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Stepping Up to the Plate, Part 8

A few more before I scurry off to class.

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.

"Mondrian's War" by Mike Allen

I'm not sure if this would be considered ekphrastic, but it does bring up some of the issues of ekphrastic pieces. How much does the reader need to be familiar with Mondrian and his work to understand this poem? Now, Mondrian is a fairly well know painter, and one of the major proponents of De Stijl, so Allen hasn't chosen an obscure topic. However, would only a true connoisseur know that the third stanza contains references to his early post-impressionist work, and does not knowing that take away from the reader's understanding of the piece? Is the last stanza's description of "Victory Boogie Woogie" enough for someone who has never see the painting? Is that the point of the piece? Obviously, anyone with access to Google can find all of these details and more, but it does beg the question how much research is necessary to understand this poem.

However, as it stands, there are some successful parts of this poem, and some that, for me, don't resonate as well. Primarily, the line breaks are very solid in this piece. The lines that indent to begin the next stanza are really successful, and pull me forward as a reader. However, some of the language seemed a bit tired. Certain adjectives, especially, caught me off guard--"unyielding stripes" and "premature men," for example. These were occasional, though, and not enough to block out the really strong, vibrant imagery for me. "His brush moving non-stop till his fingers blistered;/a pause to double over in dry heaves; when done,/begin again, breath hitching; snot and tears/as unyielding stripes forced order on the primal"--while "unyielding stripes" catches me, the rest of these lines really saturates me in images, so it works. I think there's a lot going for this piece, but there are occasions when I'm caught by a weak word choice. However, I'm not sure if these happen too often for me to truly discount this piece as successful or not.

"Sedna" by C.S.E. Cooney (Goblin Fruit, Winter 2008)

This is an interesting piece, and one that I've come back to a few times since it was published. However, I'm not sure it's working for me. First off, I'm not sure what Cooney has added to the tale, so for me it seems like poetic retelling. At most, I see a weaving of two or three different versions, which might be something, and it's certainly not a reason to completely discount it, but it does rub me the wrong way for some reason. However, Cooney's craft certainly takes care of some of that--the use of rhyme is almost imperceptible, and only by catching it occasionally does the reader begin to follow it and see how Cooney has worked with and without a rhyme throughout the poem. However, the poem never becomes a slave to the rhyme scheme, which works in Cooney's favor. The poem, however, does contain a few too many abstract or cliche phrases for me: "No discourse for the discontent between," "Oh, my soul is sick!," "Where I should know his love," etc. For me, the poem didn't need these, because the images in the stanza carry them forward. So it's not that Cooney is dependent on abstraction, only that I don't see the purpose at times, especially when it's backed by so many images. There is a lot that Cooney is doing well, and some lines are particularly strong, for me: "Or I will break the rules you set, smash the sacred/With my fingernails, with my tears, take your taboos," "Raven stirs a seagull storm," "Beneath the new blue ice/
There can be no breathing out," etc. However, reading through, I long for a complete focus on this language, and am slightly disappointed when I do not find it.

"Damascus Divides the Lovers by Zero, or, The City Is Never Finished" by Amal El-Mohtar & Catherynne M. Valente

This is a very interesting poem, and one that I read as composed for two voices. Perhaps that is the collaboration reading through, or perhaps it is the authors' intention, but the use of indented lines separates a call and response style of reading to me, where each voice speaks it's own tale, but the two weave in and out of each other, creating a larger, more complete piece. The imagery of this piece is rich: "in that city of silver and capsicum/the figures of fruit trees, bridges, vines./of frankincense and raisins./I saw whole cities blooming in the stone/I saw long veils stitched with hexameters/that would not speak to me, would not say/that lied when they breathed:" and there's a lot that's happening here. For me, the plot and pursuit of the poem isn't as important as the richness of the imagery, and I think that works to the poem's benefit. There is a narrative arch that is being followed, but the dual voices and the thickness of the images, and they way the authors appeal completely to the reader's senses, really strikes a chord with me. However, there's a point near the end where this peters out, and the last stanza is almost entirely devoid of fresh or original images. "dust-battered road" could be interesting, but the rest seems plot driven and stale. It seems like really weak way to end such a strong piece, and also reads like overwriting. What would be lost if the poem had ended on "I thought to follow you here."--the reader would have the pursuit, the loss, the longing--the entire emotional tone of the piece would work, and there wouldn't be a descent into the tired language of the last stanza. Is this enough to completely discount this poem away? Probably not, but knowing the potential these two authors have, I am left with a sense of disappointment by the last few lines of the piece.


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 15th, 2009 11:02 pm (UTC)
Ooooh, you've hurt one of my babies. Prepare to face my wraaath!

Ahem. Sedna.

The poem, however, does contain a few too many abstract or cliche phrases for me: "No discourse for the discontent between," "Oh, my soul is sick!," "Where I should know his love," etc. For me, the poem didn't need these, because the images in the stanza carry them forward. So it's not that Cooney is dependent on abstraction, only that I don't see the purpose at times, especially when it's backed by so many images.

I question your use of the term "abstract," particularly when you equate it with "cliche." I see nothing in the lines you've quoted to call cliche. Cliche is "black as night" or "red as a rose" or "sweet as sugar" -- a trope that's been so overused it's been hollowed out of concrete meaning. The lines you've quoted just aren't examples of that.

When you say "abstract," on the other hand, I still don't quite understand what you're trying to underline as a flaw. I can understand a preference for concrete imagery on the whole, but your premise seems to be that Image is what is to be aspired to in a poem, while Abstraction is a secondary thing useful only in shoring up an effect the images have failed to convey. Ezra Pound might agree with you, but I don't.

This is a first-person narrative with an incredibly dynamic voice. "Oh, my soul is sick!" absolutely heaves with effect, to me, spoken by an explicit character in a context so elaborately presented. This is a powerfully rhythmic piece, and I think reading it only for its imagery on the page short-changes it, because it does nothing less than dance its way into the ear.

I also take exception to the following:

First off, I'm not sure what Cooney has added to the tale, so for me it seems like poetic retelling. At most, I see a weaving of two or three different versions, which might be something

So ... What exactly is wrong with poetic retelling? Besides which, it's a first-person narrative, which doesn't happen in traditional tales, so that alone is to look at it slant. No versions that I've come across have ever given Sedna any noticeable character traits besides sullen disobedience. The Sedna of Claire's poem, however, is a character with flesh and bones and a voice that laughs and sings and mocks and fears and weeps as much as it speaks.

While this soap-box continues to support my weight, I'm confused by what you call "tired" language in "Damascus Divides the Lovers by Zero," but am loathe to engage on that 'coz it's my poem, and I'd rather readers debate readings of it amongst themselves. But I'd like to know a bit more about what you meant.
Apr. 15th, 2009 11:20 pm (UTC)
Heh. I'm going to pile on, in that I too find your definition of "tired language" puzzling. In my poem you cite "unyielding stripes" and "premature men" as tired phrases without explaining your rationale for what seems to be an extremely subjective judgment call.

I think Amal hits on it; you seem to object to any wording that's an abstraction rather than a concrete, imagistic description. (Though I would suggest there's nothing abstract about "unyielding stripes.") While there is definite danger in veering too far into generalities in a poem, I'm not sure the tack you're taking translates into a practical approach, especially with a topic like the one I tackled; or for that matter, the one Amal & Cat tackled.

Feel dogpiled? ;-p

Edited at 2009-04-15 11:21 pm (UTC)
Apr. 16th, 2009 03:29 am (UTC)
To go into more detail on the specific lines, "unyielding" was the phrase that seemed tired. If the stripes "forced order on the primal," wouldn't they automatically be "unyielding"? How then does that adjective add to the image of forcing order onto the primal (which was a specific and vibrant image, for me, considering the topic.) The same is true for "premature men"--if they "lied about their age" to "dig in mortar-scarred earth," (again, solid imagery) then "premature" seems unnecessary and overdone. I may be using "tired" too loosely, and something like "overdone" or "unnecessary" would be more appropriate.

As far as the accusation Amal has leveled against me, that's a pretty solid point on me as a reader and author, and one that I'm not going to argue against at all. However, I personally think all three of the poems covered in this post had MORE than enough solid, tangible and invocative imagery, and that the abstractions used were not necessary, and did not add anything to the imagery that was already there.
Apr. 19th, 2009 02:30 am (UTC)
I may be using "tired" too loosely

There's no "may" about it. ;-p

something like "overdone" or "unnecessary" would be more appropriate.

I follow what you're saying now, and I see your point. This time I actually went and re-read the relevant lines to see if I agree with you as to whether those words are unnecessary — and, (hee, surprise! I'm sure) I don't agree with you. Not because they are super-brilliant word choices, but 1) what you see as redundancy I see as elaboration and emphasis, and 2) as a poet I compose by sound, and those words provide the right rhythm for those lines.

Edited at 2009-04-19 02:43 am (UTC)

Apr. 19th, 2009 06:08 pm (UTC)
Which are two excellent rebuttals. I can certainly see adding something for the sake of elaboration and or emphasis, or even reemphasis. Also, adding a specific adjective for rhythm also makes a lot of sense. Again, I have no problem disagreeing, especially over "redundant" vs. "elaboration/emphasis" (which could be seen as two different views of the same thing) and I certainly have no problem with readers calling me on word choice. This is a good discussion, and one that's brought up some important points about poems.
Apr. 16th, 2009 03:21 am (UTC)
First, allow me to apologize for my apparent infanticide. I meant no disrespect; I only want to discuss craft. Thank you, also, for your full and rich response.

You do make an excellent point. I may group "abstract" and "cliche" into a lump that should be crowbarred into two seperate piles.

"Abstract," for me, is any language to large to mean anything, or, alternately, large enough to mean anything anyone wants it to mean. "Where I should know his love" for example, seems too large to be understood on any level, or could mean anything. As a reader, I want to actually feel this longing, and for me, as an author, the best way to get a reader to understand that is with more concrete language, specifically images. That being explained (I hope), let me ask how you feel abstraction can and should be used in poetry? I think this is an interesting point, and one worth exploring.

"Cliche" is, as you wrote, something overused or hollowed out of meaning. "Oh, my soul is sick" seemed very cliche to me. For me (emphasising the subjective response to poetry) this was an angsty, "gothy" line that wasn't necessary in the stanza. For me, the thick and gorgeous imagery in the next three lines allows me to feel the sickness more than the word itself does anything.

This reaction could be training, or could simply be personal and subjective observation. It certainly is not absolute fact or gospel, so I think you for vehemently responding and defending the piece.

As far as your point about poetic retelling, that is entirely personal opinion. I know I'm completely in the minority, so feel free to think I'm full of poop because of it, and smite my hide as you see fit. As a reader, I want a twist or a change or something more. That is me being a picky obnoxious arrogant jerk, and I fully accept that judgement. You're absolutely correct that Cooney gives flesh that which was mere bones and voice to the voiceless, which is to be encouraged by any author.

As far as "Damascus Divides the Lovers by Zero," please engage. Tell me I'm full of crap. That's part of the point of this discussion. If I missed something, or if you completely disagree, please speak up and say so. I am certainly no authority, just a reader and author pointing out things I liked and didn't liked in a common anthology. If I'm wrong, say so. Just back it up with more than "I disagree," much like you did in your first response. Again, what you wrote was great, even if we simply disagree; I just don't want the conversations to turn nasty. Keep it cordial, and we're cool.

As for your specific question, I found the following phrases in the last stanza to be "tired," which isn't exactly cliche, for me, but if cliches are dead phrases, perhaps tired phrases are the ones lying in bead with tuberculosis and their doctor shaking his head?

"I knew I’d lost you then"--This seems like a pop lyric to me, and is a sentiment that had already been covered for me by the images of the poem.

"or brushed/your cheek with mine"--It's the verb here that I felt was tired. Cheeks are always "brushed". Maybe this is a personal pet peeve, but that combination seems tired.

"but the day was warm,/the wind was cool,/
for the wide sea,"--it's the adjectives here that rub me the wrong way. Days tend to be warm, winds cool, seas wide. For me, these descriptions lack potency.

"and never, oh,/never"--this seemed a bit too sentimental

"for me"--I'm just not sure of how this line works as a line on its own.

Apr. 16th, 2009 05:16 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I'm a great admirer of Cooney's "Sedna," and had the priviledge of seeing her perform it (not read - perform) and nothing seemed cliched about it. That might be because of experiencing it rather than reading it. It's a shame we can't have a holographic Cooney pop up to recite it at will.

One of your criticisms of "Odysseus on the War Train" was, IIRC, that you questioned if it brought anything new to the original tale, and you ask the same thing of "Sedna." Each gives voice to the experience and emotions of a character that has to some extent been unvoiced in the original tale/texts -- do you really consider that these peoms give no new perspective?

Apr. 16th, 2009 05:17 pm (UTC)
Gah. "Poems," obviously.
Apr. 16th, 2009 07:05 pm (UTC)
LJ Nitpick: Why aren't we allowed to edit our responses? I don't get it. The best one can do is copy an entire post, delete it, then repost it, which seems like a lot of work for a simple spelling error. Not to worry, I have written and critiqued much peotry and prsoe in my life, and I'm sure I'll continue to suffer the "fat finger" disease.
Apr. 16th, 2009 07:19 pm (UTC)
This brings up an important question--how dependant is this piece on performance? Does it work as well on the page as it does live? Is an audio recording enough? Could it be, in some way, considered cheating?

As far as the "nothing new" response, I completely accept that many readers and editors would see giving voice to a character something "new". I'm, personally, still on the fence, but tend to lean towards disagreeing. Yes, dramatic poetry based on tales adds something, but for me, personally, I want more. For me, it reads partially as adding poetic flourishes to an already established tale, and doesn't do anything new with the story itself. It just seems too...easy, maybe? That's not the best word, but there's something missing for me as a reader. This is clearly personal taste and prejudice coming through in the critique, so anyone who calls me on it is absolutely correct, especially if, as in the case of Sedna, the original tale is almost a skeletal frame aching for flesh and voice.
Apr. 16th, 2009 07:49 pm (UTC)
In regards to performance -- I don't know; I do know a good performer can, to be cliched myself, make the phone book interesting, although I am not comparing "Sedna" to the phone book.

"Already established tale" presupposes a host of assumptions: can you explain what you mean by that?
Apr. 17th, 2009 01:28 am (UTC)
"Already established tale":

The basic story of a folktale or myth is already established--the author who simply retells the tale using a character as a point of view isn't coming up with a new plot or a new twist to the established plot. I can see how, using personification and dramatic verse, a poet could very easily give a different perspective on a tale, or flesh out a narrative, but again, unless something is significantly changed, I don't feel it's enough. This is a very subjective and personal point of view, and I know that many disagree, and I completely understand and appreciate where they're coming from.
Apr. 19th, 2009 03:25 pm (UTC)
Then we must agree to disagree.
Apr. 19th, 2009 06:05 pm (UTC)
Yup. Sounds good. At least we can do it in a polite and intelligent manner, which was a major concern when I started this project. I have no problem with different points of view or disagreement, so long as everyone is cool about it.
Apr. 16th, 2009 07:44 pm (UTC)
I dream that one day, I'll have the time and energy to go through all of these, read the poems referenced, and engage on their merits. That day isn't today, however, so I have to stick with my nominations.

I find the last stanza of "Damascus Divides the Lovers by Zero, or, The City Is Never Finished" to be vital. To me, it opens the poem up to the reader and the world, with its references to the road and the sea and the wind, the means of travel. The images kissing, of cheeks brushing, are the most concrete in terms of the lovers touching, and the contrast of "I thought I kissed you" with "I knew I'd lost you" not only brings an immediacy to the narrator's longing and frustrated desire, but illustrates why the lovers are divided by zero, why the city is never finished. Dream and reality remain unreconciled. The narrator can follow every means of travel, can search every city, and will not find what they seek. The dream is not meant to become reality for them, and they are as divided from their beloved as the city from the sea.

To my mind, the warm day, the cool wind, the wide sea, are necessarily described so for the resonance. These are not just descriptions of the weather and landscape, these are evocations of older love songs and poetry. The specific phrasings carry a freight of literary and romantic history. I'd argue they're allusive rather than tired or stale.
Apr. 17th, 2009 01:30 am (UTC)
Oooh...okay. Allusion. I can see that. I'm not sure I agree, personally, but taken or read that way, I can see how these lines add weight to the piece. Good call.
Apr. 18th, 2009 06:27 pm (UTC)
I also need the last stanza for the poem to be complete.

Also, probably contrary to the authors' intentions, I read this as three separable, albeit not separate, poems: the left-justified poem, the indented poem and the intertwined poem. And, I mean that as a compliment, not a criticism (and I hope it's taken that way).

Apr. 18th, 2009 06:34 pm (UTC)
There is a sense of multiple voices, thus multiple poems in this piece. The fact that they could be read as seperate certainly adds another layer to this rich piece.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )


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