When we look at work for plain china, we poetry editors do our best to remain objective—not to let personal taste play too much into the selection process. We try not to preface our discussion of work with such phrases “I like this!” or “I love this!” Instead, we aim to articulate our understanding of structure and style in defending the pieces we believe should be included in the anthology. For our poetry editors’ blog, though, we decided to make a space that allows us to geek out over poems we admire—and here it is! Enjoy!
When I read a poem, I tend to pay particular attention to the ends of lines. I’ve always been fascinated by enjambment—how the meaning, by virtue of running out of sight, into the next line, refracts and multiplies. An enjambed line is an excellent example of “having your cake and eating it too”—it’s one of the few instances in which, as a writer, you can control an experience of multiplicity. You have, in a palimpsest-like fashion, a layering of meanings—the one before the line break, the one after, the line itself. And one of my favorite poems is Olena Kalytiak Davis’ “Thirty Years Rising,” the first stanza of which exemplifies the uses of enjambment:
I needed to point to the buildings, as if they all stood
for something, as if Detroit could rise again
into its own skyline, filled in
as it always is inside me:
Davis’ masterful enjambment allows the reader to acquaint herself with both the setting as it stands alone, and with the speaker’s relationship to it—her inner turmoil, her doubt, her frustration. In the very first line, we get the sense that she has been away from her home for quite a while; she is not even sure if what she sees is still real. We immediately catch onto the urgency of her disconnect (“I needed to point to the buildings), but the turn to “for something” takes us back to the intellectual and away from this moment of suspension (Am I still here? What is actually around me?). Again, in the second line there is an opening up of a grand question that then closes off into the literal; it’s much easier to rise into a skyline than to rise again, but Davis demands an answer for both. She at once loves her home and is disappointed in it; accepts it for what it is, but also makes demands of it; feels it deeply in herself and is also estranged from it. I love how Davis highlights the natural tension that exists inside people—how most of the strong insights/perceptions we have come from opposing feelings clashing against one another—in this case, in response to her brother, and the place of her upbringing. I highly recommend taking a look at the entirety of this poem; it’s excellent!
Last year, Mark Strand came to Bennington and read a lyric essay of his, “On Nothing.” Ever since, when I look at a poem, my eyes see the space that is not filled: the nothing that surrounds the something the poet creates. In short, I’m interested in the structural layout of the words on the page, and how it interacts with the nothing around it.
When I first read writers who indented lines in strange ways, who broke up their stanzas, or who left words dangling off the edge as if it were some forgotten precipice, my eyes would glaze over. Then, I read Some Ether by Nick Flynn (an unheeded maestro). Here’s “Bag of Mice,” a poem of his that I quite admire:
I dreamt your suicide note
was scrawled in pencil on a brown paperbag,
& in the bag were six baby mice. The bag
opened in darkness,
from the top down. The mice,
huddled at the bottom, scurried the bag
across a shorn field. I stood over it
& as the burning reached each carbon letter
of what you’d written
your voice released into the night
like a song, & the mice
This is the first poem in the collection. When you open the book, you are presented with a mostly blank space—nothing—and what obscures that nothing is a bag of mice: on it scrawled a suicide note. There, the writer sets up the expectation for this collection: a nothing that is filled by trauma, yet caught in a vacuum of feeling. When we’re told that in the bag are “six baby mice,” we are suddenly in there with them, and the scene becomes intimate and fraught with peril. And as we read further, the bag is disappearing, “smoldering.” The lines become smaller, imitating that vanishing. Inevitably, all we are left with is the collective cry of the mice, caught in the knowing of their end. This poem is contained by the emptiness that surrounds it, and the line length reflects this claustrophobia, particularly the concluding one. This final line is also one of the most active in the poem, reflecting the effort of the speaker to escape this containment.
While the poem stands by itself, I believe it adds to the experience of reading to know that Nick Flynn’s mother took her life when he was a child; this tragedy fuels the book, but it isn’t the subject matter that keeps us reading. Flynn’s use of punctuation alone should be studied; it demonstrates an immense control of the line, indicating that he is a writer who understands the sonic experience of a poem, as well as the visual and emotional. Some Ether is an immensely lyric book, with lines that seemingly trail and spin out of control, though always with intent. While this freedom of stanzaic structure may at first glance reflect a dream-like, ethereal quality, there is a hardness and a physicality that nudges these lines forward. As we read on, the emptiness closes in, and this speaker fights for his life against it.
The content of a poem, its meaning and purpose (or purposelessness), is what I gravitate towards when reading. For me, there has to exist some transcendence, a moment, in which reader and writer are fused by a common thread. In Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “The Buck in the Snow,” life and death are explored through the eyes of animals in nature. A doe witnesses his father, shot, the buck’s body lying motionless on the ground. But what makes the poem even richer is the presence of an I, a voyeur, someone watching and ruminating on the experience of witnessing death.
How strange a thing is death, bringing to his knees, bringing to his antlers
The buck in the snow.
How strange a thing—a mile away by now, it may be,
Under the heavy hemlocks, that as the moments pass
Shift their loads a little, letting fall a feather of snow—
Life, looking out attentive from the eyes of the doe.
Life and death become intrinsically linked in this poem. In an instant the buck is shot down: “Now lies he here, his wild blood scalding the snow.” Death is physically marked and become an index of the event. But its surface is ephemeral, as snow is impermanent. The marking of his blood on the snow will melt away with it, and the body of the buck will be consumed, whether by humans or natural decay. Then the poem cycles back to the young doe, who has run off, separated from his father, still alive. Yet the I in the poem, in an earlier stanza, is puzzled by the witnessed scene, repeating, “I saw them. I saw them,” as if unable to bear knowing that within moments death can take a life. Stepping away from the poem, I am overtaken by a feeling of distress and peacefulness, imagining the beauty of the snow-covered apple orchard, in which this scene takes place, against the harsh reality of a dying body and a lost child.
Some poems exist, and wonderfully, as moments frozen in time, snapshots of occasions long past. “Syringa” by John Ashbery, beautifully chooses to define itself in a different way. The idea that this poem is not one captured fragment of time but is an environment, a fluid, dynamic world in itself, is at once the content and the context of “Syringa.” In it, Orpheus’s attempt to rescue Eurydice from death is mingled with meditations on songs and flowers, ephemeral beauties. Eventually, Orpheus realizes that “it isn’t enough / To just go on singing.” He is killed by the Bacchantes—
Some say it was for his treatment of Eurydice.
But probably the music had more to do with it, and
The way music passes, emblematic
Of life and how you cannot isolate a note of it
And say it is good or bad. You must
Wait till it’s over. “The end crowns all,”
Meaning also that the “tableau”
Is wrong. For although memories, of a season, for example,
Melt into a single snapshot, one cannot guard, treasure
That stalled moment. It too is flowing, fleeting;
It is a picture of flowing, scenery, though living, mortal,
Over which an abstract action is laid out in blunt,
Harsh strokes. …
Orpheus (now presumably dead) continues to consider what, if anything, is worthy of regret, when even the “scholarly setting down of / Unquestioned facts, a record of pebbles along the way,” even a things that is set in stone will eventually, inevitably, have “disappeared, / Or got where it was going.”
The thing I love about this poem is that it immerses me in a living, breathing world. The poem has a narrative, yes, but it has something more. “Syringa” contains a moving universe. This universe happens to return consistently to the narrative surrounding Orpheus, but it spends just as much time building the world he inhabits. This world is not a still photograph, not something we can hold. It’s an ecosystem that we are given a brief glimpse into.
I am always impressed by a poem that can aptly make use of stream-of-consciousness, when ideas bleed organically into one another without feeling fabricated. A well-engineered poem reads fluidly, and allows the reader to glide down a page rather than stepping down through the ideas of a poem. In Dean Young’s “The Infirmament,” stream-of-consciousness is employed smoothly and purposefully to guide the reader through a seemingly random progression of ideas that are only sometimes logically linked. In this respect, Young’s use of stream-of-consciousness fosters a poem that employs intuitive leaps to suffice where logic seems to be absent.
An end is always punishment for a beginning.
If you’re Catholic, sadness is punishment
for happiness, you become the bug you squash
if you’re Hindu, a flinty space opens
in your head after a long night of laughter
and wine. For waking there are dreams,
from French poetry, English poetry,
for light fire although sometimes
fire must be punished by light
which is why psychotherapy had to be invented.
A father may say nothing to a son for years.
A wife may keep something small folded deep
in her underwear drawer. Clouds come in
resembling the terrible things we believe
about ourselves, a rock comes loose
from a ledge, the baby just cries
and cries. Doll in a chair,
windshield wipers, staring off
into the city lights. For years
you may be unable to hear the word monkey
without a stab in the heart because
she called you that the summer she thought
she loved you and you thought you loved
someone else and everyone loved
your salad dressing. And the daffodils
come up in the spring and the snow covers
the road in winter and the water covers
the deep trenches in the sea where all the time
the inner stuff of this earth surges up
which is how the continents are made
Young’s stream-of-consciousness creates a feeling of innate understanding within the reader because the poem tapers in scale; it begins with a massive general statement, “An end is always punishment for a beginning,” creating a feeling of spaciousness within the piece, but as the reader is carried through the poem, the scale is altered; the world of the poem seems to thin, isolating its space by religion, then again by nationality. Soon the reader has been immersed in what seems to be a specific family dynamic, introduced by a father who “may say nothing to a son for years,” continued with a wife’s housing something secret in her underwear drawer. Next, a crying baby is introduced, and the family seems to expand. The reader feels time pass due to Young’s associative hint, this time in the form of a group of three images. “Doll in a chair” leads, insinuating a growth from baby to child, and therefore an implied familial growth, and is followed by “windshield wipers,” creating a hypnotic, possibly active image This leads to a more explicit action, “staring off/ into the city lights.” Directly after, the line continues with “For years,” blending its passage of time forward into the poem and backward into the world the poem has already created. Every moment created can be argued to have an association with the previous and following moments. Young cultivates trust by binding seemingly unrelated images together, allowing the reader to have an effortless and uncontested understanding of the poem; in this respect, stream-of-consciousness works to advance the ethos of the speaker and the comfort of the reader within the poem.