Sunday, April 04, 2010

What's in a poem?

How does a poem work on us? The best poems can make us think and feel. They can transport us into our own memories. They can suggest ideas and ask us to reflect and ponder. But how? And how can we make our own poems do that to readers too?

We have to learn to articulate our craft choices. We need to know why we choose a particular form or shape. Why we break lines at certain points. Why we choose one word or image over another. And all those choices need to relate to what the poem is about as a whole, its emotional tone, its intention. The HOW and the WHAT of a poem are inextricably linked.

This critical process isn't a part of first drafts though. That's the time to play, let the creative mind express itself freely and not impose any restrictions and what we want to say and how we want to say it. It's in the subsequent shaping and editing that we need to make conscious choices.

One of the best ways to improve our own conscious critical process is to look at other poets' poems and try to identify what craft choices they have made. It's not necessary to know anything about the poet themselves to do this. All we need is the poem on the page in front of us, several readings over a number of days to let the poem work on us, and then a couple of sessions looking more carefully at the poem and making notes.

If anyone would like to give this a go, try it with the poem below.


Digging into the apple
with my thumbs.
Scraping out the clogged nails
and digging deeper.
Refusing the moon color.
Refusing the smell and memories.
Digging in with the sweet juice
running along my hands unpleasantly.
Refusing the sweetness.
Turning my hands to gouge out chunks.
Feeling the juice sticky
on my wrists. The skin itching.
Getting to the wooden part.
Getting to the seeds.
Going on.
Not taking anyone’s word for it.
Getting beyond the seeds.

Jack Gilbert

1. Print the poem and read it ALOUD once or twice a day over a period of 5 to 7 days WITHOUT making notes. This is thinking time.
2. Once this time has elapsed look at the poem again. What does it make you think and feel? Is there an overall theme? What choices do you think the poet might have made during the creation of this poem? The following aspects might be worth looking at:
a. The title
b. The shape of the poem on the page - its overall shape and where line breaks have been made
c. Some of the language choices the poet has made
d. The repetition in the poem.
d. The poem's dramatic development, i.e. how it begins and where it ends and what happens in between

If you'd like to post your comments, please feel free to do so, but please keep them to less than 500 words. Thank you.

A slightly different prompt to start the month and I hope you enjoy it. Jack Gilbert's poem is a favourite of mine.

L x


Glenn Buttkus said...

This is the morning of the fifth day, and I am hoarse with the
reading aloud of Mr. Gibert's poetics. Title, shape, language, repetition, and drama--leaving out perhaps irony or levity as the possible ingredients in a poem:
Title: Deep need, something visceral, organic vs. synthetic.
Shape of Poem: The first five long lines appear to be digits on the hand described within; next five lines forming the tip of a blade, or a spoon, or a shovel; last six
lines all complete thoughts/transitions.
Language Choices: Sense memory overriden by emotion, usurped by the sensual, rife with olfactory recall, coupled to taste, then blushing with discovering, juxtaposed to nagging denial and forced deprevation.
Repetition: Several repeats of the long/short line forms, punctuated by descending and ascending lengths.
Dramatic Development: Tough love, pushing beyond mere sensation, denying satisfaction, boring into the marrow of the vertex, searching for some form of truth.

Erin Lee Ware said...

“Hunger” title
—desire; need, particularly bodily need

choice of “apple”
—temptation, forbidden fruit, knowledge, love/sexuality, sin

Discrepancy between sugary language (moon color, smell, memories, juice, sweetness) and aggressive language (digging, scraping, gouge, chunks, wooden).

Also interesting that he hurriedly digs through the sweet, juicy flesh in order to get to the harder, wooden core.

Time seems to be of the essence—frantic, rushed.

Repetition of –ing verbs, particularly digging, refusing, getting (in that order). One digs to reach something, but as the narrator reaches the core of the apple, he refuses to let the seeds be it, the end, claiming he’s “not taking anyone’s word for it.” He’s still hungering, still desiring to get “beyond the seeds.” Question—what was he told he’d find? Why is he convinced that there’s more than the seeds? That there’s a beyond? Is he perhaps refusing to let the apple be all there is? Does he hope for more? Or is he simply greeding for more?

The poem reads like there’s something wrong—the narrator’s trying to get at something, trying to reach somewhere, but isn’t finding what he wants.

All in all, I assume the narrator is digging himself deeper and deeper into sin, which simultaneously disgusts him and yet whets his appetite for more. Perhaps he wants to get to the bottom of temptation, the absolute lowest one can go, so that he can have seen/felt/experienced all there is, so that he can go nowhere else but up. But when he reaches that bottom, he finds himself still wanting.

martin cordrey said...

This block form is heavy, the irregular lines maybe like the irregularity of a regular meal and repetitive words like the repetitive nature of a mundane life
Is this a sensual hunger; moon, skin, seeds all feminine words or sexual; sweet juices, sticky and yet the words are guttural, they get stuck in throat perhaps like unpalatable food or maybe a metaphor getting stuck in the throat – the injustice of poverty; not desolate African poverty but the unnecessary poverty of the wealthy civilised world.

[I dislike the American ‘color’ its like how cool it is today to not speak or write correctly, it sticks in my throat]. It could be that the apple and seed are relating to Eve, however, though women are far from perfect they cannot be held responsible for the tragedy of hunger in this world.

‘going on’ I can imagine this situation in the Warsaw Ghetto prior to deportation, ‘not taking anyone’s word’ the things some people have had to endure to survive, and yet they do, we do; the worst of man, the best of human kind at the same time.

Lynne Rees said...

Hello Glen, Erin, and everyone else who has read Jack Gilbert's poem, 'Hunger', and pondered its effects and meanings.

Thank you for posting your precise and thoughtful responses. You've identified all the major structural and thematic elements of the poem.

Glen, I love your observation about the shape of the poem (the five digits, the tip of the blade), and Erin, I enjoyed your considered analysis of the poem's metaphorical implications.

I'll post a brief sample essay I wrote when I was teaching analysis essays, although I'll add it to the main page as it'll be easier to read there than in the comments box.

Of course I had the luxury of more words (the assignment limit was 1500 words) and I'm sure from reading your brief comments here that you could have continued to write and expand on your very valid ideas.

Thanks again for taking part in this rather different, and more academic, prompt. We'll be back to writing poems with the next one.
L x

Lynne Rees said...

Hello Martin - thanks for adding your responses.

I hadn't thought about the following:

the things some people have had to endure to survive, and yet they do, we do

Really interesting. It's definitely a poem that can be read on many levels.

martin cordrey said...

isn't this the differance between poetry and prose in that we bring our experiances of a words meaning into a reading. Perhaps this is why a poem is harder to understand in that there is more then one truth.

Lynne Rees said...

Yes, definitely. We bring our own experiences to a poem, so one reader can respond to an image, or statement, in a very different way to another.

For me, there isn't such a thing as a universal truth... except perhaps for things like 'the sun rises, the sun sets'... beliefs and opinions have to be subjective, I think. Poetry harder to understand than prose? Hmmm... I think it depends on the poem and the prose. But the condensed language of poetry can be more elliptical, and perhaps needs a different kind of reading/attention than we give to prose.

Perhaps too there's more room for the reader in a poem, than, say, in a short story or a novel, because of suggestion and understatement. Narrative poetry aside, there's no need to be so exact about scene, character etc. And that 'room' doesn't necessarily give us answers, but can invite us in to question and reflect, to make connections and expand our understanding. Although a lot of the time all that happens so subtly that we're not aware of it, only of the sense that something has shifted in us. At least that's the feeling that I can get when I read some poems that really touch me.