Object Lessons

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. 

In our current series, Object Lessons, we’re thinking about the relationship between the experienced and imagined world. We have asked our editors and invited poets to present one of their own poems in combination with the object that inspired it, and to meditate on the magical journey from object to poem. 
 
Each essay is accompanied by a writing prompt which we hope you will find useful in your own writing practice or in the classroom.

Jennifer Chang on “The World”

Unfortunately, I am prone to querulousness, and so when I was asked to write about how objects function in my poems, my first response was that I never write about objects! What did I write about then? The world outside my window. In other words, trees, my neighbor trimming his flower bushes, tricks of light that transform a shadow into memory. That! That is what I write about.

While it is true that I’ve written about all these non-objects, it is not true that objects don’t figure in my poems, or in my thinking. Poets turn to objects not only because there is a pen in my hand and a jar of almonds on my desk but also because objects give form to the abstractions—feelings, thoughts, questions—that brought us to write in the first place. 

When William Carlos Williams observes, “So much depends / upon // a red wheel // barrow,” he isn’t just balancing a subject (“so much”) and an object (“a red wheel barrow”) across syntax and lines. Without the wheelbarrow, that “so much” wafts away, becomes part of the ether. Nothing but abstraction. The red wheelbarrow invites readers to imagine what “so much” might be. It invites readers into the poem, to interact with the language and the imagery that ensues: the glaze of rain water, the white chickens. “So much” elicits our engagement: it comes to include the social worlds of our readers and, simultaneously, the very abstractions “so much” refers to. What depends on the red wheelbarrow? Chicken feed, shovelfuls of dirt, the daily effort of living for animals and humans, the way one word compels another into being and thus arrives at thought, the unfurling of time, so much.

But “so much” also indicates how objects can prove inadequate in our need for expression, and here is where querulousness informs my craft. I sat down to write a poem about the world that wasn’t really about anything, or so I told myself.

I can’t remember when I wrote the poem “The World,” but years ago I was stuck alone in a small house during an ice storm in upstate New York. For days I could go nowhere. The temperature dwelled stubbornly below freezing. The roads were too slick to walk on. My car was encased in ice, a solid blue cube, and, quite comically, a red bicycle, leaning against a nearby shed, seemed to be waiting for me. I sat at the window, wearing two sweaters, looking at it. Amidst the snow and ice, the bare trees, the stone gray sky, a slash of red would catch my eye whenever I walked past this window. Sometimes that slash was the red bicycle; sometimes it was a cardinal or two, a bevy of which would congregate on the roof of that shed every morning. 

In all likelihood, my tiny corner stayed frozen shut for only two or three days, but the stillness, my cold captivity, felt eternal, and so any life I could potentially have beyond it felt impossible. I had not yet published a book; relationships that had once been important to me were about to fall apart. More important, I had not yet figured out who I was or what I cared about. I did not know what I wanted from poems or other people or from merely living. In writing about that frozen time, I wrote “The World”—whether then or years later I don’t know—because that red bicycle was more vivid to me than I was to myself. And yet, even that object—its material reality, its functional integrity—is fleeting. The red bicycle appears once, re-emerges as “red wings” and then as “red thoughts.” By the end of poem, there is a flame, a burning, and instead of an object, there is a feeling: numbness.

The red bicycle in “The World” evinces the impossibility of what I had once sensed about experience, giving form to a desire for freedom and progress that I could not yet identify and did not in the least understand. That it disappears in the course of the poem makes me wonder now if I’d ever seen the red bicycle at all. The red thoughts were there, and certainly the cardinals, but I wonder now: did I lose the object while writing the poem or did I conjure it and put it there because I needed something to keep me from getting lost? 

Writing Prompt

The weather is not abstract and yet it is atmospheric and, in that sense, intangible. Write a poem about the weather in which an object figures. The object should not be related to the weather (no thermometers or umbrellas, please), but it should be a presence within the scene. 

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Jennifer Chang

Jennifer Chang

Jennifer Chang is the author of The History of Anonymity and Some Say the Lark, which was long-listed for the PEN Open Book Award and won the 2018 William Carlos Williams Award. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry ReviewThe BafflerThe New York TimesThe New YorkerPoetry, and A Public Space, and her essays have appeared in Los Angeles Review of BooksNew England ReviewNew Literary History and The Volta. An associate professor of English at George Washington University, she co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman and also teaches in the Bennington Writing Seminars graduate writing program. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her family.