But walk for miles of streets, not buying but looking,
Looking and blessing, and if they give you a river
To remind you still more fully of death and life,
You’ll note the ferries, the laboring barges, the bridges
And the speedboats. A material density
Whipped by energy. Here in the windy bay
A boatload of fishermen, maybe Italian,
Efficiently heave up ponderous netfuls
Of squirming bream together with eels,
Nipples and phalluses streaming
From the brine and now the sun is
Descending burning orange, the flaming
Blankets of clouds gathering to swallow it.
Your body leans against a railing,
Your eyes are like arms pulling the sensations in,
Your heart is completely pierced.
The orange sun lights the indifferent waves
The wooden boat rocks, surrounded by ocean
All is in fact natural calm and passionless
Except the tugging sailors, the frantic fish–
“O always moving brine upon which we ride
O setting tremendous sun
O stinging cold
O edge of city
O slapping water and spume caught by the air.
Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, known as Rumi, was born in 1207 north of the Oxus river, in Persian-speaking Central Asia.
So your assignment is to pick one of the following lines from Rumi, and using it as an opening line, write a a poem.
Here are the quotes (If you don’t want to use any of these quotes you can go online and find another one).
1: Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.
2: Since you will come and throw kisses at my tombstone later why not give them to me now?
3: When the soul lies down in the grass
4: When I am with you, everything is prayer.
5: Love is an emerald.
6: Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.
7: No man hath ever seen a soul.
8: When your heart becomes the grave of your secrets,
9: Let silence take you to the core of life.
10: You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?
11: Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?
12: You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.
13: Darkness is your candle.
14: I have become a Rose petal and you are like the Wind for me.
15: We are the mirror, as well as the face in it.
16: I am the willow’s shadow.
17: You are also out walking in a field at dawn.
18: The birds sing suddenly and all at once.
19: The Rose speaks openly to the Nightingale.
20: Because I cannot sleep…
Your poem should be between 100 and 200 words, and can be any form. It can rhyme or not, as you choose.