Category Archives: Essay
Desiring demands a fascination tangled with anticipation overlooking a back which time enters in
time becomes us between levels and notes to find verisimilitude, which provides contrast achieving perfect suspense.
The castration blinds one signaling denouement while love follows spatialization which produces referentiality before mastering desire by transformed repetitions to understand contrast in someone voluptuous
holding something glamorous invokes excitement within the window of desire implying a world to experience as being a blind glass to the self.
The camera realizes the romantic violence of cuts with material accompanied by a convention like flowers but then enjoying self-consciousness and breakfast. Nevertheless, desire declares tomorrow that’s phallic, rich, and seduced to imagined lengths in reversals of want, assuming desire is ‘castration’ hidden outside conversation
(narrative begins with mirroring, framing, love—revealing a room and him which noted his drives to want suspense instead of jumping in Lisa’s musical window)
Pleasure is a Rear Window, a mere requirement that introduces understanding in disempowerment to acknowledge her gaze while dancing draws phallic themes (brings our unconscious) localized in loneliness (now noises) referred to as close-up dangers opposed by narrative objects to see, not to be seen, while the gaze is limited, called sensuality, wheels of disempowerment (enclosed in everyone)
celebrated looking as exterior to ourselves to suddenly reverse this large want score its connotations paralleling pleasure in two lonelyhearts. Love closely, kiss quickly, and come swooping around a door
showing such different mannerisms behind a half-lit window where pleasure eats under a body to be explored, recognized, between curiosity and burial
adjoining in recognition of opposition beginning as doubt transformed in the anxiety of creation revealed as sounds mirroring boundaries—
Here love me all firm back into being contrasting pleasures or characters to the opposite window
so if lack is extensions in phones pointing to romance, here the dilemma offered is reversals of potent lonelyhearts.
It started as little love notes in elementary school. Possibly out of boredom; perhaps because I wasn’t diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder until I was nearly twenty-one years old; or, perhaps from an utter fascination with the female form.
Anyways, while the teacher was going about his or her teacher duties, I would doodle in my notebook, or compose little poems to the girls in the class, or I would stare out of the barred windows waiting for recess. I had not thought of the precise time period when I began writing or wven why I began until I read Georges Perec’s novel W, or The Memory off Childhood. He wrote: “The idea of writing the story of my past arose at almost the same time as the idea of writing” (26).
Now back to elementary school in Detroit, Michigan. While the teacher was guiding the other attentive children through our Hooked on Phonics books, I’d sit silently with pencil and paper writing love notes to the beautiful Mexican, Black, Asian and Indian girls. I didn’t care what language they spoke but knew holding hands and kissing cheeks was universal.
I remember writing love notes to Mariana—whose long dark hair feel across her smooth, tanned face. The sound of her name was a poem in itself—Mariana. Say it out loud. I’ll wait.
After I wrote the poem, I’d place it in my pocket—anxious to givfe it to her. Throughout the class, I would open and close, open and close the note to see if what I’d written was right.
That anxiety, I realize, was my first practice with revision.
I was trying to communicate something, whatever it was I’m not sure of. To this day, when I write, I am still attempting to communicate something with my poems.
That idea of trying to reach someone with my words, like a little love letter, is still helpful. The best poems I’ve composed I was attempting to do just that. Ted Kooser’s idea of the ‘imaginary reader’ has been helpful throughout my poetry:
I recommend that when you sit down to write you have in mind an imaginary reader, some person you’d like to reacher with your words. […]. The more real your imaginary reader seems to you, the easier it becomes to shape a poem that might reach through to that person. If you keep the shadow of that reader—like a whiff of perfume—in the room where you write, you’ll be a better writer.
[…]. The important thing is to have a sense of the person for whom you are writing and address your work to that person (The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, 20).
I thought of that advice the other day while I was in my backyard drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and reading W.S. Merwin’s translation of Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair.
While reading that collection I was thinking of my friend whose birthday was coming up and how difficult it was for me to find a present for her. I was looking at the trees that I do not know the names of in my yard. I figured she’d be able to tell me. And I was staring at the roses which were drooping towards the grass and then I wrote this poem for her. The title is quite clever.
To a Friend on Her Birthday
I’ve searched and searched
for the right present for you—
I’ve asked the birds to sing
a different tune for you
I begged the roses and lilies and orchids
to wake from their sleep
but they continue to mourn
the ones lost in recent floods
—so they won’t do
as these words won’t come out
of the clouds
now that I’ve tried making them
into an endless necklace
of stones and flowers
but the colors and weight were off
—I tried to form
tho it seems I’ve forgotten
how to weave them
into something simple
—something light for you
to wear & warm yer white wrists
as the sun
After I revised the initial draft a few times and felt I said what I felt, I wrote it in a card for her. The card design was nearly the personification of her; it had an antique and modern touch to it. I put the card in a matching envelope, sealed it, and gave it to her at work.
She read it and her reaction ‘made me feel all fuzzy inside.’ She nearly choked up and couldn’t keep from smiling. And seeing that smile, I couldn’t keep from smiling. I thought to myself, I wish every poem I wrote evoked that same reaction.
In the poem, I let nature reflect the feelings I have for her. I wanted the images and associations to leap around the page, as Robert Bly wrote in Leaping Poetry: An Idea with Poems and Translations:
[…] [A] great work of art often has at its center a long floating leap, around which the work of art in ancient times used to gather itself like steel shavings around the magnet. […]. The real joy of poetry is to experience this leaping inside a poem. A poet who is “leaping” makes a jump from an object soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance (4).
In the poem, the feelings I have are the unconscious substance as they are not stated directly and they jump to objects that are in a physical substance, such as the sun and flowers and stones and clouds and birds.
But I went off-track.
Often in everyday interactions with friends and family and so on, I have trouble spitting out the things I want to say or things I’m feeling; for me, poetry is the most effective means for communication. This problem has affected me as long as I can recall.
This inability to communicate is most likely linked to a lifetime of high-anxiety and ADHD and being taught as a young boy: Don’t speak unless spoken to.
There’s also too many things running through my mind. It seems as though my mouth has thrown in the towel trying to keep up.
Anyways, I was senior in high school when I began my ‘serious’ writing.
One day—in spring or the beginning of summer, I can’t remember when, but it’s not important, what’s important is what happened on that one day—a local poet who also happens to be an undertaker in a neighboring town came to talk to my creative writing class and read a few poems.
His name’s Thomas Lynch.
He read the poem “Grimalkin” from his collection Still Life in Milford (Norton, 1998) which changed my future right there. The poem influenced me to become a poet. Here it is. Get ready. Well, a piece of it.
One of these days she will lie there and be dead.
I’ll take her out back in a garbage bag
and bury her among my sons’ canaries,
the ill-fated turtles, a pair of angelfish:
the tragic and mannerly household pests
that had the better sense to take their leaves
before their welcomes or my patience had worn thin.
For twelve long years I’ve suffered this damned cat
while Mike, my darling middle son, himself
twelve years coming this May, has grown into
the tender if quick-tempered manchild
his breeding blessed and cursed him to become.
And only his affection keeps this cat alive
though more than once I’ve threatened violence—
the brick and burlap in the river recompense
for mounds of furballs littering the house,
choking the vacuum cleaner, or what’s worse:
shit in the closets, piss in the planters, mice
that winter indoors safely as she sleeps
curled about a table leg, vigilant
as any knickknack in a partial coma.
The poem has one of the best first lines I had ever heard. The poem’s packed with humor as well as a sweetness to it. And I wanted to write poems such as ‘Grimalkin.’
The first serious poem I published was after W.C. Williams’ poem ‘This is Just to Say.’ I wrote it after an argument with a girlfriend. This is my apology poem to her. It’s titled after the Williams poem.
This is Just to Say
This is just to say
I’m sorry I took so long
to get to your house.
I figured I would take
half an hour tops
doing the usual—
showering, scrubbing, shaving,
and all that good stuff.
Once I got out of the shower
I stared at myself in the mirror, naked…
Let’s just say
I didn’t enjoy what I was looking at
and assumed you wouldn’t either.
The hair would have to go.
So I started
the terribly time consuming task
of getting rid of all that hair.
Making my balls
as smooth as eggs
just the way you like them.
The online literary magazine that published the poem is, appropriately named, Origami Condom.
But let’s go back to my poem ‘To a Friend on Her Birthday.’ I had been reading a lot of Neruda and his influence on this poem is throughout it—as his poetry has left an indelible mark upon my own and continues to creep into my poetry, as well as other influences. Christina Garcia wrote a wonderful description of Neruda’s style in the introduction to Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair:
It is the combination of the sensory and the natural, the subjective and the eternal, the instinctual and the commonly transcendent (coupled with a fierce anti-intellectualism) that distinguishes Neruda’s poetry from that of his contemporaries. He finds the glorious in the ordinary, transforming it, simply and forcefully […] (x).
That’s exactly what I hope to achieve through my art, and perhaps once I’ve felt as if I’ve come close to it.
I apologize. I got distracted. It happens often and I cannot help it. I’ve learned to live with the distractions and, once in a while, even to welcome them.
Let’s return to why I write.
Besides wanting to communicate something, the reasons why I write and why I’m writing this are extremely simple. I mean it’s terribly simple and not poetic; I write because I enjoy it.
I enjoy every part of it. The feeling of the chair supporting my ass so well while I have been sitting here for the good part of two hours. The feeling of my favorite pen between my fingers, scribbling across my notebook. (Yes, I have a favorite pen. It’s a BIC Atlantis. I refuse to write anything without one. And yes, I create all my drafts in pen, and then transfer it to the laptop and then print it and then I revise it in pen and then transfer it back to the laptop over and over again until I’m satisfied or tired. Also, I handwrite all my poems because with all the recent technological advancements, a computer is very difficult for a writer who has ADHD to deal with.) At this very moment, at two-forty-five in the morning in White Lake, Michigan, I even enjoy my forearm resting on top of the kitchen table as I’m writing this. It’s so comfortable. I haven’t moved it in twenty minutes.
I enjoy the shitty first drafts, even the shitty final drafts. I especially enjoy the poems that come out exactly how I wanted them to—perhaps you noticed me patting myself on the back for ‘To a Friend on Her Birthday.’
I suppose you may be a little disappointed with my explanation of why I write. I’m sorry. I forgot to use the lofty, poetic claims other writers make which piss me off.
It’s entirely irritating picking up the latest issue of Poets & Writers and have the bold type-face WHY WE WRITE smack me in the beard with interest. I thought, Hey, this could be interesting. But, as I just disappointed you a moment ago, I was mistaken. It was awful. Read part of Joyce Thomas’s article “The Word in the World” and you will experience that same disappointment as I did:
I like to tell my students that only the letter l—that bare alphabetic Maypole—separates word from world. I remind them (or, more often these days, tell them) how, in the first chapter of Genesis, God’s voice literally conjures the cosmos, that string of “Let there be” imperatives summoning from nothing the light and firmament and seas, the sun and moon and stars, the Earth and all the creatures upon it. How God’s voice crafts something out of nothing, how it transforms chaos into design, into meaning.
That first creation is replicated as we acquire words, those bite-size morsels that fit so well upon one’s tongue, each new morsel, each acquired word another piece of the world. […]. Each word enlarges and focuses our vision; by means of it, one sees more, sees better.
I write because writing helps me bring life into clearer focus and gives shape to what I might otherwise experience as disconnected shards […].
Writing enables me to take back the world as cosmos, a world with a pattern and, perhaps, a purpose. By writing, I better see those things that cause my heart to gladden (32).
I won’t judge you if you stopped reading.
You see why I despise those dull, grandiose claims? Yes. I bet you do.
In my poetry, I do not try to order the world. The world, as I see it, will never be in order and attempting to do such a thing is too much pressure on a poet. I mean it’s too much pressure on me. I will not stop anyone who wishes to do so, or has the time to do so. But I have neither the time nor patience nor savings to do so. I also do not have the attention span required for such a job.
The lack of attention span is what makes poetry and writing poetry extremely attractive. In the past six years, I cannot recall a time when a poem of mine exceeded three pages (though I am currently working on a poem that’s nearly 11 pages—which with later revisions and reworking and rewording will most likely turn out to be about three). And that’s why I cannot write short stories. And I also don’t like writing in prose. For me, the only interesting thing in prose is “rose.” Writing prose requires too much of a commitment. It’s too involved. I like to get in and get out.
I write of commonplace things, of things found in nature and so on. Raymond Carver’s essay “On Writing” from his collection Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories (Vintage, 1983) has influenced me since the day I read it in David James’s creative writing class at Oakland Community College.
It’s possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power (15).
I’ll let that soak in. While that soaks in, here’s a six line poem I wrote a couple years ago which appears in Michigan State University’s literary journal The Offbeat vol. 10.
A woman reading my poems
has a slight smile on her face
staring down at the page.
Her hair (long, dark brown)
grazes one of my poems.
I close my eyes,
imagine it falling on my face.
Perhaps you’re able to tell I do not like to confuse whoever reads my poetry. As I said, poetry is communication. When another writer confuses me again and again, I eventually get frustrated and stop reading. I absolutely and completely hate tricks. Perhaps you noticed that the poem’s I’ve mentioned in this essay do not contain any such things. I really hate tricks. Of course, throughout my poetry, I use poetic devices (since I’m writing poetry) but I never use those devices, or want to use them, to alienate the reader.
Pablo Neruda was asked in an interview for the Paris Review in 1971: “What do the dove and guitar signify?” and Neruda replies: “The dove signifies the dove and the guitar signifies a musical instrument called the guitar.” And then he elaborates for the interviewer: “When I see a dove, I call it a dove. The dove, whether it is present or not, has a form for me, either subjectively or objectively—but it doesn’t go beyond being a dove” (173).
But back to my writing. Of course I write because there’s a deep joy in it. But there’s also frustration and pain.
When the words aren’t doing what I want them to, I become depressed. But it’s not such a deep depression since I don’t do it for the money. I knew from the beginning that there’s no money in poetry.
I don’t write expecting to be able to live off my work, and talking about poetry and literature. I’m no Billy Collins. Of course, you noticed that. The first thing that separates Billy Collins and I is our names; my name is John Farmer. Two; I am thirty something years his junior. Three; I don’t have a collection of poetry appearing on the shelves of Borders nearly every year. Four; I’ve only been paid for my poetry once. It was a check for three dollars from an Ann Arbor based journal, Third Wednesday. I have yet to cash it. Perhaps I’ll frame it. I can only guess that Billy has been paid for his poetry more than once. Five; I don’t have Poets & Writers interviewing me and writing on my writing. Six; when I submit a batch of poems to—let’s say—thirty magazines, I expect twenty-nine rejections and hope for one acceptance. And I can go on and on.
It seems I’m distracted again.
But back to the joy and pain of writing. Tracy K. Smith said something that wonderfully captured the pleasure and pain in the Fishouse anthology:
I remember the moment when I learned that a poem could start from something it didn’t know the answer to or from an experience that I didn’t fully understand I felt. I remember feeling so relieved. The process of sitting down to write a poem suddenly was really fun. When I get the itch to start something now it’s not because of what I know, it’s because of what I wonder, and it makes the process so much more satisfying because it’s so much more unpredictable. The pain is very deeply connected to the pleasure, and it’s about that not knowing. I get an idea for writing a poem and I commit to the first liens and I have that feeling, the exact feeling of falling in love, and then I get scared, and I don’t know if the poem is something I’m capable of bringing to its rightful close and I wonder if what I’m able to see and say is adequate for what the poem’s promise is (25).
As I said earlier, there are times when the words refuse to do as I tell them. This happens periodically. Sometimes it lasts only a couple of days. Sometimes it can go on for weeks. That gap depresses me, but the words come back from somewhere and so does the joy. That constant struggle is another reason why I write and also why I have a day job.
There’s an interesting essay in the Poets & Writers issue I mocked earlier. Michael Klein wrote of the need to have a day job because “poetry isn’t something you do for money” (27).
It’s an exhausting job—thinking about it, writing it, reading and talking about it—and a painful one at that. I don’t know of a job where one is constantly rejected, told how bad one’s work is over and over again. But I continue to write.
Klein and I are extremely similar. Like him, “I’ve never had the temperament or skill set of somebody who can sit at a desk every day with a restless heart and pursue the empty page. I get antsy. I need breaks. After exalted periods with poems, thinking starts to feel occult. Occasionally something even worse happens: I completely lose the thread of language and what it does and why I am doing it to it” (27).
The reasons I have been writing this are—one, I rarely talk about my writing because most of the people I know aren’t interesting in poetry and other forms of art and because I don’t like talking about myself. But here I am talking about myself. Whenever I’m with other people, I don’t feel a need to talk about myself. I’d rather listen to them or read a book. I’m also superstitious about speaking of my poetry.
When I’m in a “zone” during writing where I turn out a few decent pieces in a row, I get a little confidence boost that usually ends up messing with my head and pen. I can’t write for a few days after I write a decent poem.
The second reason is; I believe talking about one’s poetry hinders the important part of the job description—the writing.
The third, though connected to the first, is my fiancee asks me about my writing and wants to know what’s going on in my brain while I’m writing. And as I said, I just don’t like talking about myself. So this is partially for her.
The fourth reason is that this is a distraction for me from my ‘serious’ writing. The poems have slowed their pace lately. I’m just writing to write.
But here I am writing about myself and writing on my writing.
In The Subterraneans, Kerouac describes his literary circle as: “They are hip without being slick, they are intelligent without being corny, they are intellectual as hell and know all about Pound without being pretentious or talking to much about it, they are very quiet, they are very Christlike” (1).
The misunderstanding and misreading of Pound was possibly fueled by booze, amphetamines, and benzadrine. Or his essays we merely scanned and important parts—such as “Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something” and “Don’t be descriptive; remember that a painter can describe a landscape much better than you can”—were overlooked.
Pound was interested in the precision, not sloppiness, of language and the good writer knows when to shut the hell up.
I am going to talk about silences but in speaking about them, of course, I am not remaining silent.
Silence is the neglected, bastard, red-head-gay-lesbian-transgender-transsexual-bi-sexual-Irish-Black-Mexican son of language.
Silence dances around the words, mingles in the margins, in the white space. E.E. Cummings knew how to utilize silence. He knew that shit well! The Beats ruined silence. They were like Mormons—the more wives, or words, the better. And silence was the ugliest wife.
Silence is a part of language. It is in the space between words, after punctuation marks, when a line breaks and stanza, or paragraph, ends. And we ignore them. Or the majority of readers do. They run right by and over the silences as a car runs over a cat or squirrel or frog or leaf and rushes towards the next word or line or stanza without thought.
This is very fine work—the extraordinary emotional and linguistic precision of these poems is stunning. They vibrate between playful and brutal so deftly that each line seems to be a sharp shard of some fantastic and fatally wounded planet. You have a deep understanding of the revision process […] and the capacity to both expand and cut back serves you well. You narrator(s)’s simmering insinuations and speculations play themselves out in Technicolor; thoughts here seem motivated by emotions and vis-versa. The “I” seems decidedly grammatical and rhetorical, but never loses the grit and gamble of personhood. That is, it doesn’t feel like a mere abstraction or theoretical stance, even if it is. “Young Writers” enacts struggle for and fear of writerly confidence, and the opposition the narrator seeks to set up between first person and “young writers” clearly is a foil, a desperate attempt at distancing. Aesthetics is at stake here—solipsism, naturalism (organic poetry), subjectivity, linguistic modes of expression are all on the line—but the poem ends on a call for dialogism. This call is complex because it argues for being in dialogue with someone outside the self and for thinking/hearing everything in the world as a direct response. “Disaster” is a very Dickinsonesque piece, with its hesitancies, sonic links, and movement between the seen and the spiritual. The way ruin turns into stories which turn into “lines lost” seems to be commenting on the editorial process (Dickinson’s trouble with editors; the lost lines of ancient verse found stuffed into mummies etc; revising or cutting one’s own work), and turns from concrete to ephemeral.
I forgot to mention this, but when you copy edit, make sure you keep in mind artistic intent. The piece I’m thinking of it [title of the piece] all those changes you made are actually part of the style of the piece, and to change them would undo the whole point. Remember- anyone who has submitted their piece to us has probably gone over it three or four times at least to make sure it’s right, and if it got accepted, it meant the judges thought something in it was working. Only change things that you absolutely think are error- typos, spelling, spacing between words, etc. When in doubt, point it out but don’t necessarily change it.
Here are some notes on “artistic intent.” The changes I made to the piece “Summer Again in the Township” only helped it out. It was an awfully written piece, and awfully dreadful to read through. There is a point when “artistic intent” becomes an excuse to become sloppy with language and in effect, it disregards the reader, as anyone who reads it would be able to see how un-artful that “artistic intent” is. Yes, it’s style is its lack of punctuation and it is one sentence. And that’s cute and all but if there were a few artful line breaks thrown in there it would only improve the piece. Since any person who has any history of reading poetry knows a couple extra spaces or a line break indicates pause.
Let’s take a look at the original piece “Summer Again in the Township”:
Arriving in an empty home they laugh and jest a flight of stairs away the authority stumbled back just before he had consumed for the first time in months they didn’t help nor console the man emptying his heart into the bowl they poked him with sticks and screeched with delight every time he retched their wicked tongues called her name to each other recounting the embarrassment of her company calligraphic language and embezzled behavior was enough to wreck the evening and the moon was
to be found her mind turned to soldiers and anarchists yet her phone sat humbly by her hands the vacant floor did nothing but echo each insulting syllable throughout each corner and crevice and every picture was faked each smile suggesting something she couldn’t see something she never felt a fraud posing as a memory each image and vibrating word enough to justify each step back out the door until his hand lashed out and
her path she ran barefoot for miles through the dark and winding suburban streets constricting her as much as their fingers slinking around her throat she could hear the voices and slaps of feet behind her toying with her space like a game needled teeth reaching out to her bubble claustrophobia speckled the cement with red disgust boiled over to rage in one hand she flicks her blade open
in the other she dials a number one she has withheld for months he answers the phone in silence his breaths are deep and dream-like but they don’t respond to her sniffles they refuse to answer her desperate voice the breathing does nothing but listen the steady warmth escaping lungs and esophagus too far away to even imagine touching skin quiet and calm to the screams across the wires and she slams the receiver against her leg crying
And here are some suggestions without adding punctuation but indicating pauses and adding capitalization so the reader can see what’s going on:
Arriving in an empty home
they laugh and jest
a flight of stairs away
The authority stumbled back
he had consumed
for the first time in months
They didn’t help
nor console the man
emptying his heart into the bowl
They poked him
and screeched with delight
every time he retched
Their wicked tongues called her name
to each other
recounting the embarrassment of her company
and embezzled behavior was enough to wreck
and the moon was
to be found
Her mind turned
yet her phone sat humbly
by her hands
The vacant floor did nothing
each insulting syllable
throughout each corner
and every picture was faked
suggesting something she couldn’t see
something she never felt
posing as a memory
and vibrating word
enough to justify each step back
out the door
until his hand lashed out
She ran barefoot for miles
through the dark and winding suburban streets
constricting her as much as their fingers
slinking around her throat
She could hear the voices
and slaps of feet
toying with her space
like a game
reaching out to her bubble
speckled the cement with red disgust
In one hand
she flicks her blade open
In the other
she dials a number
one she has withheld for months
He answers the phone in silence
His breaths are deep
but they don’t respond
to her sniffles
They refuse to answer
her desperate voice
The breathing does nothing
the steady warmth
escaping lungs and esophagus
too far away
to even imagine touching skin
quiet and calm
to the screams
across the wires
and she slams the receiver against her leg
And so on…
‘All those changes you made are actually part of the style of the piece, and to change them would undo the whole point.’
The idea of “artistic intent” is not permission to be sloppy or utterly disregard the reader. Certainly, there are contemporary writers and writers in the world’s history whose style was evident in their work. For example, W. S. Merwin, e. e. cummings, Gertrude Stein, George Oppen, and so on.
Somewhere in our society, we have forgotten that poetry is communication. There’s already enough resistance towards poetry in our society, and most of the blame is to be placed on the poets. No doubt that as writers we have the freedom of choosing what to write about, but we have to keep in the back of our minds the possibility, if the poem is published, that there will be someone else reading our work. We have to keep in mind, as Ted Kooser wrote in The Poetry Home Repair Manual, that our poems are invited guests into their day, or lives, or bathrooms:
A poem is the invited guest of its reader. As readers we open the door of the book or magazine, look into the face of the poem, and decide whether or not to invite it into our lives. No poem has ever entered a reader’s life without an invitation; no poem has the power to force the door open. No one is going to read your poem just because it’s there. Because most of our early experience with poems happened in classrooms where we had to try to make sense of a poem, we’ve gotten the impression that people are going to sit still for a half hour sweating over the poems we write, trying to understand and enjoy them. Not so! […]. If your poem doesn’t grab them at once, they’re turning the page (22-3).
Throughout my history of writing and reading and attending workshops, one thing has become more and more evident that some writers forget that our readers only have so much patience and we have to grab their attention quick and gracefully or they will turn the page. No one is going to read your poem just because it’s there.
And, as Kooser suggests, we need to also think like businessmen or businesswomen when writing our poems and examine the poem with a cost-benefit analysis:
In business, executives make cost-benefit analyses. […]. They never want the cost to exceed the benefit. Every choice you make in a poem, thinking to make it better, can also have a corresponding cost. If you want to make a line look shorter by using an ampersand or an abbreviation of a word, you face the cost of drawing the reader’s attention back to the surface while he or she wonders why you decided to us Sgn for surgeon. […]. The cost is the risk, however slight, that your reader will be drawn back to the surface to puzzle over your usage when you want his or her attention to be beyond the surface, peering down into the beautiful underwater garden of the poem. […]. Each of us must make a thousand choices in every poem. Nobody is going to take away your poetic license for playing with typography or punctuation or spelling. It can be lots of fun to write a poem about a flying seagull in the shape of a flying seagull, but you need to understand that that bird shape will interfere to some degree with the ability of the reader to pass through the surface into the poem behind that clever silhouette. […] It may seem cool to leave out commas, to come up with a new spelling for a word, or to use an esoteric word, but if any of this forces your readers to back up and read a line again to see if they’ve understood, it costs you something. It may seem cool to allude to other literary works, to put in the name of a character from a Finnish sage, like Ilmarinen from The Kalevala, but if your reader has to put down the poem and go online to search Google for Imarinen, poof! there goes the transparency (68-70).
Now let’s examine this with the cost-benefit analysis. I assume most readers don’t like to have a dictionary next to them while they’re reading a poem. I don’t mind it so much. But it is extremely irritating to scan through a dictionary while reading a poem that’s not interesting. Take for example, “jest” in the first paragraph on page one—besides being a synonym for laugh or joke, I am wondering why “jest” is there. Already in the first paragraph my attention is being guided somewhere else: to a dictionary and also wondering why the writer is being redundant since he or she could’ve wrote it as: “Arriving in an empty home, they laugh and jest a flight of stairs away….”.
And then there’s the phrase “their wicked tongues called her name to each other recounting the embarrassment of her company calligraphic language and embezzled behavior was enough to wreck the evening” […]. Two things really stick out here—“embarrassment of her company calligraphic language” and “embezzled behavior”. Of course in our writing we use certain devices such as alliteration, consonance, assonance, repetition, etc. since poetry is musically driven. There’s a problem with writers who abuse these devices and with those who do not look at their work critically enough and take out anything that might distract the reader—the writer who keeps a line in there, even though it does not fit with the poem, just because he or she wrote it.
Remember- anyone who has submitted their piece to us has probably gone over it three or four times at least to make sure it’s right, and if it got accepted, it meant the judges thought something in it was working.
I’ll suggest the writer should go over it three or four or five times more, or throw it in the trash. The only thing that’s possibly working in the poem is “they didn’t help nor console the man emptying his heart into the bowl” or “and the moon was nowhere to be found.” Or the writer read more poetry and write more poetry and just keep it in a journal until he or she has looked over it twenty times.
I like experimentation and I don’t because too often writers think readers will read their work just because it’s there. As Raymond Carver wrote in his essay “On Writing”:
Too often “experimentation” is a license to be careless, silly or imitative in the writing. Even worse, a license to try to brutalize or alienate the reader. Too often such writing gives us no news of the world, or else describes a desert landscape and that’s all—a few dunes and lizards here and there, but no people; a place uninhabited by anything recognizably human, a place of interest only to a few scientific specialists (14-15).
We have to remember that poetry is communication, readers invite us into their lives, and if we annoy them, or alienate them, or bore them. We have to remember that no one is going to read our poems just because it’s there.