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Stepping Up to the Plate, Part 1

Go here to see what I'm doing and why. All readers are invited, encouraged, and begged to respond. The purpose of this experiment is to engage in discussion.

Here are the first six I can access online via googling. I've provided links to all of them so that anyone who wishes to can read the poems and form their own opinions. I hope to get some more posted later today.

"Frankenstein's Ice Mirror" by Diana Adams:

First off, a pet peeve: Frankenstein is the scientist; "the creature" or "the monster" is the thing on the slab. It bothers me when people confuse the two.

As for the poem, the opening lines are bit too ambiguous to make this piece successful. Here's what I think is happening--Frankenstein's Monster is looking in a frozen river, which acts as a mirror. He doesn't have the word for "ear" yet, so he's describing his face based on language he does have. This is similar to what Faulkner did in The Sound and the Fury, as well as the Martian poetry movement, so there are literary predecessors. However, the speaker of the poem has the word for hands, velvet, chittering, echo, but not ears? At this point, I find something not working.

That being said, the imagery in the last few lines works for me. I like the idea of words and echoes binding people to each other, or binding the speaker to the reader. There's something fresh there. For me, that's the seed of the poem, especially when juxtaposed with hands forgetting things. The first five lines, however, a bit too ambiguous and unbelievable for me to really find this piece successful.


"So Many Lullabies" by Mary Alexandra Agner:

As a word of note, the author's middle name is Alexandra, not Alexander as written on the list.

This is a neat twist on the Rumplestiltskin tale, and one that I'm kicking myself for not thinking of. I wrote a sonnet with a similar theme, but Agner really captures the mentality of a man wanting to be the father, and instead of making Rumplestiltskin as the speaker, uses the tale as a metaphor for desperation. This works. Some of the language--"would be a blow," particularly--leaves me a bit cold, but at other times, the line breaks really work. Line 11/12, I think, is a powerful use of the line break. However, later in the poem, "three times" is on its own as a line, and I'm not sure if that works for me. Still, I certainly understand how this piece got nominated for a Rhysling.

"Midnight Rendezvous, Philly" by Mike Allen:

There's a build up here to the speculative part of the piece, and when it hits, it's a bit dark and unsettling, which is always a plus. However, I'm not sure the form serves the poem or the lines at all. There are lines ending on prepositions (but, at, so), weak rhymes (Vet/Pat, but/jutting, etc.) and lines that seem thrown in just for the sake of the form--"Phillies play the Cubs today. Sosa at the bat,"--to the point that the form becomes obvious and clunky, if not overpowering the poem's content. I like the story told here, and the narrative aspects of the poem. That part is clearly working, but the clunkiness of the form or the misuse of form just doesn't do it for me.

"Von Neumann's Poem" by Aaron Benson:

This is a cute idea that for me just doesn't work. I get the piece--Von Neumann having proposed self-replicating objects, robots, machines, etc.--but I don't know if it really comes to anything more than a neat idea. For me, there's no final oomph or connection with the reader, no theme to latch on to or tone to resonate with. Perhaps, with the last three lines, the author was attempting to say something about individuality and identity, and there's the obvious nod to Magritte in the previous stanza, but I just don't see that theme played out through the whole piece, nor does the piece culminate in those ideas for me.  This one's sort of ambiguous for me--there's a rhythm that keeps me reading, but I don't feel like it takes me anywhere.

"Dystopian Dusk" by Bruce Boston:

Here's another one where I feel the form overpowers the poem. The constant end rhyme at the end of the third line, especially the shrillness of the long "i" combinded with the plosive "t", is too jarring. Now, that certainly works with the theme and content of the poem--it's not a happy piece, and the audience isn't meant to be comfortable, However, there are times that the images chosen seem weak, if not cliche ("turn of the screw" really got to me, as did "curtain falling swiftly") and the phrasing of a line seems forced into the form. The sixth stanza, for me, seems excessively clunky, as do some of the line breaks. Lines breaking on "the," "of" and "and" just seem sloppy to me, and could easily be brought down to the next line. I'd much rather see imperfect rhythm in those lines than an ineffective line break. Again, as a reader, I can see how this poem works, but I constantly find myself asking why this would be considered "the best" of the year for someone. There are a lot of things working, but too many that aren't.

"The Gnomes' Spectacles" by Chris Burdette:

I like the concept of this one, and the use of folkloric imagery. I also like the end, where the true gift of the spectacles is revealed. Parts of the piece, however, were a bit under imaged for me. The second stanza, particularly, seems very adjective heavy and a bit too predictable or obvious in the image choice. It doesn't add anything to these images and asks too much from the reader to make them fresh. Even the last few lines of the first stanza seemed a bit too heavy handed, especially "your pitiful, short-lived humanity." There's a solid narrative here, and some mystery (why is the gnome dead and why did the "you" kill him?), and a very effective ending, so I am left with something after this piece, and I could see how a reader might nominate this as the best of the year. However, for me, it just doesn't have as much going for it as other pieces.

Comments

( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
chibibluebird
Apr. 3rd, 2009 09:03 pm (UTC)
I find myself agreeing with you on very nearly all of this.

Yet that's because most of this reads like writing-workshop advice, suggestions for improvement on formal elements. And it's hard to argue that making technically better poems should be a goal of poets.

What I don't agree with are your implicit assumptions about what speculative poetry is or should be or should do.

"Von Neumann's Poem" by Aaron Benson stood out as a good Strange Horizons poem for me. (Though I suppose that's too slight a compliment - the poems on Strange Horizons often read like chopped-up prose to me, eg. Robert Borski, which this poem didn't. So let's say it stood out as, simply, a good poem.) What you say about it is true - it doesn't explicitly tie together the poem's replication and humans or human society. But it does raise interesting ideas about poetry - poetry in general is self-replicating, isn't it? And needs human readers in order to be so, just as this specific poem does.
There are more insights in this vein that come out of the poem, and I think that explicitly relating the poem to human experience would have distracted from them.

Your assumption seems to be that readers should be able to relate to a speculative poem, and the only ways to do that are by either making the poem be about humans (even when it isn't, on the surface), or by using personification (of robots, aliens, mythic beings, etc.). That's limiting. It'd be limiting even in realist poetry, because some poetry wants to concentrate on sound or on ideas - but it's especially so in speculative poetry, where so much of the subject matter is so (literally) alien to human experience - it's limiting to expect all speculative content, in all instances, to be relatable.
hooks_and_books
Apr. 3rd, 2009 09:21 pm (UTC)
Perhaps I didn't phrase something well. Maybe "the human condition" would be a better phrase than "human experience." I think a reader should be able to get something from a poem, be it through theme or tone. For me, "Von Neumann's Poem" didn't do either, but I could see this as a commentary on poetry in general, and that might be something I missed in my readings of it. It could, possibly, be about the need for others, but that seems to be a stretch. Still, the piece just doesn't gel, for me. It could just be me, as a reader.
chibibluebird
Apr. 3rd, 2009 09:42 pm (UTC)
I think a reader should be able to get something from a poem, be it through theme or tone.
an idea is "something". aesthetic appreciation of a combionation of words is "something". in fact, even total confusion is "something".

And as for "the human condition", the whole point of a lot of speculative poetry is that it's about something that isn't human.
(Deleted comment)
chibibluebird
Apr. 4th, 2009 01:30 am (UTC)
Well, it depends on how you define "the human condition". A poem that makes a comment on the nature of poetry (like the one discussed above) deals with the human in that poetry is something created by humans.

But what I interpreted hooks_and_books as meaning by poetry that speaks to the human condition is poetry that the reader can relate to, or poetry that is designed to provoke an emotion in the reader -
achieving either effect tends to require the poet to be writing about humans - even when we're not the poem's literal subject matter - or anthropomorphizing. While there are certainly many, many cases where these things work, speculative fiction and poetry present chances to deal with hypothetical ideas, and to deal with that which is truly alien. If you demand that every speculative poem be relatable, you're restricting what writing in the genre is capable of doing (which is, I think, a whole range of things).
hooks_and_books
Apr. 4th, 2009 02:23 am (UTC)
I don't think a reader necessarily has to relate to a poem, but it does have to have a deeper meaning beyond simple language play and word tricks. "Human condition" is merely part of the academic definition of "theme," and it's one that's decent enough to use because it covers a lot of territory. To speculate is to ask questions, but most of the time, those questions are based on certain known or understood ideas. Even a hypothetical question is grounded, in some way, in reality. Things are only alien in relation to a known, i.e., it's alien when compared with that which isn't alien, or that which is human. In dealing with that which is alien, we deal with that which makes us human.
hooks_and_books
Apr. 4th, 2009 02:08 am (UTC)
If all I get from a poem is "total confusion," I'm going to argue that it's not successful, and that I really got anything from the piece.

If all I get from a poem is an aesthetic combination of words, again, I don't think the piece is successful.

There has to be something deeper.

If there's no connection to the human condition (and oodds are there's a pretty vague chance of that) in someway, I would argue that the reader won't get something out of it, or wont come away changed in any way. There are many poems in which the subject or speaker isn't human, but the work still connects to the human condition. One of my favorite examples is Philip Levine's "Animals Are Passing From Our Lives," which is a poem spoken from the point of view of a pig, but it says a lot about humanity. The way we look at the world, how we treat each other, how we treat ourselves, how we think about things, all of these can be revealed and opened by non-human subjects.
chibibluebird
Apr. 4th, 2009 04:07 am (UTC)
The Levine poem uses extremely blatant personification. It may say alot about humanity, but it says almost nothing about pigness.

And that's the thing about speculative fiction and specultive poetry I think you're missing. Sure, it can tell us about humanity as it is. But it can also delve into the strange, the hypothetical, the unknown - because those things are interesting too. Because there are differences between species (even between human cultures - even between individuals!). Because the far future will be completely alien to what we know now. Because similarities are interesting, but really, so are differences.

Poetry can do a whole range of things; not every poem needs to give the reader a feeling of recognition. I'm not opposed to poetry that does, but personally, I read speculative fiction/poetry when I want what's strange.
hooks_and_books
Apr. 4th, 2009 01:35 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure I agree with you about the Levine poem, because I think it shows us a creature better than the average person, which is the "pigness" and the point of the poem, but I do agree that, in using personification, it makes it more accessable to the reader.

Again, I think things can only be strange in relationship to that which is known, and the "strangeness" says something about that which is known as much as it does about itself. The strange, the hypothetical, the unknown can tell us about the potential of humanity, but it's based on where humanity is now. There are differences between species, cultures, people, even a person at different stages of their life. However, those differences can only be explored through what is already known, even if that's only language choice, and in that exploration the reader leans something about themselves and expands themselves. That is the connection to the human condition which I'm discussing and, for me, might be missing from some of the pieces that I don't think work.

I'm trying to think of a piece that's so strange, so bizarre, so speculative that it doesn't relate back to a certain theme or tone. Let me know if you've got an example.
chibibluebird
Apr. 4th, 2009 09:01 pm (UTC)
Maybe I took this discussion off track a little? I don't know of any speculative poems without an identifiable theme or tone. What I meant is that it's not the role of every single poem to make us experience an emotion, or sympathy for the subject, or recognition of ourselves. Some poems aim to do that and some don't.
hooks_and_books
Apr. 4th, 2009 10:25 pm (UTC)
Oh, no. Absolutely not. A poet shouldn't AIM to do that, but ultimately the poem, or any work of art, should do that. For me, "tone" implies an emotion, whether it be for the subject, from the subject, etc. "Theme" simply illuminates something about humanity, or the human condition, taking that phrase as broadly as possible. But that shouldn't be the poet's aim or goal. The piece, or any work of art, should do one of the two naturally.
chibibluebird
Apr. 4th, 2009 10:44 pm (UTC)
Alright, then we have a fundametally different view of art. For me, if I spend 30 seconds reading a lyric poem and it gives me one neat image or a single interesting thought, my time has not been wasted.
Actually, it would get tiring having an emotional reaction to EVERY poem I read. (Especially since I often have an emotional reaction to excessive sentimentality - which I wouldn't say is a feature of a good work of art.)

As for saying a poem should do something "naturally" (as if of its own accord), that's getting too mystical for me.
hooks_and_books
Apr. 4th, 2009 11:58 pm (UTC)
A neat image would, I assume, look at the world in a new or unique way, and thus speak to the human condition, if only in the way one sees the world.

A single interesting thought has obviously sparked a thought in the reader, and thus, has spoken to the human condition.

A reader doesn't necessarily have to have an emotional reaction, which would be connecting with the tone of the piece on a certain level, for the piece to be successful. However, the piece must speak to something beyond itself, must have something beyond the surface level. I'm not sure that can always be controled by the author, nor should it be.
chibibluebird
Apr. 5th, 2009 12:38 am (UTC)
Seems like you're changing your usage of the term "human condition" (which has no real definition to begin with), since above you seemed to be saying that a poem that makes a comment on poetry is not (necessarily) speaking to the human condition.

By your current definition, a poem that makes a comment on poetry (or anyhting!) is, necessarily, speaking to the human condition.

I think we're going to have to use more specific, non-shifting terminology if we want to go productively into these sorts of issues in speculative poetry.
hooks_and_books
Apr. 5th, 2009 02:42 am (UTC)
As I wrote before, "human condition" is the academic defintion of the word "theme". Here's a pretty solid site that might explain it further:

http://serc.sogang.ac.kr/erc/Literature/Theme.htm

Again, there are other definitions, but they all amount to similar things. Let me know if there's one that works better for you, and we can reframe the discussion around it.

I didn't say that a poem that makes a comment on poetry didn't speak to the human condition, only that the poem in question--"Von Neumann's Poem"--didn't. I don't see it making a statement on poetry, but that's my interpretation. If you do, excellent--it speaks to you. It doesn't to me. I think that's what this discussion really comes down to.
kaolinfire
Apr. 4th, 2009 06:02 pm (UTC)
"Von Neumman's Poem" is one of the few on this list I'd read before coming across them via the Rhyslings. :) It connected with me on the "I'm a writer and a programmer" levels (I'll admit to giggling, in fact, puzzling out different pieces).

That said, "poetry" "written" by "computers" is a really tough sell at the emotional level (unless there's personification to the point where it does rather negate the computer-ness of it all).

I really enjoy the poem, and sent it to a few friends, but at the same time I don't think I would have nominated it for a best-of. I don't entirely understand that dichotomy in my head, but I think it stems from it being a gimmick poem--and that I know the gimmick poem works for me especially because of my backgrounds, and that I've written similar ones with worse execution. ;)

Ditto your pet peeve re: Frankenstein, too. ;)

Edited at 2009-04-04 06:03 pm (UTC)
time_shark
Apr. 10th, 2009 09:25 pm (UTC)
I am reposting my response to Josh's evaluation of "Midnight Rendezvous, Philly" here at his request:
---------
I'm uncertain, based on your review, if you listened to the audio reading that goes with it, not that anyone required you to.

At first my reaction to your review was simply, "Fair cop," because there are ways in which I'm not satisfied with the poem, in the sense that it doesn't lend itself to an easy rhythm ... although I think I handle it well enough when reading. But after a chat with tithenai, who let me know she didn't agree with the assessment of the poem, and explained why, I thought about it more, and decided, okay, a little debate won't hurt. So:

There are lines ending on prepositions (but, at, so), weak rhymes (Vet/Pat, but/jutting, etc.) and lines that seem thrown in just for the sake of the form--"Phillies play the Cubs today. Sosa at the bat,"--to the point that the form becomes obvious and clunky, if not overpowering the poem's content.

Well, let me tell you why this poem is how it. First, there is no form. This is a free verse poem. Yes, there are rhyme approximations that fall at or near the end of lines, but my intention is something more casual and staccato and erratic. There are schools of thought when it comes to poetry that essentially say, be rigidly formal or avoid its appearance altogether. This poem gently tweaks that school's headmaster on the nose.

Early on I got a nice piece of advice from Bruce Boston which is that even free verse poems are more digestible when split up into verses rather than splatted on the page in one long block. I chose a four-line division in this poem, in part as an intentional throwback to the time when I tended to split my poems into even-sized stanzas rather than use divisions that work more like paragraphs. Perhaps that decision caused me to ape a rough rhyme scheme.

As for ending on prepositions, where is there a law against that? Hee. I actually do that quite deliberately, because it's discomfiting, a slippery edge, a microscopic cliffhanger. Or so it works in my mind.

What the poem essentially is meant to do is start out casual and chatty and meander into the final darkness as my narrator and his friend ultimately do. Thus lines like, "Phillies play the Cubs today. Sosa at the bat," which, y'know, is not an unexpected thing for an out-of-towner headed to a Phillies game to say.

It would be interesting, I suppose, to unwind this poem from its four-line-stanza structure and see how it looks in "breath blocks" — that standard that a line is a breath, or a phrase of the poem — and it might read fine done that way. But I find "breath block" structure boring and in its own way predictable as heroic couplets. For better or for worse I prefer to jazz it up.

And so, there's my response to that.

hooks_and_books
Apr. 10th, 2009 09:58 pm (UTC)
Thanks. This'll help things stay a little organized. I'll respond soon.
hooks_and_books
Apr. 12th, 2009 07:54 pm (UTC)
On Rhyme:

I understand the two schools of rhyme, and have read enough poems that ignore these schools to know that it can be done, and done successfully; however, there are times that I have issues with rhyme:

1) When it unintentionally calls attention to itself.
2) When the poem is forced to change in some way to meet the rhyme scheme, i.e., the poem becomes a slave to the rhyme instead of flowing into it naturally.

For me, the rhymes in this piece called attention to themselves. Also, lines like "Phillies play the Cubs today. Sosa at the bat," seems forced. Let's follow the logic here--if they're on their way to the Phillies game, they're not actually there yet. However, two of the three people in the car know that they're on the way to the game, so mentioning who the Phillies are playing seems a bit odd, even if it's for the benefit of the third person.

Also, if they're on their way to the game, the game hasn't started (it is midnight, after all), so no one's at the bat. Alternately, the game has started (midnight is metaphorical, or they've been driving around from midnight to the middle of the afternoon?)and they're listening to it on the radio, so the speaker of the line is repeated what was just said on the radio for no apparent reason outside of the fact that "bat" rhymes with "at" two lines earlier. So, the poem becomes a slave to the rhyme, which calls attention to itself, and detracts from the poem, for me. It doesn't read to me as casual.

On Line Breaks:

The word enjambment comes from the French root "jambe," which means leg; to enjamb meant to stride over something. In other words, the sentence is striding over into the next line. For me, a sentence will need a strong foothold--an image, noun, active verb--before it takes that step over into the next line.
A "slippery edge" is, for me as a reader, too weak of a step, and produces not a stride, but a short hop to the next line, not a cliffhanger, but a step down. There is the idea that, because the preposition needs an object, it forces the reader forward; however, for me, it reads as not so much as a pull forward, but a stutter or unintentional pause that breaks the rhythm of the poem. Arguably, it can be used for a rhythmic effect (Robert Creeley does this a lot. "I Know A Man", for example, really forces the reader into a tighter, intense rhythm due to its enjambments), but I don't see it working like that in this poem.
time_shark
Apr. 16th, 2009 12:16 am (UTC)
I've retooled what was originally here to be less combative than what I originally posted.


For me, the rhymes in this piece called attention to themselves.


If that is so, then that is so. I cannot undo how you experience the poem, nor should I try.


Also, lines like "Phillies play the Cubs today. Sosa at the bat," seems forced. Let's follow the logic here--if they're on their way to the Phillies game, they're not actually there yet. However, two of the three people in the car know that they're on the way to the game, so mentioning who the Phillies are playing seems a bit odd, even if it's for the benefit of the third person.


I think what's happening here is a walk of life thing; as in, I've been on one that you haven't. I know this is a perfectly logical thing for one of these guys to say to the other when they're on this trip from Wilmington to Philly. It translates to, "Hey, today the team that we happen to be able to go see since we're in Wilmington is playing the Chicago Cubs, for whom superstar hitter Sammy Sosa is a batter!" This also, if you know much about baseball, puts the poem in a very specific time period. (In fact, Veteran Stadium, where they're going, doesn't exist anymore.)


Also, if they're on their way to the game, the game hasn't started (it is midnight, after all), so no one's at the bat. Alternately, the game has started (midnight is metaphorical, or they've been driving around from midnight to the middle of the afternoon?)and they're listening to it on the radio, so the speaker of the line is repeated what was just said on the radio for no apparent reason outside of the fact that "bat" rhymes with "at" two lines earlier. So, the poem becomes a slave to the rhyme, which calls attention to itself, and detracts from the poem, for me. It doesn't read to me as casual.


Whoa, horsey! It's "Midnight Rendezvous, Philly" (where they descend, get hopelessly lost, then descend again) not "Midnight Rendezvous, Wilmington" (where they pick 'er up, right in the first line.) Again, I think this is a walk of life thing. I've actually been on this trip.


Now, what you're saying about line breaks, though, that seems to me like a point that could be valid on a reader by reader basis. It's a risk I took, a way to reflect the confusing chatter that does our pair in, and I don't regret it.

hooks_and_books
Apr. 16th, 2009 02:44 am (UTC)
Please understand that I'm not saying you should change anything, or retool anything. For me, there are certain things that don't work. I think some of the arguments you make in defense of the poem make sense, they just aren't what I experience in the piece. Some things don't read as logical to me, but for you they make sense. So be it.

However, the issues of rhyme and line break, I think, are important to consider for any poem.
dianaadams
Apr. 16th, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
Frankenstein's Name-No confusion
Dear Hooks and Books,

Frankenstein has become the understood and accepted name for the 'monster', justified by the fact that the creature is Victor Frankenstein's creation/offspring)and does not have a first name.

All best,
Diana
hooks_and_books
Apr. 16th, 2009 04:29 pm (UTC)
Re: Frankenstein's Name-No confusion
I know that it has become the standard, accepted name, but it still bugs me, and I still see it as sloppiness, even if it's a common or understood sloppiness. Again, it's a pet peeve, and not something to discount the poem for.
dreamnnightmare
Jan. 28th, 2010 03:55 am (UTC)
Re: Frankenstein's Name-No confusion
When I read something that names the monster Frankenstein, I think "This person has not read the book." It is a pet peeve: referring to something with which you are unfamiliar. Or deliberately appear to be.
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