What’s in a Title?

In college, a math prof told me tests were opportunities. [An 8am class on differential equations; who wants an opportunity at 8am? But I think that was his point.] It stayed with me, the concept that difficulty and opportunity are intertwined.

In that same difficult way, titles are opportunities. They are what help the reader decide to read the poem. They need to be appealing, intriguing, have an air of mystery yet be comprehensible—or perhaps be so incomprehensible that the reader is drawn in by what they do not understand. Titles can be phrases from the poem’s body, without the context of the poem yet, in order to allow the reader an epiphany, a mental change of position as they go through the poem. They must be pithy—or they must wave their verbosity as so large a flag it is impossible to deny.

Every weekday, over at Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Christine Klocek-Lim posts a new poem. I get them through Twitter. And this fact, the fact that Klocek-Lim tweets only author and title and URL is what has made me think hard about titles.

Because, dear reader, most of them do not make me want to click the link. That little effort. Raise the thumb, squeeze. That’s it. And yet often I find the titles do not compel a mash on the phone.

So I want to take a look through the most recent ten titles and say yea or nay—and why.

  1. “Soldier’s Home” [link]
    I clicked this one because I decided there was enough ambiguity in the possesive apostrophe—it could be the home of the soldier or “the soldier is home”—that I wanted to see which. But I had to think about it.
  2. “Yokohama” [link]
    Sure, I like Japan. I also like specificity.
  3. “Idiot Hearts” [link]
    Oh, yes, what’s an idiot heart? And, I guess, aren’t we all?
  4. “Downstream” [link]
    Possibly just because it sounded cold and it’s hot here. Very very hot. Otherwise, it’s simple and not particularly memorable.
  5. “Rebirth on the Side of the Road” [link]
    I should have, right? There’s a nice mix of oddity [rebirth] and normalcy [road side], as well as concept juxtaposition [same as previous asides], but well, no, I just couldn’t get excited about someone else’s rebirth. [I wonder whether “Road-Side Rebirth” would have tingled my Spidey sense more?”]
  6. “Feedback” [link]
    Yes! Which type of feedback is it? There’s a chance it’s not a poem about a poetry workshop, it could be electrical feedback!
  7. “Another Love Story” [link]
    Nope. I didn’t want to read another love story.
  8. “Numinous” [link]
    Always more numinousity! But, to be honest, I clicked this because of the author.
  9. “Reflection” [link]
    Nope. While feedback had lots of synonym options, and reflection does too, it wasn’t sufficiently unusual enough for me to want to see what type of reflection was going on here.
  10. “Well-Attended” [link]
    I really didn’t know what this meant, whether it meant a group of people or an event, or perhaps both, and that was intriguing.

Perhaps you’d have followed all these links based on the titles? Or you’d have picked only the ones I didn’t? Please tell me so, and why. I’d love to hear more angles on what works for titles. Just not at 8am.

Black with White

I recently finished reading Raising Lilly Ledbetter [available here from Lost Horse Press], edited by Carolyne Wright, M. L. Lyons, and Eugenia Toledo. While I hope to post a review of the anthology later, today I want to rave about a particular poem.

According to the biographical statements at the close of the anthology, Colleen J. McElroy is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington and has published nine volumes of poetry.

What caught me first about McElroy’s poem “Sprung Sonnet for Dorothy Dandridge” was the music, as you will see.

Sprung Sonnet for Dorothy Dandridge

                                                  1922-1965

A woman unadorned stands out in a crowd of otherwise
Camouflaged women, and takes from her shelf all manner
Of potions and powers, the oils and slick pots of color
That hold electricity and confusion of mimicry
That test the ties that bind deception to reality
A woman in sundappled skin can mislead with mad
Profusion and tricks that others would give an eyetooth for
Who know elaboration gives us our most handsome species
Who teach us disguised animals need not dissolve
Into surroundings when anonymity is not our destiny
Who know to understand the zebra’s stripes, you must get down
     On your hands and knees where the vertical whites vanish
     Into the sky and the blacks take on a shape so indistinct
     The world’s blurred kaleidoscope of the mundane and bizarre

Where Whites say black/ Blacks say black with white

I was also maddened by the choice of endwords but on re-reading and re-reading [because what an emotional trajectory to follow over and over!] I came to love that “otherwise” ending. In the first read-through I loved the conflation of electricity, pots of color, I loved the slap in the face when I, a white reader, got to the end of the poem and had my world shifted.

In so many ways, this is exactly the purpose of a poem, to teach me to see something in a way I did not see it before. Thank you, Professor McElroy.

Other musical textures that really work for me in this poem: “disguised” and “dissolve”, coming out again in the next line in “destiny” and then again one more line down in “stripes”. “Potions”, “powers”, and “slick pots”. “Electricity”, “test”, “ties”, “deception”, and then coming back to the hard T with “reality”.

The music in McElroy’s poems is immense and I look forward to reading more of her work.

May’s Mini Reviews (Neruda, Klocek-Lim, Heppermann)

I wish that I had enjoyed the poems in Pablo Neruda’s Then Come Back : the Lost Neruda Poems as much as the translator Forrest Gander passionately describes them in his introduction. But I found the book bizarrely broken up, all the English in one half, except for the occasional photostat of the original paper on which Neruda wrote, and all the Spanish in another, much more heavily broken up by original reproductions. I guess the publisher assumed most people wouldn’t want facing page translations (???) or that those of us who do would prefer to have to keep fingers in three places in the book to compare original handwritten version, Spanish, and English. This kept all but two poems from catching my eye: I adored the one with the obscure reference to abalone and Neruda’s lover’s ear, as well as the list poem (possibly because, after all these years, I could read much of it without assistance.) But nothing here moved me as much as “Pido silencio”. Possibly the best part of this was that it was funded by a Kickstarter. You can find more details about the book here.

 


 

The poems in Christine Klocek-Lim‘s Dark Matter have an intriguing genesis: they were all inspired by the Astronomy Picture of the Day. While those pictures have little in common from one day to the next, Dark Matter has a tight theme: the use of astronomical imagery as metaphor for family life. In these poems, Klocek-Lim tells stories of the narrator, their family, a husband and sons, an elderly mother. Sometimes there is a sister, sometimes a woman who I could only understand as a ghost. There are dreams, there are final days of school, old flames, and the tender epic that is the narrator’s relationship to their husband. As example, in “Stellar birth in the galactic wilderness”, Klocek-Lim writes,

New stars are forming but we are packing
up the house. The dust bunnies know something
has happened but have no explanation for why
the light has suddenly hit their abandoned
wilderness. I can’t answer their questions
because the spoon I just rolled in newspaper
has birthed a galaxy in its shallow bowl:
astronomical broth. I unwrap it to read more
while the boys shriek in our disemboweled
living room. I know there is silence in space.
The article insists that stars are forming quietly
in the galactic frontier but the scientists are puzzled.
There is nothing there with which to make a life,
nothing to eat, not even stone soup, but nevertheless
they appear in that unpredictable pinwheel cosmic wind.
The article claims the mystery is “absolutely stunning.”
Because some things defy explanation, I rewrap the spoon
and box it, knowing it will still be there next week
in the new house, cupping secrets in its quiet silver hand.

If there is a drawback to Klocek-Lim’s collection, it’s that it sounds the same note repeatedly. If this is the pitch to which you are attuned, it will resonate deeply. Even if not, it is definitely worth your while to listen to a few soundings. You can find more details about the book here.

 


 

The shiniest bits of Christine Heppermann‘s Poisoned Apples were, for me, a unique hybridization of popular culture and fairy tales, a blend I had not seen before. Heppermann’s poems include how hell freezes over when an anorexic woman eats, feminism expressed through Simon Says, eating disorders portrayed as though they were the Three Little Pigs’ houses, and exactly why Sleeping Beauty needed that hundred year nap in order to be ready for her marriage—in short, a necessary criticism of the predominant western culture’s views of female beauty. And the poems do it with wit and punch.

“A SHAPE MAGAZINE Fairy Tale” opens

Once upon a time there was a girl who
had a good hair week! Seven cute looks
she could do at home, and their names were
Waves, Bob, Bun, Bangs, Braid, Sleek, and
Party-Ready Ponytail.

One day, while out walking in the woods
at a steady pace with short bursts of speed,
the girl met a wolf and told him, What big
smudge-free lashes you have!

and goes on in the same biting vein.

I found the second half of the volume, which concentrates more on fairy tale retellings, to be slightly less powerful, possibly because their concepts were less new to me. You can find more details about the book here.

Guest Post: Sherry Chandler

What is a poem?

That’s a question I’ve been trying to answer for as long as I’ve been trying to write one of the devilish things. I’m flying my broomstick without instruments. Let us see where we land.

Once upon a time, as no doubt you all know, the definition was easy: a poem in English was language measured in specified ways adapted from Classical literature, written in high rhetorical style, again borrowed from Latin and Greek.

A poem often rhymed at the ends of lines in specified ways.

A poem, then, was high-toned language poured into a pre-existing mold appropriate for the subject, sonnets for love, rhymed couplets for epic narrative, the ballad for low stories, etc.

These forms, most of them borrowed from the Italian or the French, are called verse, from the Latin versus, meaning “a turning.” They dominated English poetry from the time of Chaucer, that is, the 14th century, until the 20th century dawned on the Modernists.

Modernists and their successors weren’t satisfied with the long-standing definition. Pound, Eliot, William Carlos Williams, et al. found the ornate forms inadequate to express the violence, economic hardship, and loss of faith in a society shaken by the slaughter of two world wars and torn between Fascism and Communism. Moreover, Williams argued that English in the American melting pot had a unique immigrant-influenced sound that demanded new forms. The upshot is they “freed” poems; took linguistic wedges and split poem from verse. As with many previous rebellions, a certain amount of chaos ensued until a new dictator arose.

Free verse—no specified form, ordinary language, commonplace subject matter.

The dictum now was “a poem finds its own form,” but if that is so, how do you know whether the words you found make a poem? You might say it’s a poem but do other people accept it as such?

Somewhere in my reading someone, Annie Finch I think, said, essentially, if you’ve broken the material into short lines, it’s a poem by definition. (I apologize for failing to supply a link or a title but I can’t find this statement again.)

I rejected that definition for a long time, because it seemed arbitrary. I could put instructions for operating my rototiller in short lines, but would that make it poetry?

I held that negative opinion until I read in Kenneth Koch’s Making Your Own Days (Touchstone, 1998) that Line breaks . . . draw attention to tone and sound. In doing so, they make poetic sense . . . One becomes more conscious of the words. (p 30)

Dress appropriately when operating the tiller.
Always wear sturdy footwear. Never
wear sandals, sneakers or open shoes, and never
operate the tiller with bare feet. Do not wear
loose clothing that might get caught
in the moving parts.

I promise you I picked that Operating Manual from among the papers and books lying on my desk as the item least likely to be poetic. And really, the six lines above do not comprise a poem. However the line breaks I chose create a sort of rhyme scheme in the first four lines: tiller/never/never/wear. In turn, that rhyming emphasizes the internal rhyming and repetition of wear, footwear, and bare. Also, placing prohibitive words at the ends of lines strengthens them from advice to warning.

I would not have noticed this language if I hadn’t introduced line breaks.

So okay, line breaks. But what about prose poems?

Back to square one.

For Koch, the one essential ingredient of poetry is music: Poetry, he says, and by extension a poem would just as soon come to a musical as to a logical or otherwise useful conclusion . . . (p 21). But again what about those oxymoronic prose poems?

. . . a poem comes right with a click like a box says Yeats. Yes, that could be it; even those boxy prose poems can click closed.

But a poem must resonate outward at the end says most every writing teacher I ever had.

Cleanth Brooks asserted that a poem cannot be paraphrased. A text is non-paraphrasable if and only if a paraphrase neither can replace the text nor capture its essential meaning. In that scenario, a poem’s rhythm, style, sound, images, emotional flavour and intellectual aspects, the denotations and connotations of its words, and even its content and graphic aspects, are inseparable. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.7523862.0002.008

This definition makes a poem larger than its component parts, which may well be true but may be as true of poetic prose as of prose poetry. It also implies that the poem clicks shut and not even the poet can make changes. In that case, a poem would be rara avis indeed.

One day at the beginning of second grade, my teacher asked each student in turn to recite the alphabet. I couldn’t recite the alphabet. What to do? Certainly this was no time to memorize the letters strung out above the blackboard; she was already at the head of my row, and now it was my turn. ‘I can’t say the letters in order,” desperation spoke, “but I know them when I see them.” She laughed and I got away with it.

Possibly poem can’t be defined, only recognized by those who are immersed in poetry the way a beginning reader is immersed in the alphabet. Maybe the definition is different for every reader and maybe it is different at different stages of life.

So all I can offer is a sort of paraphrase of what I said to Miss Nell in 1953: I may never be able to say definitely what a poem is but I know one when I read one.


Sherry Chandler has published two chapbooks and two full-length collections of poetry, most recently The Woodcarvers’s Wife (Wind Publications). She lives on a small farm in Kentucky with her woodcarving husband and an ever-changing population of wildlife, an ever-changing source of inspiration. For more information, please visit her website.

Guest Post: Pat Valdata

What Is a Poem?

Multiple choice:

    a) The answer to one of the hardest questions in literature.
    b) An ancient art form, older than cuneiform.
    c) That thing we compare other art forms to.
    d) If we’re getting really sloppy, it’s what some people call a natural event with no art to it whatsoever: waves crashing onshore in the winter, blowing frozen spume.
    e) I know it when I see it.

What is a poem?

A trick question. You’d think we’d have a decent definition for it by now.

Until the 20th century, everyone knew what a poem was: that form of speaking, and then writing, with rhymed words and a regular rhythm. Whether it took the form of a chant, a psalm, or a rondeau, we had no trouble identifying a poem. We even had field guides to its various forms, helping us to distinguish among types of sonnets the way birders recognize Willow, Alder, and Acadian Flycatchers (or try to, anyway).
Then came Modernism, and we ripped away poetic conventions the way flappers ripped off their corsets. After a wave of wild experimentation, poetry settled into a free-verse, lyrical groove that has lasted for decades. Every few years or so, some movement comes along to expand the boundaries again: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Oulipo, New Formalism (which has been around for more than 30 years, so maybe we should stop referring to it as “new”), Spoken Word.

What is a poem?

A magnanimous form of writing, as short as a haiku, as long as a blank verse novel. It treads the treacherous marsh between prosaic and singsong.

What isn’t a poem?

It isn’t a paragraph, unless it’s a prose poem. It isn’t simply a paragraph broken into irregular lines, either. That’s a rookie mistake.

What is a poem?

Don’t ask me. I write poetry, but I’ll be darned if I can define it.


Pat Valdata is adjunct associate professor at the University of Maryland University College with an MFA in writing from Goddard College. Her publications include Where No Man Can Touch, winner of the 2015 Donald Justice Poetry Prize. For more information, please visit her website.

Guest Post: Joannie Stangeland

What is a poem?

I’ve been thinking about what makes a poem in terms of what is a poem and what is prose. I’ve been pondering this a lot—that line breaks on their own don’t make a poem, and that a prose poem is more than a block of text.

A while back, I said that a poem is music—that prose can be musical but in a poem, music is more important than narrative.

Now I want to add to my earlier response: Just as music includes the rests, the poem rests in the space on the page—always asking, “What’s next?” For me, a poem is what’s here and what’s left out—what can’t be seen or heard but only felt, a shift, a haunting. The not-said lingers in the space, engages me as the reader to go between the lines.

This is not about confusion but an intention and a respect. The poem intends to go its way and respects me as the reader to keep up with it. If the writing tells me everything, I become a bystander. I’ll still enjoy its music—a sensual turn of phrase, a run of alliteration, refrain, end or internal rhyme, all the poetry things. But does it invite me back?

What’s being said and not said sets up a tension and a desire to uncover what’s next. In this way, every poem is some kind of mystery. For me, the poem doesn’t need to answer the question (it might, but I don’t think that’s mandatory). The poem must ask a question.

As an example, I come back to music. In Western music, we want the songs we hear to resolve in their own key—on the tonic or the tonic chord (a melody in C ends on C). For me, a poem resists that resolution until the very last minute, or it doesn’t resolve at all, leaves me listening for it, singing it in my head.

Or a poem is like the composition of a painting, which isn’t flat but is guiding the eye—there is movement on the canvas and awareness of what isn’t in the frame. I especially like to think of post-modern lyric poems as abstract art, where the landscape is not painted for me but I as the reader am creating my own world, my own narrative or backstory.

We have image, metaphor, and music. We have what’s missing, and we have that moment, the turn that pivots our awareness. If the poem asks me to work with it a little, if it leaps and gives me a ledge to land on, but just enough of a ledge, then I become a part of the poem and it becomes a part of me.

Earlier, Mary posted about nourishment. This is what nourishes me, and this is where I want my poems to lead me.


Joannie Stangeland is the author of In Both Hands and Into the Rumored Spring, both published by Ravenna Press, plus two chapbooks, and a pamphlet of prose poems. Joannie’s poems have also appeared in Front Porch Journal, Off the Coast, Hubbub, Santa Fe Literary Review, and other journals. For more information, please visit her website.

No Joke: What’s a Poem?

This month, to celebrate National Poetry Writing Month, we’re going to host a number of poets and writers and thinkers who will be sharing their response to that dreaded question: what is a poem?

Please check back periodically to see whose words are up and let us know what you think of them.

Stats

When I started reading the collection of 100 poems previously published in Poetry, put together by Don Share and Christian Wiman—called The Open Door—I didn’t intend to wonder about the publishing choices of the magazine, just read some poems.

However, the amount of rhyme really surprised me. I began to wonder how it varied with time, because the poems included in the collection were published between 1913 and 2011. Was there some pattern? I would have assumed more rhyme earlier in the history of the magazine. I mean, didn’t free verse smash formal poetry, or why did we have that renaissance of Formalism?

I am assuming here that the “best of” choices made by Share and Wiman reflect both the best poems of the time in which they were published, as well as posterity’s take, in some way. I am also assuming that the form of the poem chosen was in some way representative of what was popular at the time it was published, which is also a bit iffy.

So here’s the breakdown, with rhyming poems indicated in blue and non-rhyming poems in orange. Some years from 1913-2011 had no published poems chosen for the collection; some years had more than one.

There were 39 rhyming poems, by which I mean poems which used end-rhyme in any way; the remainder didn’t use end-rhyme.


bar chart showing rhyming and non-rhyming poems from best-of Poetry magazine

(Click graphic for larger version.)

I think what I expected to see was a pattern.

I think I expected the first half of the 20th century to be full of rhyme and see that change as time progressed. That does happen a bit, but there’s also a surprising increase in rhyming (blue) poems near the end of the timeline.

While the number of rhyming poems does decrease as time passes in the plot, the non-rhyming poems are there pretty much from the beginning. This also surprised me. I guess I had thought that free verse got popular later than it actually did. Just my ignorance.

And something the graphic doesn’t show, but which I noticed with my eyes currently working to understand the ordering of manuscripts: the front of the collection included a number of rhyming poems, including the first one, while the ending began to pull in more rhyming poems as the final page approached, and the final two poems of the collection rhyme. Which says to me that Share and Wiman believe that a rhyme is a wonderful choice to provide closure.

Nourishment

I flipped open Annie Finch‘s A Poet’s Craft with another purpose in mind but I was stung by the title of chapter 2: “Poetry as Nourishment”.

In a way, it explains why I rail so against not finding what I want in poems. I need that nourishment.

As analogy, it also encourages me: try to enjoy new types of food.

Which brings me to Diane Ackerman’s “At Belingshausen, the Russian Base, Antarctica”.

Building materials, blue ice, even bulk paper: not edible.

And yet, in the end, it was edible, it was poetry that nourished me, half for what it was and half because I let myself like the brussel sprouts. [Note: I actually do like brussel sprouts; their choice just felt iconic.]

I could wish Ackerman’s poem was really a sonnet, instead of a fourteen-line piece. I could wish that the middle six lines rhymed in some, even slant, way. But it was tastier to decide that “oak” and “echoes” had rhyme possibility. And to let the need for rhyme go because I knew it was coming back at the ending. At the end, I was full of multiple interpretations of the conceit. At the end, the cherry on top was an oft-used sentiment presented fresh and crisp and full of music.