What Sparks Poetry

Language as Form

In our series Language as Form, we’ve invited poets to write about poetic language as patterned language—how words as sound, voice, sentence, and song become elements of form.

Niki Herd on “Lyric Sung in Third Person”

Midday. Texas heat. I’m walking up the steps to my garage apartment. In one hand there is beauty, these flowers. In the other is this fish. Dead. Wrapped in brown wax paper by the grocer. Cod. I’ve bought the cold-water fish many times but today the weight of its flesh in my palm is a terror I will not forget.

If it’s true what Don DeLillo says—that stories must absorb our terror—then the terror simmering beneath my skin is American-made. My terror is fueled by questions. What does it mean to be part of a culture where violence is built into nearly every aspect of its identity? What does it mean to watch the deluge of domestic atrocities of white supremacy, police violence, and mass shootings on the daily? And what does it mean to be a person of color in this country? In this moment terror has me examining all I see, hear, and touch—the fish, the flower vase, an insect, the chorus of cicadas that will come later in the evening, as they become representations of power or the lack thereof; as they represent safety or its illusion.

In a notebook—fragments and sentences written in no logical order. Because the poems written up to this moment experiment with third-person, in these notes I refer to myself as she. Perhaps it’s a bias but I believe in any poem, all pronouns, but perhaps most especially I, need to defend their existence. In a first-person centered culture, the use of I is often a reflex action as opposed to an intentional and necessary part of a poem. In these notes, I rely upon third-person as well because its use speaks to our ocular-centric existence. If the poet watches then so too must her reader.

My poems usually take several months, if not years, to write themselves but “Lyric Sung in Third Person” will only take a few short months. I often think cinematically and the poem’s draft is asking me to deviate from the conversational tone of my previous work. It’s asking for a reflective and lyrical treatment. Here, I imagine a canvas filled with lineated images and caesuras in my attempt to engage the visual and kinetic energy of the page.

What will fascinate me most is the way the poem’s ending gestures toward my own potential complicity, which seems a much more nuanced and realistic engagement of power as a subject. In the end, the poem’s language and form are vehicles used in an attempt to absorb my own terror and the reader’s terror—though the story of the poem and the story of the country—is far from complete.

Writing Prompt

Be present. For as long as you can—days, weeks, months—listen and watch, be mindful of your surroundings. Give close attention to those everyday objects that may hint to something deeper beneath the surface. Keep a notebook of what you notice. Anything written in first-person should be changed to third as this might steer the raw text in an interesting direction or uncover something new. When you’ve collected enough draft language, approach the page as you would a canvas. In doing so, keep in mind loyalty to fact is not needed (for example in my poem, the flowers in reality were different than those described in the poem. The music needed to work. And there’s this money thing going on in my notes that never makes it into the poem. It didn’t have a place).

Try to organize your lines into cinematic moments while being in tune with the sonic and kinetic energy between the text and white space. See where the poem takes you.

Niki Herd

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Niki Herd

Niki Herd is the author of the poetry collection The Language of Shedding Skin and the chapbook don’t you weep, and she co-edited Laura Hershey: On the Life & Work of an American Master with Meg Day. Herd’s poetry, essays, and criticism appear in Gulf Coast, the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, New England Review, Copper Nickel, Academy of American Poets (Poem-a-Day), Lit Hub, The Rumpus, Obsidian, and Tupelo Quarterly, among other journals and anthologies. She has received fellowships from MacDowell, Ucross, Bread Loaf, the Newberry Library, and Cave Canem. Herd earned her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. She currently lives in St. Louis where she is the Visiting Writer in Residence in Poetry at Washington University. Her second full-length poetry collection, The Stuff of Hollywood, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press.