Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Inevitability and Surprise

I read a great article this week in the NYT by poet Charles Simic.  I've admired his work since I studied it in college so was interested what he had to say about poetry these days.  It was a good article but one sentence in particular really stood out to me.  He was talking about poem endings, and he said "endings must have the inevitability and surprise of an elegantly executed checkmate."  That combination of inevitability and surprise struck me as exactly right.  

Endings feel so incredibly important--the climax of a poem, and getting them exactly right feels like so much of the work of a poem.  I learned early on from poets like Charles Simic, James Wright, and Jane Kenyon that endings can absolutely make or break a poem.

What I love about his quote is that it describes the exact feeling a reader gets at the ending, when we realize the writer has gotten it exactly right.  It feels like what we've been heading toward, or what we intuitively felt ourselves about something but hadn't yet articulated.  And then the surprise.  The surprise wakes us up to ourselves and our world in a fresh way.  It avoids any sense of the cliched or overworked and manages to open us up even before we realized we needed to open up.  I think few poems can truly do both, and when they do it gives us such a rush.

I think if I had to choose one thing to love most about poetry (at least today) it would be that rush--both as a  reader when I read a poem that does that--and as a writer, when I sometimes (not often enough) manage to create the sweet, addictive rush myself.

So here's a sweet little Simic poem.  Thanks Charles.

Eyes Fastened With Pins
by Charles Simic

How much death works,
No one knows what a long
Day he puts in. The little
Wife always alone
Ironing death's laundry.
The beautiful daughters
Setting death's supper table.
The neighbors playing
Pinochle in the backyard
Or just sitting on the steps
Drinking beer. Death,
Meanwhile, in a strange
Part of town looking for
Someone with a bad cough,
But the address somehow wrong,
Even death can't figure it out
Among all the locked doors... 
And the rain beginning to fall.
Long windy night ahead.
Death with not even a newspaper
To cover his head, not even
A dime to call the one pining away,
Undressing slowly, sleepily,
And stretching naked
On death's side of the bed.

The NYT article:  http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/may/15/why-i-still-write-poetry/

Photo Credit: Haggard & Halloo Publications

Poem Citation:  http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15259

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Writing Exercise: Obsessions

My friend James Engelhardt and I sometimes swap poems to get a little advice and help from each other.  I feel very lucky to have him as a poetry buddy.  He gave me a really great idea for an exercise a few months ago.  I thought I'd post this as it might be something you might want to play with too.

I sent him a poem that started with the lines How will I love/without another birth?  James' idea was that I try a whole series of poems that begin with that same question.  I love this exercise as it's really helped me explore a current obsession in my writing.  I find that I (and a lot of poets I know) tend to have obsessions about certain topics and we have to write until we get those out.  Ideas and topics show up in poems over and over.  It's one of the things I love best about poetry books--being able to see a particular question or theme explored in multiple ways.  I've never before tried to directly address that idea by writing multiple poems starting with the same lines. It's been so much fun to do it.  

Here are a few openings I'm working on:

My Beautiful Eggs

How will I live
without another birth?

Without this sure sign,
that I am loved by one

greater than myself?

Apologies to the Body

How will I live without another birth?
By losing weight
by cutting my hair
by piercing my ears, again.

I’m considering a tattoo, although I don’t
tell anyone yet.

After Lucy

How will I live
without another birth?

I watch the fall wind
shake the alder tree

and even that looks like
a contraction, leaves spiraling

I'm not sure if any of these will turn out to be "keepers" but it's fun to play with, and useful to have a set place to start.  Hope this is something that might help you too.  And thanks to James for the idea!