The Inexplicable Math of Good Poetry
I am at no loss for information about you and your family; but I am at a loss where to begin.
By Grace Curtis for Poets’ Quarterly
Recently, an editor of a well-known journal posted a message online from a reader who was praising the latest edition. The reader said she could feel the stake the poets had in their words and content. That got me to thinking about how one can tell when a poet has had a stake in his words and content. We frequently hear these kinds of statements being made in reference to poetry. For instance, we say we can feel the tension in the poem, or the poem surprises us, or it is accessible, or it is coded, or it resonates. These terms are often first used by a writer in a critical essay or, by a book reviewer; then, over time they worm their way into our shared lexicon.
Our propensity to talk about poetry in these kinds of terms speaks to the difficulty we have identifying, and then articulating in plain-speak, how poems do what they do. Most poets know, for instance, what is meant when a poem is said to be accessible. That we tend to broaden our vocabulary used in our poetic discourse speaks in part to our desire as poets and readers—or at least it should—to understand more clearly what makes a good poem good. Knowing it and knowing how to accurately talk about it using shared vocabulary—often begged, borrowed, or stolen from other usages—develops a kind of basis of understanding, murky as it continues to be.
It is fascinating and enlightening to listen to poets talk about poetry. In fact, one of the best things about the annually released, The Best American Poetry books, edited by a guest editor—including such notables as John Ashbery (1988), Jorie Graham (1990), Adrienne Rich (1996), and Paul Muldoon (2005)—and Series Editor, David Lehman, is the guest editors’ introductions. In these short passages, each editor talks about why he selected the poems for that year’s book. The intros are like keys that unlock the double cast-iron, triple dead-bolt locked doors of understanding, since the guest editor explains, in more or less specific—and usually eloquent—terms, what made the selected poems stand out from among the hundreds considered.
For example, in the 2008 edition, guest editor, Charles Wright tells us, by referencing lines from W. B. Yeats “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” that poetry comes from the heart (the “foul rag-and-bone-shop of the heart”), and also that, as Keats asserts, poetry is a matter of soul-making, along with a little math.
It truly is not a matter of arrangement, of performance, of presentation, of rhetorical dazzle or surprise, though all of those matters may be a part of it. It is not the distractions, but the focus…It’s the only time that two plus one makes two—language is half, technique is half, and emotion is half…It’s not a question of paper, of typewriters, of white space or of dark space—it’s a question of what’s in your life, and where you want that life to lead you. You’ve only got one, and you can fill it with whatever you want…But if it is poetry that you want, then don’t look for language games, intellectual rip-offs, or rhetorical sing-alongs. You’ve got to know in your heart of hearts, that Keats is right, that it is about soul-making, that it does matter, and that it can make you or break you as a person.
Wright is suggesting that the poetry that resonated with him that year was the poetry in which he could sense the poet’s make you or break you stake in the game; poetry that was not just from the heart, not just soul-making—but also poetry that was, in this odd equation using poet-math: half language, half technique, half emotion.
He must have felt that the poems he selected for inclusion came as close as possible to making the math work out. Here is a passage from one of the poems in that edition, “Pentecost” for John Foster West, by R. T. Smith, from Notre Dame Review:
Squint-eyed and cunning, its tongue split
like a wishbone, the canebrake sulls up,
cursive spine and the diamond in spiral
like genetic code,
and Joby frets the Stratocaster, its plastic
the color of a salted ham. A tambourine’s
discs shiver, and Brother Pascal wields the Book’s
hot gospel like a blunt instrument. This is
spirit. This is bliss. The words from Heaven
would almost strangle you. The Holy Ghost
is a rough customer alright, . . .
And, here is another from Susan Mitchell’s “Ritual,” from The American Poetry Review
as one who casts the word bread upon the word waters, testing
as one who not believing something will rise up from
those waters, but not disbelieving either
casts out her voice
as one curious or hungry or filled with longing breaks
off just the crust of a word, throwing
the way she threw as a girl when everyone
told her that was not the way
to throw. . .
In both of these poems, it seems you can indeed feel a kind of “make you or break you stake in the words and content.” It manifests itself as a kind of intensity. In “Pentecost” the rhythm is as pulsing as, well, a Pentecostal church service. The language is lush and startling (or do we call that, surprising), e.g. wielding the Book’s hot gospel like a blunt instrument. In “Ritual” the language seems to twist and turn slightly from what one might expect, e.g. rather than casting the bread upon the waters (from Ecclesiastics 11:1), Mitchell writes of the casting of the word bread upon the word water. Also, there is no capitalization or sentence punctuation in the poem. As you read, you often feel you are coming to the end of a sentence, but instead, the poem takes you off into another idea that plays off the last idea. It’s an intriguing structure—a long run-on—that supports an overarching sense of the personal questioning and rumination that runs throughout the poem.
Finally in Wright’s introduction he says:
Everyone talks about the “great Health” of American poetry nowadays. And it’s hard to fault that. There are very few bad poems being published, very few. On the other hand, there are very few really good ones, either, ones that might make you want to stick your fingers in a Cuisinart, saying Take me now, Lord, take me now.
Indeed, we have all had the experience, upon reading a moving and brilliant poem, like these two for example—there are so many in this series each year—of wanting to stick our fingers into a Cuisinart and say, Take me now, Lord, take me now. Wright’s equation—half heart, half technique, and half emotion—is his explanation of what makes good poetry good. He is using a far-fetched metaphor to speak to, what often feels like, the far-fetched qualities of a great poem.
Perhaps it is appropriate to express astounding and beautiful poetry as some kind of inexplicable math. And maybe it is also important just to accept some measure of inexplicability in the matter—language inadequacy, if you will—even as we continue to try to pin it down with any possible terms we can beg, borrow, or steal, such as sticking one’s fingers into a Cuisinart and saying Take me now, Lord, take me now.
Grace Curtis’ chapbook, The Surly Bonds of Earth, was selected by Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Stephen Dunn as the winner of the Lettre Sauvage 2010 Poetry Contest. She has had poetry in Scythe Literary Journal, The Chaffin Journal, Waccamaw Literary Journal, among others. Grace received her MFA from Ashland University in 2010. She lives in Dayton, Ohio where she volunteers at The Antioch Review. Grace writes about poetry at www.N2Poetry.com.
From Motown to Mos Def: The Musical Influences of Patricia Smith, Major Jackson, and Kevin Coval
By PQ Contributing Editor Brian Fanelli
Popular music that comes out of African-American culture provides not only content, but rhythms and cultural values that animate the work of the poets Patricia Smith, Major Jackson, and Kevin Coval, poets who give voice to experiences outside of the middle-class mainstream. These poets share strategies for incorporating music into their work, each with individual style and technique, and to the benefit of poets and readers alike.
Patricia Smith uses the convention of the seemingly autobiographical “I” persona in her collection Close to Death, with the predominant voice of the poems being that of a young black woman similar to herself. One of the principal ways in which she moves beyond the personal is through references to popular music icons. In her poems that refer to Smokey Robison, Ray Charles, Little Richard, and Michael Jackson, Smith is able to explore various issues of racial identity on a cultural scale at the same time that she explores her own identity. Secondly, using popular African-American musicians allows Smith to define her audience in subtle ways. Smith is a black woman writing for her own community, but she doesn’t want anyone forcing a definition on her as to how far “her own community” should stretch. These are issues those three musicians have faced, and their familiarity to such a wide a range of Americans benefits Smith and simultaneously allows her to define her territory as wide but specifically African-American.
Motown star Smokey Robinson is the first to appear in the collection. He represents the promise of access—even for poor young black girls—to an idealized version of love, relationships, and a middle-class American dream, a promise the persona will ultimately realize is an illusion.
In the poem “Smokey Lied I,” the name Smokey is repeated several times, which suggests the crush/obsession the 13-year-old girl has. The speaker pretends the older boy she dances with at a party, Bernard Williams, is Smokey Robinson and reflects Smokey’s idealized dream songs. But none of the qualities are authentic. The ideal is a man who tells her “love can be found in storybooks,” and he is “sweet and crying the tears of a clown, begging like he shoulda been.” By the end of the poem, reality seeps in for the young woman, though, and Smith uses blunt, sexually-charged language to highlight how threatening and sexually aggressive men can be. The speaker admits that Bernard Williams was “taking advantage of the situation, brushing/me back and forth across the bulge in his pants, playing my little ass/like a piano.”
In “Smokey Lied II,” the young woman has matured: she has been hurt by past boyfriends. Worse yet, her father has been murdered. Smokey becomes an image of hurt and disillusionment. “Your perfect/love and sugar pleading could not bind these gaping wounds, could/not convince me to wait,” she tells Smokey. By “Smokey Lied III,” the persona reduces him to nothing more than a star who dances badly and whose voice “lacked the cream” she remembers. His lyrics no longer have any effect on the woman, as she fully understands he is not an ideal or an idea, but rather a man whose star has faded, replaced with a set of health problems.
Scattered among the poems in her own voice, Smith adopts other personas, including the voices of Ray Charles and Little Richard. In “Brother Ray,” Smith adopts the identity and persona of Ray Charles and uses several techniques to make the voice as authentic as possible. She treats him as more raw-edged and more human than Smokey Robinson, and this is reflected in the forms of the poems. In “Smokey Lied I,” for instance, the poem looks like standard newspaper columns on the page, which presents promises and ideals as a truth that the young female persona initially believes. “Brother Ray” has more raw line breaks and enjambment, such as:
Think my best music
is gon’ follow me to the grave.
Smith further humanizes Charles by having him admit he “ain’t no angel/I sing ugly.” He acknowledges that he’s been labeled a “womanizer/abuser/creative headache.” Unlike Robinson, Charles doesn’t offer any idealized promises about love and perfect marriage. The fact he’s flawed and Smith chose to write in his voice makes him more of an everyman with a set of problems.
Even the diction is more ordinary and authentic than the dream-like descriptions of Robinson in “Smokey Lied I.” The Charles persona frequently uses words like ain’t and gon, but despite all of his flaws and even his age, Charles presents his music and legacy as a validation of black culture and a complicated construction of audience. He says, “There’s a line of white folks follow me/everywhere I go. I got ‘em witchcrafted.” Those lines prove the connection he had to a wider audience, and they shift the power balance to give a black man power over white listeners. They also represent an insider conversation, what Charles tells black listeners, not a white audience.
In “The Room with a Star,” Smith uses third-person narrative that contains lines written in the voice of Little Richard. Unlike Robinson, Richard is depicted as more threatening, especially sexually, and an iconic musician that also drew mainstream listeners and gained respect as an artist across racial lines, like Charles. Smith addresses Richard’s legacy by calling him “the architect of rock and roll” in the first line. His power over white music fans is addressed, and the language is more explicit and sexually-charged than any of the Smokey Robinson poems. The poem’s speaker says Little Richard had the power to make the white boys “dance with their cocks in the air.” The language is effective because it proves how much of a danger the music was. Smokey Robinson comes across as desexualized and idealized in the collection, but Charles and Richards come across as bolder, less-controlled, and sexually-charged, powerful enough that they made some white listeners “deny their dull, righteous upbringing,” as the poem says.
At the end of the poem, Smith allows Little Richard to speak, and his language is just as forceful and cocky as the Ray Charles persona. “I built this shit,” says Little Richard, referring to rock and roll. “Designed it, named it, pushed it out between my legs,” he adds.
Like Smith, Major Jackson’s first collection of poems, Leaving Saturn, uses the persona of the seemingly autobiographical “I.” The collection’s coming-of-age experiences carry the reader from the basketball courts and hip-hop clubs of an urban and black adolescence to a professional life as a young academic and poet.
Jackson uses musical references to create a vivid scene, connect to his audience, and suggest a rhythm for the poem. For instance, in the poem “Hoops,” a quote by the hip-hop group De La Soul is used as an epigraph. It’s likely De La Soul or similar groups would be pumping from the boom boxes on the basketball courts during the time that Jackson’s persona was shooting hoops, so this epigraph is one way to establish an authenticity for the urban setting and can work to hook readers that may have little interest in more esoteric poetry.
Jackson incorporates other hip-hop phrases into the poem, including the words “Don’t Stop the Body Rock,” which is “bombed” on a wall at the basketball court by a graffiti artist named PHASE. The phrase, first an early hip-hop song by Kurtis Blow, is now a universally-borrowed hip-hop refrain. Jackson’s use of the phrase is a reminder how the past influences the present, but he is extending the conversation by using the phrase in a different way—placing it in a poem instead of a song to expand the range of cultural reference.
Formal aspects of “Hoops” are influenced by hip-hop as well. Jackson employs alliteration and full rhyme to an extent that strikes the reader as almost aggressive. For example:
A boom box bobs
& breaks beats on a buckling sea
of asphalt; — the hard
pounding rhymes of BDP
flooding a wall as a crowd
of hustlers toss caps, waging
fists, dollar bets, only louder–
& one, more enraged
promises to pistol-whip
the punk who doesn’t pay
Doubling down, he blows a kiss;
each dealer counts his days.
As Leaving Saturn progresses, Jackson’s persona ages, and he leaves the urban setting and hip-hop clubs behind. The poem “Don Pull at the Zanzibar Blue Jazz Café” is far different in technique and content than “Hoops.” The language of the poem is discordant to reflect the speaker’s relationship woes. For example, the speaker observes that Don’s “wire fingers are/scraping the ivory keys, off/rhythm” and “The Connection hacked harmonies/smashed scales, pulverized piano keys/all in rhythm as each brutal chord/exploded in a moment’s dawning.” The language and imagery reflect the speaker’s pain. Jackson drops the tight rhyme schemes, word play, and heavy alliteration that compose his hip-hop poems, and instead, the lines and stanzas are longer, similar to the long rhythms of jazz or blues music.
The poem is a more lyric and less straightforward narrative than “Hoops” in that it focuses on internal moods and emotion more than on action. Though the first stanza is all a description of music and the musician, the second stanza focuses on relationship and begins with the line, “She said she couldn’t trust me.” Hip-hop was an accurate music form to depict the reality of the persona’s urban neighborhood and his adolescence, but as the persona and his concerns mature, the musical model shifts to jazz and blues, music forms that are older than hip-hop and more nuanced.
In the article “Louder Than a Bomb: An Interview with Chicago Hip-Hopper Kevin Coval,” published by In These Times on March 9, 2006, Coval explains that he was drawn to hip-hop because of its working-class roots and his similar economic situation:
The hip-hop I was getting, primarily from New York, was about working-class narratives. Chuck D comes from Long Island, and so does De La Soul, so they’re black suburban kids still talking about a similar economic system in which they see their parents work, struggle, and be treated unjustly, and for me, there was a real resonance in that. I eventually learned that’s the story I have to tell.
What Coval’s interview validates is Smith and Jackson’s construction of audience, because Coval, as a white kid, found his way into American culture through black experience. This point is further proved by the fact that in Everyday People, he dedicates the poem “What It’s like to Deliver Pizza in Your 50s” to Patricia Smith, signaling her as one of his mentors. He employs some of the same techniques she uses. As in Smith’s “Smokey Robinson” poems, he uses the pronoun you to immediately pull the reader into the poem. The you’s can be any worker struggling to survive, even if the poem is about an older pizza man. Second person point of view directly addresses the reader and can draw him or her in.
Coval structures the poem by referring to all of the lousy aspects of the job line after line. For example:
It’s blistered fingertips, lost addresses, gas station
pee breaks, side streets with tree names, doorbells
14 year old princesses answer and never tip
$5 hr plus a buck a pie.
Listing the job’s grinding tasks creates a fast rhythm throughout the poem, mirroring the hectic life and motion of the pizza delivery man, or anyone else working several hours with little pay just to survive. Even in the poem’s final line, the pizza man is literally in motion, driving away, which is a testament to his ability to keep working and pushing forward despite the hard lifestyle.
Coval’s structure is somewhat Whitmanesque in the listing and long lines. It’s a twist on Whitman’s workmen in “Song of Myself.” Whitman had a grittiness to his poetry and included everyone, but the poems were always celebratory of working men and women. There is a real irony then, in using Whitmanesque techniques to address how working men and women are often shafted in the present day.
Hip-hop’s influence on Coval is evident throughout the collection, especially when he gives a voice to break dancers and graffiti artists, images of urban culture. In “The DTC Pays Tribute to Dice,” a poem about a graffiti artist who dies after he falls through a roof because he was chased by cops, the lines are filled with hip-hop lingo, including the words beat boxes, cipher, and flair, as a formal technique to enhance the authenticity of the urban setting. Like Jackson, Coval relies heavily on word play, especially alliteration, to reflect the rhythms of hip-hop. The line “Pele writes graffiti, beat boxes in the cipher, but he is a b-boy in the tradition/boogaloo on grey stoops” is one example. Hip-hop remains the core musical model that runs through much of Coval’s work, and it has yet to be seen whether or not he will explore other musical models, such as jazz or blues, similar to the musical shift evident in Jackson’s Leaving Saturn.
Jackson, Smith, and Coval shed light on experiences outside middle-class mainstream via music. Smith adopts the voice of iconic black musicians as a way to address identity and define her audience. Jackson uses hip-hop both to validate his own community and provide a way in for readers not of that community. As his persona matures, his musical model shifts to jazz and blues. Coval sees hip-hop music and culture as a core influence in the working-class narratives that compose some of his poems; at the same time, black experience provided him access to American culture, proving that the audience Jackson and Smith constructed is now validated because it’s had such an influence on younger white poets such as Coval.
In all three poets’ work, conventional boundaries between literary poetry and music blur alongside those between identity based on gender, age, and race—opening culture and community to a far wider audience and empowering it to influence writers and readers alike.
Brian Fanelli’s poems have appeared in Harpur Palate, The Portland Review, Rockhurst Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, Boston Literary Magazine, Chiron Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbook Front Man, and his first full-length collection will be published in 2013 by Unbound Content.
Grounded: Engaging the Spiritual in Poetry
by Sarah Wells for Poets Quarterly
I’ve used the phrase “engaging the spiritual” as if there’s some outlet I plug into in order to upload God. Or if I posture myself just so, with the right lighting and some incense burning, maybe then the environment will be suitable to properly “engage the spirit,” and then I am a vessel, a mouthpiece, a projector from which pours the cryptic, holy, inspired words of God.
But forget the candles for a while and rely instead on the shrinking sun to illuminate the earth beneath your feet, your now quite bare feet, because “engaging the spiritual” means getting the grit between your toes and then needing to clean it out. There’s nothing like running that spray from the hose over your feet, the blades of grass bending beneath the weight of water.
After all, you don’t spend your day in the chapel underneath a stained glass window composing devotional poems. You are sweeping up Cheerios from underneath the table. You are balancing budgets in spreadsheets. You are sitting in meetings checking your Twitter feed. There might be times and seasons for incense, but in the world of databases and dirty laundry, sippy cups and playground swings, it is critical to remember that God is in the small things, that spiritual truths are not hiding away in cathedrals. They are here in the plain sight of day.
This means living open to what the universe delivers. Maybe a field of dandelions, maybe a sparrow attacking a bluebird nest, maybe the scab on your shin… there is so much and every molecule pulses with spirit, every atom embodies an element of holiness, surely something interesting exists within your eyesight right now that deserves a little closer observation. Even the dirt and water and grass and your feet—consider it.
Write poetry from the ground up. Ask “Why this and not that?” or “What does this mean?” or “What else is there to know about this?” Rather than observe and then presume to know all of the answers, questioning propels the writer into the realm of mystery, questioning humbles the speaker down from the position of all-knowing observer to one who has eyes to see and ears to hear. Questioning opens up possibility.
Writing spiritual poetry requires this repositioning because spiritual poetry is acknowledging that something greater than the “I” exists. This confession changes the entire perspective of the observer, and as the writer of a spiritual poem, I must aim the lens through which the reader sees my world at the proper angle. Through this repositioning, the ego of the poem takes a backseat to everything else, and instead of the poet declaring just how clever she is through the poem, she becomes smaller while her subject becomes greater. An effective spiritual poem probably won’t be didactic, because in order to teach, one must speak with authority. Instead, the spiritual poem speaks with its one small voice in relation to something much larger, it holds out its hand and says, see what I found? A pebble! A flower! Cheerios!
This is partly achieved through the exploration of the questions that have been asked in the poem, and it is communicated through tone, rhythm, and spacing. Consider this poem by Franz Wright, which begins his Pulitzer-prize winning book, Walking to Martha’s Vineyard:
I was still standing
on a northern corner
Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves.
of Your existence? There is nothing
This poem is a poem of beginnings, of initial awe and awakening to some greater presence in the world. There is a tremendous amount of white space happening in the poem which seems to give it breathing room and emphasize the wintry emptiness of a “northern corner” and those dark clouds. And then that final stanza, so simply stated, with that beautiful turn of the line. I can almost see the camera zoom out from the speaker of the poem to the whole world. All of it. Proof.
It is an effective spiritual poem, not just because Wright capitalizes “Your,” but because there is a clear issue at stake: the speaker is suddenly aware of his world and his place in it (that shrinking ego thing I mentioned), and because he is asking a question that opens up possibilities, that invites the spirit in with a flicker of recognition. Or sometimes it’s a strobe light, and because you invited, suddenly you see something new you hadn’t seen in that object or moment before, some truth or beauty or goodness or reality that was concealed until just now.
What excites me about spiritual poetry is that you can work on the macro-level and on the micro-level, zoom in, zoom out, ask for more, talk directly at God or just look for his thumbprint. As a poet deeply interested in spiritual matters, I find God turning up in all sorts of places where you wouldn’t think he’d be. That is the joy of writing and reading spiritual poetry, discovering something I’d never known or felt before, my body nodding, yes, yes, that is it, there it is, the divine indwelt. And then this greater joy: to share that experience with another human being through the written word, poet and reader, a small community of believers who are now gathered in worship around this little altar.
Sarah M. Wells is the author of Pruning Burning Bushes and the chapbook Acquiesce. Her poems and essays have appeared in Ascent, Christianity & Literature, Measure, New Ohio Review, Poetry East, Puerto del Sol, River Teeth, and elsewhere. www.sarahmwells.com.