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Stepping Up to the Plate, Part 7

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.

"Logos" by Sonya Taaffe

This is interesting, and while not a unique idea, one that certainly is taken to new places by Taaffe; the idea of a librarian haunting a dictionary is quite interesting, and the sort of curse the speaker is left with from this ghost at the end is equally interesting. I'm very intrigued by this piece. The language and references are clearly academic, but then, so is the topic, so while I normally eschew such superfluousness in poetry, I believe it works in this piece. I also like the integration of individual words as breaks between the various scenes of the piece. These make excellent intermissions. What rubs me as odd is some of the line breaks of the piece. I was trying, again, to catch a sense of meter, but came up empty. Again, I get a sense of five accented beats, but some lines carried more or less. on top of that, some of the lines--13 or 26, for example--seem weakly broken, and stuck out against such obvious line breaks as the rest of the poem carried.  For me, something with such an academic theme and language would work better with a stricter meter, especially because there are the occasional hints at meter, but nothing substantial. Now, I'm not an expert in formal poetry, so if one were to explain that this is a classical Greek line of some sort, I would certainly rescind my comments. However, that's the one thing that rubbed me the wrong way in this piece--certainly not enough to discount it among the many successful Rhysling nominees, but enough for me to question it as a finalist for my vote.

"Some Random Hero" by Marcie Tentchoff

This poem was going great until the last stanza. For me, the last stanza was completely unnecessary, and explains the "moral" or "lesson" of the piece for the reader, which was fairly obvious from the previous stanza. There is something to be said for allowing the reader to make their own conclusions, and not having to take them by the hand and lead them step by step through a piece. However, there is also something to be said about making sure the reader gets the point and not losing a reader in ambiguity or open-ended narratives. A successful piece should find a balance between these two positions, and for me, this piece doesn't strike that balance. The last stanza is over telling, for me, and despite the minimalism of the language throughout the poem, and the driving meter, the last stanza just kills the piece for me.

"Becoming Fictional" by Jen Valencia 

I get the basic idea behind the piece (The speaker is someone else's imaginary friend), but it reads as awkward and cliche, and the heavy abstraction in the piece simply doesn't do anything for me. Literally every line has some huge idea ungrounded--"bounds of potentiality,"  "status of fictional," "figment of fantasy," "mythical proportions"--to the point that, for me, this reads not like a poem, but a philosophy paper. I see the speculative nature of the piece, but this simply doesn't read like a poem to me.

"To the River" by Jessica Paige Wick

I love the darkness of this piece, and the rhythm of it.  I think the fact that one can listen to the author read the piece adds something, of course, but the poem still works for me on paper as well as aloud. There is a clear mythic quality to this piece, to the point that certain modernisms--"because I must be trash/for him to throw me to the river/like a used cigarette"--seem anachronistic. That was really the only thing that stuck out to me about this piece. The rhythm drives me forward as a reader, and the tale is, pardon the pun, haunting. For me, there's a lot that's working in the mythic or folkloric tradition here, and enough that still remains fresh within that tradition, so I'm very excited about this piece. The last few lines really nail this piece home for me, and it's a piece that I've returned to a few times since it's gone up at the website.

Okie-dokie. That is all the short category poems available online. I'm going to do the other twenty-seven when I get the official anthology.  A thought or three so far:

-A discussion of line breaks, and how one breaks a line, might be useful. If anyone can recommend any readings or books on this, that might be a more objective place to start.

-Along side of that, a discussion of sound and rhythm might be useful, too. Alfred Corn's "The Poem's Heartbeat" is an interesting discussion on this, and was recently reprinted by Copper Canyon Press. That might be a place to start that discussion.

-A lot of folks seem interested in narrative poetry, but I'm wondering if there aren't possibilities for poetry without a narrative. Let me know the thoughts on this because I think that would be a discussion worth having, too.


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 9th, 2009 01:26 am (UTC)
I think there are many non-narrative speculative poems floating around, but they don't always get nominated. I haven't enough experience with this, but it seems that the majority of Rhysling poems do tell a story.
Apr. 9th, 2009 01:49 am (UTC)
Okay, but should there be a discussion as to what makes a good narrative poem (there's a list in "The Reaper Essays" that might be worth investigating) or other potentials poems may take?
Apr. 9th, 2009 02:58 am (UTC)
Re: Line Breaks

For me, shorter lines are somehow more reader-friendly and visually accessible than longer ones. I don't know whether or not others feel the same way.

You've also spoken in the past about the relationship between line breaks and breath. Jessica Paige Wick's audio for "To the River" is an excellent example of this. Every line, or in some cases two lines, fits nicely into the space of a single breath and gives the poem a very natural flow. This natural flow comes through on the page, as well as when the poem is read aloud.

As for the poem itself, I really liked the lines "for him to throw me to the river / like a used cigarette." For me, that slight departure from the mythic quality of the piece served to make it more immediate and real.
Apr. 9th, 2009 12:26 pm (UTC)
Wick certainly is not the first speculative poet to break from the mythic into the contemporary. I just think there was SO MUCH happening that, for me, that one image took me out of the piece a bit. I was imagining something medieval, so someone tossing a fag end into the river just caught me off guard. Again, I really like the poem, and it's one I've returned to many times, but that one image was a bit off.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 9th, 2009 12:22 pm (UTC)
Yup--scifaiku, horrorku, tanka, even some cinquains would all be examples of non-narrative poems. I haven't read any of those nominated this year yet, but it isn't completely unknown.

Also, I understand editors who publish both promoting a certain type of poetry. What I think I'm focusing on are magazines which only publish poetry. Their audience clearly wouldn't have the same expectations, and that might be a place to explore non-narrative forms.
Apr. 10th, 2009 08:05 pm (UTC)
My nominated poem is a haiku :) I'm looking forward to seeing what you say about it once you receive the anthology :)
Apr. 10th, 2009 08:40 pm (UTC)
Apr. 10th, 2009 08:25 pm (UTC)
Hello, Mr. Gage,

I'm coming to this awfully late in the game. I'm pleased you've been so drawn to Amal and Jess's poems on my Featured page. I think you missed (though it's understandable) that Jeannine Hall Gailey's "Awaré for the Woman who Disappears in Silence" is also available free on the WWW, and would be curious to know your thoughts.

First, let me thank you for doing this; I don't think this sort of discussion is ever going to get going and keep going on the web unless someone gets out there and shows how it can be done. In that sense, you're practically a pioneer.

Now, I suppose a starting point could be your assessment of my own poem, "Midnight, Rendezvous Philly." 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.

Edited at 2009-04-10 08:27 pm (UTC)
Apr. 10th, 2009 08:45 pm (UTC)
Thank you...
First off, I'm not Mr. Gage. That's my father, and I'm not sure he'd be interested in this conversation. ;-)

Also, thank you for pointing out the Gailey poem. I'll check that out, and put it in to the appropriate post.

As for your piece, can I get you to post it as a response under the post which specifically discusses that piece:


It'd just be helpful in keeping things organized.
Apr. 10th, 2009 08:58 pm (UTC)
Re: Thank you...
As you wish, Josh. ;-) I'll repost the relevant part there...

And, I suppose I forget the generation gap. When I hear Mr. Allen, it means me.

Edited at 2009-04-10 09:02 pm (UTC)

Apr. 16th, 2009 04:49 am (UTC)
Re: Thank you...
Oh, you may not refer to us as "Josh," either.
We are "Your Majesty" or "Lord" or "Your Holiness" or "Brigadier Major General Captain Sergeant Corporal Goatlegs." ;-)
Apr. 15th, 2009 05:36 am (UTC)
Now, I'm not an expert in formal poetry, so if one were to explain that this is a classical Greek line of some sort, I would certainly rescind my comments.

It is not, I'm afraid. Although I am now inclined to write an otherwise unclassical poem in hendecasyllables and see if anyone notices.

What do you find superfluous about academic language in poetry? Or what is your definition of academic?

Thank you for your thoughts.
Apr. 15th, 2009 01:03 pm (UTC)
"Academic" may not be the best term, but, in my experience, there is a certain type or school of poet (many of whom are connected to academies, MFA programs, etc.) who like to use larger, uncommon or rare words and send the reader running to the dictionary every other line. If I had to be more specific, I'd make the claim that many of these words had more Classical or Romantic roots, though that's a VERY broad assumption.

My issue with this is language vs. content. If the content doesn't demand a complicated or archaic ("formal" might also apply, but that would include grammar, too) language, then the language can call attention to itself. Some poets use this for ironic effect, and some do it just to show off. HOWEVER, if the content is more academic or classical, obviously then the language could be used to reflect that.

Now, this is certainly not to say that poets can't or shouldn't use all the vocabulary at their disposal. I would almost encourage a carefully chosen or well placed word that's "out of use" or "archaic" for the average reader. However, if there is an overabundance of obscure language, the language calls attention to itself and becomes a distraction from the overall effect of the poem, for me.
Apr. 16th, 2009 04:44 am (UTC)
Thanks to your comment, I just spent all day struggling with a poem in hendecasyllabic verse. After three lines worth of cursing every Greek poet who ever lived, it quickly became Sapphic stanzas, which are OH so much easier. Only not.

:::pouty angry glare:::

Color me very not happy with you.
Apr. 16th, 2009 08:17 pm (UTC)
a poem in hendecasyllabic verse. After three lines worth of cursing every Greek poet who ever lived, it quickly became Sapphic stanzas

I am not regretful.
Apr. 17th, 2009 01:22 am (UTC)
Dactyls suck fat monkey wang in English!!!
Apr. 18th, 2009 10:58 pm (UTC)
Dactyls suck fat monkey wang in English!!!

There's a reason Longfellow is not remembered for "Evangeline" . . .
Apr. 19th, 2009 01:45 am (UTC)
Longfellow is the Jerry Bruckheimer of American Poetry, and "Evangeline" is the M. Night Shamalan poem:


If you haven't seen it already, check this film out. After about 10 minutes of this movie (which is all great) you'll get the revised Longfellow version of history.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )


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