2/23/2023 4 Comments
Poet's Petard, March 2023
Clearing the Space
Composing a poem is probably much like taking trumpet lessons: you want to begin with a noise that demands a listening attention.
A noise that clears space in advance for the poem, but is not yet the poem.
Like the opening of the Early English epic 'Beowulf,' which begins with the single word “Hwaet,” that Seamus Heaney translates as “So.” Followed by a period, not an exclamation point. It could also be left untranslated and simply pronounced, which might give you more like its true purpose: to announce the upcoming delivery of a long story.
No poem exists in a vacuum, like automatic writing that just pours out of you without any obvious preparation. For a poem to be “heard,” it's meant to incorporate at least a couple of familiar clues, which can remain largely untranslated. Where are we? Who is speaking? What's happening? The actual beginning of a poem can seem like “merely voice” no meaning like clearing the throat, a sneeze, the sharp intake of breath that follows the conductor's downward-plunging hand. In any case, the opening of any poem often involves a little purifying noise that needs to appear in some way on the page, and which is meant to be “answered” by a certain kind of silence.
This little nursery rhyme always comes to mind for me when I feel a poem coming on. It works well as a way to “smudge the space” before you commit anything to writing.
There, now, the threshold is swept, you can haul out your various notes-to-self, your juicy fragments and see if you can find a core essence that will coalesce into a poem. Here's an example of a sure-fire “poem situation” that turned out to be impossible (for me, at least) to budge from its stolid, relentlessly-informational, self. Years later it remains in my notebook, unwept, unhonored and unsung.
Rae Armantrout has somehow allowed the all-too-ready pronoun “It,” to linger in the poetry ante-room long enough to send out several tantalizing hints of precocious metaphorical prowess.
And there is William Carlos Williams' poem that, without the opening four words might have been just a list, or a poem fragment that went reeling out before it had waited for the proper space to be cleared.
2/23/2023 04:58:10 pm
Lovely, thought-provoking essay, Anita. I loved that Natural History quotation for the notion of dying of "planet." How perfect for this moment in history when the "planet" kills so many as we kill it.. I may borrow it for an epigraph for a poem. Thank you!
2/23/2023 07:30:28 pm
"Clearing a Space" seems very appropriate around now. After a whole pandemic spent mostly alone in the house, the clutter is worse than when it started, but my patience with ignoring it is at an end. One has to clear a space for living, for doing, for thinking. As music starts from silence, and as you point out, poetry also needs room to begin.
2/24/2023 07:37:01 am
Thanks, Carolyn and thanks, Susan! It seems silly that I can only reply through this rather clunky system. Susan, I loved listening to the Rachmaninoff (wrong spelling) and to hear about your cleaning strategies. I wish you the best. love, Anita
3/5/2023 10:44:20 pm
I really am taken by this consideration of a "threshold" into a poem -- even the word "So." I'm going to look back at my own and others' poems with this in mind. Hmm. As to the nursery rhyme, how delightful. The line about the kittens rings a bell, but not the rest. (How could that be?) Anyway -- what a unique way to prepare your mind to move into poetry mode! I also am enjoying pondering your observation about "the all-too-ready pronoun “It." Thanks for this Petard. Glad you aren't stopping!
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