from New England Review, Volume 31, Number 3 / 2010
Heightened consciousness, the art of paying attention, enriches us and deepens our humanity; it gives us the opportunity to attend to the intricate texture and density that our experience offers. It helps us monitor our choices so we won't endlessly repeat habitual mistakes. When we attend to what causes others pleasure and pain we increase our capacity for compassion and our penchant for justice. Ignore the grimace or joyful gesture of your friend or lover at your own peril. Turn your gaze from the hungry person on the street and everyone pays a price for that strategic omission. Every moment matters more when we retain an embodied consciousness. Certain Buddhist sects call this concentration "Mindfulness," but this conscious awareness also serves as a kind of religious tenet of poetry. As Isaiah declares in Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite."
Poets require this kind of attentiveness to shape experience, to seize on the suggestion of each word, each image, each syntactical turn. To move a reader, a poet follows the thread of what has been foreshadowed in the poem, what matters; the poet advances, complicates, questions, discovers, and deletes, but all in the service of the poem's particular obsessions. And when all the vehicles of craft perform in the service of that impulse, the accrued weight of that movement gives the poem its structure.
Memory is required for poetry, but memory of a very specific kind. Not the dimestore memories of reproducing what once happened to you, but rather syntactical memories, gathering the emotional weight of the poem as it accrues from line to line. Poetry is associative, not dissociative: it proceeds neither by fact, nor chronological sequence, nor strictly reasoned argument. It follows the inexorable logic of the way we think and feel and what we notice (which is where the poem's camera focuses). The poet remembers how something seen or heard in line one stays with the reader (and therefore the writer); what the poet composes later in the poem responds to and advances those earlier lines or stanzas. That's where improvisation and form intersect. When a trumpeter in a jazz group is about to solo, he or she must listen to what the tenor saxophone's just said about the melody, then honor and leap off from that earlier solo. Even interruptions in the flow of musical or poetic experience—fractures, leaps in melody, time, and space—function to reassess or illuminate what the work of art has already suggested. A poet always pursues what matters while respecting the lateral and (only apparent) digressive movement of experience. In this manner a poem retains its urgency and its embodied intelligence, the discoveries couched in its structure, while suggesting the importance of every moment, not only in and of itself, but also as that moment is situated between a past with consequences and a future that must be confronted.
I define poetic structure, then, as the dramatic (lived, observed) connections among the craft elements (image, metaphor, diction, syntax, line, music) and the resulting unifying force (emotion, conflict, vision). In my view, a unifying force need not be thematic, nor does it necessarily offer resolution, but the closure of a poem bears all the weight of our accumulating histories so we can move into the future with our selves brought to their greatest intensity.
This experience is not anchored in intellectual abstractions of feeling (such as loneliness, death, the morality of abortions, consuming passion, loss of innocence), narrative event (a car crash), description (the rumpled fender), or even plot (the bastard ran a red light because he was drunk): these elements have no interest in and of themselves. Structure no longer suggests a system of images (which is to say programmatic symbolism), since images are relational within a particular dramatic experience (white in one poem might signal purity, while in another nothingness). If a poem is well-structured, the writer has developed powerful motives for the selection of detail that serves as the dramatic evidence of the poem. In a representational poem the progress of narratives and images (how they advance the speaker's feelings about the central conflict) echo, reinforce, or argue with one another.
When Federico García Lorca's speaker in "The Moon Rising" says "The heart is like an island in infinity," every moment in that poem must intensify that simile's effect. What does the poem evoke at its core? Loneliness, awe, dislocation, and longing all arise simultaneously in that line for the speaker. How do we know? The poem's memory—its early foreshadowing lines—prepares us. In the first stanza Lorca writes: "the bells suspend their tongues / and footpaths appear / impenetrable." These lines set the scene for both mystery and the urgent feeling of being lost. This is what the darkness brings.
We know "No one eats oranges / under the full moon," orange corresponding to both the color and shape of the sun: a warm color, it's also bright, as in the light. Instead, one eats fruit that is without ripeness—"green and cold"—qualities that reinforce the speaker's aloneness. Since the poem is structured around the experience of aloneness and personal insignificance, the poet's job becomes to intensify and advance those complex feelings in the closure, and not just to repeat what's already been dramatized. The surrealism of the closing stanza has been prepared for by the appearance of those established footpaths. What's required at the end? That we feel more awe, more loneliness, more longing. So when the "silver coins"—again the shape of the moon, but now inanimate and colder than green fruit—"sob in the pockets," the fantastic has become immediate. The coldest material good—money—breaks down and cries in a pocket. Lorca's poem asks who can fail to be moved by the moon rising, as well as by the suggestion of loose coins in a dark pocket: we are small and powerless, we are alone and in awe of a universe that is inexplicable to us. What made that experience possible? Structure, recurrence and transformation, the poetic memory created by the syntax, the movement of the poem.
How conscious was the poet of these devices? Was Lorca originally moved by the moon rising? Almost undoubtedly. Did he know why? Probably not until the poem had been rightly written; even then the poem's greatness might not have appeared in all its fullness. But there's no question that he pursued the emotional cues the poem offered up to him. A handful of poets may, with lots of practice, do some of this work intuitively, but if you have tried to play the piano by ear you know that you come up against a wall pretty quickly when you work chiefly by instinct with a limited repertoire of chords and notes. For most of us who just miss being geniuses, the poem's accomplishment originates in labor, patience, and the ability to listen closely.
Charles Simic's "The Partial Explanation," a deceptively simple narrative poem, offers a model for the pleasures of structure. The title gives us a cue that the mystery of the poem won't be entirely solved, and perhaps that the narrator is not fully aware of the depth of his own feelings. The plot is simple: nobody dies, nobody has great sex, no apparent terrible injustice has occurred. The speaker has come in from the cold to get something to eat.
Seems like a long time
Since the waiter took my order.
Grimy little luncheonette,
The snow falling outside.
If we pay attention we notice that the luncheonette's "grimy," that there's "snow falling outside." Later Simic gives us a simple line that would have little meaning if it weren't for those details in that opening stanza: "a glass of ice water / keeps me company." Suddenly the reader's transported to how alone the speaker feels. We're touched by his loneliness because it's attached to the coldness of the snow and to the tainted "grimy" modern world as well.
That sense of loneliness is heightened, too, by the poem's rhetoric in the repeated "Seems like a long time ... " Time stretches out in this apparently uninhabited luncheonette. We experience, dramatically, the passage of time and its ominousness in the line "Seems like it has grown darker." No one pays any attention to the speaker. Time is slowed by the a and o sounds, by the off-rhyme of waiter and order. "Seems like it's getting darker," too. So now we begin to gather emotional evidence in this poem that the speaker is existentially alone: he begins to doubt his own existence as time closes in on him. If he resides anywhere, it's in a chilly universe.
The speaker uses syntax, word order, in the penultimate stanza to emphasize his longing.
A glass of ice water
Keeps me company
At this table I chose myself
He chose his table (his circumstances) upon entering. The arch formal diction in the last line of that stanza dramatizes his discomfort; how different the line would feel if the speaker had said "when I first came into this luncheonette, I chose this table." But instead the line breaks with "I chose myself" and is followed by "upon entering," leaving the half-humorous, half-tragic implication (partially unexplained) that he himself is existentially responsible for his choice, and that he regrets it.
In the poem's closure a weaker poet would have made some grand self-pitying statement about loneliness. But this speaker still inhabits his body, he's still in this metaphysical luncheonette (now we understand why it's a "partial explanation"): he leaves us with a modest "longing, incredible longing" (the diction of desire, but with those time-stretching os again) "to eavesdrop on the conversation of cooks." The ironic turn of the last couplet turns away from self-pity or even self-examination. This speaker has no intimate relationships: he just wants to know that somewhere on the earth (the invisible cooks, the gods) is the possibility of relation. The speaker longs for comfort in an acknowledgment of common humanity. The obsession of the poem? The speaker wants to be less alone: his character resides in the landscape of the poem and all possibilities are drawn from the accruing lines.
Larry Levis's more complicated narrative poem, "To a Wall of Flame, Syracuse, New York, 1969," relies on metaphor and flashback; it travels long emotional distances to encounter the same condition that Simic does: aloneness. The poem begins with the coming of spring:
Except under the cool shadows of pines,
The snow is already thawing
Along this road ...
Such sun, and wind.
A more clichéd imagination would use this emblem as hopeful, but the first word is "Except"—everything's "thawing" except in this place. We'll come back to this place later as the landscape darkens and intensifies further with black ice dislodging. The place reminds the poet of his father, who once traveled this road and is now associated with shadows and clouds: "I think my father longed to disappear / While driving through this place once." The first lines about the father that explicitly convey emotion declare that "he was seized, suddenly, by his own shyness, / By his desire to be grass, / And simplified." These lines are suggestive, but as readers we're not yet sure about tone, about how to view this wish for simplification. He was "seized"—diction that suggests that his desire was not entirely willful; later Levis will advance the image and emphasize the lack of will by suggesting passivity and resignation. The speaker considers this feeling early on, but he doesn't yet have the dramatic evidence in the early lines to be convinced, so he cannot yet put together the connections the poem must make. Instead, he asks a question: after the brief flashback the speaker looks at his father's shyness, loneliness, self-containment. Only then can the poem make the discovery that in spite of the speaker's efforts, even though he travels "away from his father," he lives out his father's stony resignation:
And if I can keep secrets for years,
The way a stone retains warmth from the sun,
It is because men like us
Own nothing, really.
These four lines destabilize and deepen the worry expressed earlier in the poem by recognizing the effects of this kind of death-in-life. "I took only his silences, his indifference / To misfortune, rain, stones, music and grief."
The central discovery that the poem is probing for, what every line must measure up to, then, becomes the very particular resemblances between father and son: their distant, solitary, private selves and their loneliness, and, as we'll find out later, a desire to be released from their helplessness that is expressed with a metaphoric death wish.
In the steel mill where I worked,
Someone opened the door of the furnace
And I glanced in at the simple,
Quick and blank erasures the flames made of iron,
Of everything on earth.
Two responses, though disparate, describe what this thanatotic wish feels like (the first in a bemused way): "It was reverence I felt then, and did not know why." The simile goes on to advance this loneliness in marriage, in the vulnerability to another's touch.
And his wish to be no one
made his body tremble,
like the touch
of a woman he could not see
Levis also uses the reinforcing imagery of color, specifically gray, as an intermediary between the black ice and the sunlight, between the furnace and the world under the pines. When we return to the present tense at the conclusion of the poem we can now understand exactly how awfu1 the speaker feels about spring, about human and natural warmth. The relationship with his father, the furnace, the restlessness on the road, the inability finally to feel, all work, structurally, to intensify the pressure of the speaker's desire to be released, to be erased—or as the poem literally says, to have that chill, that history, finally dislodged. "Her fingers drifting up his spine in silence / Until his loneliness was perfect, / And she let him go." Death by thawing, death by fire.
Gerald Stern's lyric poem "Winter Thirst" depends on image and significant detail to discover multiple associations of coal and soot. The poem begins with heavily accented sense impressions ("I grew up with bituminous in my mouth / and sulfur smelling like rotten eggs ... "), but to achieve their full suggestiveness these lines must be seized upon later. In the second line the poet moves from taste to smell, but the movement foreshadows the feeling of disgust associated not only with coal but with the processing of it: the business of coal being incorporated into the human body, making us less than human (cardboard). That poison (now syntactically associated with the coal itself and with industry) lowers the speaker's early expectations and contaminates his childhood: "what we called snow was gray with black flecks / that were like glue when it came to snowballs and made / them hard and crusty, though we still ate the snow." We might call it snow, but it's really something else: the snow "gray with black flecks" becomes "hard and crusty," and "we still ate" it. The diction of "hard" and "crusty" not only signals contaminating commerce but heightens its effect on the speaker and his community: it hardens them, but on the receiving end of the experience they "ate the snow" anyhow. The "we" of the poem suggests that the poem doesn't reside in confession (which would have aggrandized the speaker's suffering). The poem moves from "I" to "we" before returning to a larger "I" who articulates for the community the burden of the industrial poisoning of the personal.
In the middle of the poem we get a magical transformation: the speaker "carries it with him" to Paris. Literally what he carries is something like black lung disease, but metaphorically he carries his identity and his class origins.
I carried it with me I know everywhere
and someone sitting beside me in New York or Paris
would know where I came from, we would go in for dinner—red
meat loaf or brown choucroute—
The food is working-class food—meat loaf or the French name for sauerkraut. The speaker's identifications are with his social class, with those who had the same darkening experience that "we would talk about." The poem consistently advances and complicates its subject, making discoveries, but always in the service of what now seems to become a much less matter-of-fact statement about coal and the self.
Toward the end of the poem the speaker becomes Whitman-like in his identifications.
I told him how we pulled heavy wagons
and loaded boxcars every day from five
to one A.M. and how good it was walking
empty-handed to the no. 69 streetcar
He becomes a miner—a Whitman-like gesture of fusion and compassion—and his imagination takes him down to the mines. "I dreamed of my bath and how the water / was black and soapy then and what the void / was like and how a candle instructed me." Here he can only dream of being clean; the candle, difficult to interpret at first, is like the light in the void of the cave or the mine. But could it also suggest the release, in the bath, of a tiny bit of light that momentarily soothes the speaker? In any case, this poem, like many of Stern's poems, is a lesson in movement and linkage, embracing the memory at the heart of the poem, and not just the memory of the experience itself: the poem moves inexorably to dramatize the cost of the history it expresses, the meaning of growing up "with bituminous in my mouth."
Less representational, self-consciously decentered postmodern poems also depend on structure and poetic memory for authority, though their strategies may prove to be complex and contradictory enough to be difficult to articulate, reduce, or conceptualize. Postmodern closures don't resolve the aesthetic experience in the ways that representational poems do, and they often depend on breakdowns or fissures in voice to advance their poetic arguments. Maureen Seaton's and Neil De La Flor's collaborative, witty, satirical "Poem without a Bed" (from the online magazine Coconut) navigates many incongruous discourses, traversing the personal and the political; sex and betrayal and the rejection of "loyalty" motor the poem. It doesn't matter to the reader which poet wrote which lines, nor that the intention of the poem appears to evoke an almost random surrealism. It appears to matter that the poets respond to the line that precedes their own entry. Each line is responsible to what foreshadows it and to what the releasing notes signify. Each shift in diction—from the archaic to the foreign to racial slang to the conventions of the text message—dramatizes the differences between antiquated and modern ways of talking and thinking about power and powerlessness. In its closure the poem plays with the failed mastery of the patriarchs in our (post)modern world:
Othella, painless and shirtless, she (or he) failed pageantly into a bowl of pah.
Stah! No goodentiden to you, brudder bare.
Live and shared with trustywuurthy solidarity. P.S. Ya, she was stoned.
And therein flies the rubbermaidenstagen, Gorbechev.
Ich bien trabajo and merciless she boucouped before the coup d'etat went ballistic.
Now she's back with her hunred dolla Bill float in her hip packet.
Hunred dolla, how dare you incite scrubby-loose change to her cure. Send her curses. And a pillow.
Like she wud ever lie down.
Othella, as opposed to Othello, Shalcespeare's black king, becomes the degraded female queen. The poets carry on a conversation that makes use of indeterminate speakers in mixed languages and dictions, often using distorting clichés and jargon to suggest female swagger. Initially Seaton's and De La Flor's interest seems to be in language itself, in making the reader aware of the foreign, the privatization of discourse (could a poem like this have been conceived before the influx of theoretical jargon into literary culture?); less consciously, the poem comically suggests the flux of globalized shifting ethnicities. So much for the humanist view of universality: we don't speak in the same languages. The good news the poem offers? The narrative de-thrones and pooh-poohs patriarchy, although the poets also satirize the corruptions of the "king's language" in the feminine denial.
From the beginning, the poem reads almost like a translation; in a way it is, not only combining different languages but different gradations of speech. The opening line evokes failure but also echoes with "fell" into that bowl of pah (short for porridge, as well as—perhaps coincidentally—the initials of an organic pollutant). The second line (another voice?) responds—in mixed slang and pseudo-German diction—to that failure with a familial break, withholding good tidings for Othella's break in decorum. The third line ("Live and shared with trustywuurthy solidarity. P.S. Ya, she was stoned") again, by corrupting the diction, satirizes that female loyalty. In our contemporary world to believe in those clichés of trustworthy (trustywuurthy) solidarity (the pageantry of it), the woman—by this line she's a she—would have to be stoned, whereas in the old world she'd probably have been stoned for her betrayal. The fifth line restates the problem by combining the cliché of the fly in the ointment with the "flying rubbermaiden." This mis-speak evokes (as in line one when "failed" evoked "fell") kitchen domesticity (Rubbermaid) in relation to the archaic maiden. There'll be no peace in this kingdom, no détente between the sexes (Gorbachev). Our gendered roles and sexuality are not what they used to be. This was Othella's work and she's merciless and boucouped (meaning a lot but also involving a misspelled "beau," sexualizing the moment) until the super-ego, the military, the male principle went "ballistic." Crazy, violent. The seemingly disinterested speaker returns to chart her progress (regress): she's got her hundred dolla (and here, with some risk, Seaton and De La Flor mimic Black English) Bill (money in a person) in her packet (misheard as pocket, but in slang, in the modern world, the phrase indicates she's now in control). The censorious voice of line three comes back to chastise: the curse brings us back to Shakespeare; for the patriarchal authority the "hunred dolla" won't suffice to "cure." The chorus of line four comes back to indicate Othella's defiance, her power to withhold ("Poem without a bed"), and reinforces that power with the idiomatic meaning of the phrase (idioms being the most difficult to translate into another language). Using the text message "wud," the speaker of the line indicates in that cynical voice (remembering "trustywuurthy") that she'd never lie down or submit or give up. Whether the poem ends in victory or cliché (if we mistrust the final line's perception) depends upon whether one comes from the old world or the new. But in their own way Seaton and De La Flor demonstrate a loyalty to associative structure that gives sweep, good humor, and evident intensification to this postmodern poem.
Structure and poetic memory (searching out and thickening threads, correspondences, and conflicts) contribute to poetry by working to achieve the demanding, densely textured experience that art can provide, but they also draw the decisive connection between the craft and the art of poetry. They dramatize why "the unexamined life" in a poem, the inattention to the force of history, diminishes the richness of the experience just as it would in life. The more wide-ranging the correspondences, the larger the imagination that discovers them.
Practically speaking, attending to structure provides a poet with strategies for revision and allows an opportunity to seize on and deepen the ambitions of a poem. Revision is one of the most vexing and rewarding poetic struggles after all. Poets starting out often feel at a loss as to how they can improve on what it is they feel "inspired" their poem in the first place. Often they merely polish a poem rather than revising it: they try to make it sound good, break the lines in more interesting places, perhaps take out offending clichés. That kind of revision is microcosmic work, more akin to the decorating of a room than the framing of a house, the house of the poem. That's why structure is sometimes called architecture. What good is attractive decor in a house that's not soundly built? What's the ultimate value of cosmetics to a superficial person who's applying them? What good is a poem that sounds good but merely reports or pleases the eye or ear but leaves the reader with such a diffuse sense that it's impossible not to lose faith in how and why that dramatized experience matters? Revision means exactly what it suggests: it involves re-seeing the world of the poem. It turns a vague and unbounded experience into one that matters at every turn.
Federico García Lorca, "La luna asoma" from Canciones: 1921-1924, here translated by the author as "The Moon Rising," http://users.fulladsl.be
Charles Simic, "The Partial Explanation," from Early Selected Poems (New York: Braziller, 1985).
Larry Levis, "To a Wall of Flame, Syracuse, New York, 1969," from The Dollmaker's Ghost (New York: Dutton Books, 1981).
Gerald Stern, "Winter Thirst," from American Sonnets (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003).
Maureen Seaton's and Neil De La Flor's poem appears courtesy of Coconut e-magazine, http:// www.coconutpoetry.org/seatondelaflorr.htm.
About the Author
Ira Sadoff's critical book on aesthetics and politics, History Matters, was published last year by the University of Iowa Press. His next collection of poems, True Faith, will be brought out by BOA Editions. He has poems forthcoming in American Poetry Review and Kenyon Review.
Editor: Stephen Donadio
Managing Editor: Carolyn Kuebler
Poetry Editor: C. Dale Young