Monday, June 06, 2011

There are poems (Another failed taxonomy)

There's the poem you think about first. The poem you set out to write to make clear, maybe first to yourself, that something is worth recording in a poem. Some idea, some memory, some institutional process.

There's the poem you write in response to something. An idea drifting through the consciousness, or an essay you read one morning while sipping your wake-up beverage, be it caffeinated or juiced. Instead of responding to an essay with an essay, you respond with a poem.

There's the poem that doesn't care what you're doing, it comes into your head and demands to be written down Right Now. Drop everything and get to it. Keep that pen and notebook handy at all times, whether you're driving or ironing shirt collars. You have to be willing to interrupt yourself. What's more important, the task or the poem? Which you pick will tell you who you are.

There's the poem that comes when you are relaxing, letting go, relaxing mind and body, softening your gaze. The poem that comes just as you are falling off to sleep. The poem that comes to you in the shower. And you have to interrupt yourself to get the idea down. Then go back to sleep, or go rinse off.

There's the poem you write to answer an imaginary question. Why, for example, is the neighbor mowing his lawn first thing Monday morning? Couldn't it have waited till later in the day. The answer to the story of why becomes the story in the poem. And why so many heart attacks also happen first thing Monday morning? Maybe it's because a lot of answer don't come on Monday mornings. You might have an urgent question, but it takes them awhile to return your call.

There's the methodical poem, written an one sitting, fully-formed in mind and capsuled into the blank white container of the page. There are times using fixed forms opens this door, giving you a blueprint to fill in, making it easier to be methodical. Lots of poem-a-day poems are written methodically, as practice for something inspired. Craft is what gets you through those days when you're not inspired. It fills in the gaps. Gives you something to do.

There's the undisciplined poem. No methodology can guarantee inspiration. So you wait for inspiration, practicing patience. Be willing to do nothing for days on end. By patient. Craft serves to hone inspiration into its best self, when it comes. Craft serves the discipline of waiting by keeping your instruments sharp. You're lucky to get a few of these poems a year, but they are in fact more common than the methodical poets believe. The main thing is, you don't pretend your daily practice poems are worth anything much.

There's the didactic poem, the sermon poem, the philosophical poem, ideas tricked up in pretty robes that make the medicine easier to swallow. The sermon's message goes down better with a spoonful of sugar. The philosophical observation with a twist of wry. Philosophers usually take their ideas too seriously, and end up too dry, too sour. If Nietzsche had written his polemics as poems, as he sometimes did, or as satire, as he sometimes did, he might have been less dire. Those very polite and overly reasonable English thinkers could use some zaniness of Zen.

There's the irrational poem, which shakes up your usual orderly morning and takes your spleen for a walk. The poem that makes no sense, either during its writing, or later on. What can we hang our left brains on, this morning? All the coathooks have melted like pats of vinyl butter in the heat. You plunge in and swim around in the blood-colored rain. Sudden left turns are appreciated.

There's the faux-irrational poem. The one that looks like a dream but still adds up to narrative complete with moral at the end of the story. The poem that tries to harness those foam-snorting water-horses that pull Neptune's chariot with bands of iron, iron which rusts when drowned in the ocean. The problem with Surrealism is that mostly they try to put the irrational sources of inspiration under the rational control of the waking mind, as if telling oneself what to dream was a test to be taken and gotten good marks on. If you edit your Dreaming to be suitable for the waking world, it tends to rebel. Fish wander through the most unhallucinatory of boardrooms. If you're going to really let the poems be irrational, take your finger off the scales, and stop trying to tip them towards "useful" rather than "whatever." You end up with poems that talk about the irrational while themselves remaining unthreateningly rational, coherent, and logical. Descriptions rather than immersion. Most poets are actually afraid of their own Dreaming. They don't entirely trust the archetypes they find at the bottom of their own minds.

There's the poem of Apollo, and there's the poem of Dionysus. Somewhere in between we find Athena. It doesn't have to be war on the chessboard. It could be a tango instead. The Jabberwocky finds itself in love with the moon, the wine, a fragrant breeze of tea leaves.

There's the poem of fragments, which reflects and represents the fragmentary nature of consciousness. Things don't always stitch together into nice narratives, even though the universe is made up of stories. The end of the story lies in raveled tatters. Some revisionists like to put in grammar where none was intended. Resist the urge to build a factory on that vacant stare.

There's the poem of quick and unrevisioned capture. The poem of the moment, the quick observation jotted around, first thought best thought. Poems that fall off the back of an overburdened farmer's cart every time it hits a bump in the gravel road. Rarely revised, usually abandoned. Sown into the wind to fall and fertilize wherever, avoiding proper cultivation. Leaves strewn in the wake of the crazy poet-monk who can't be bothered to collect them, who wanders on.

There's the poem of reticence and understatement, never telling you exactly what's going on. Some kind of horrible life-changing tragedy referred to in five plain words before moving on. Wait. Stop. What was that? How am I supposed to feel about it, if anything? The poem that leaves you on the corner, wondering which way to cross.

There's the puzzle-poem, that expects to solved, that dares you to intellectualize a detective's trail of clues. But what of poetic ambiguity, when the riddle has two answers? The poem that cloaks an easy question in an obscure enigma, beneath as baroque as possible a locking mechanism. Some poems make you forge their keys from scratch.

There's the poem of exquisite geometry, as conceptually brilliant as a gem set in the sun. Every turn is a vector, a geodesic, that takes you into the mysterious heart of mathematical perfect wisdom.

There's the poem that tastes of some aspect of the divine hidden behind a thinning veil or mask of revelation. In the wake of such surprise, a little bit of threshold god-awakening in your own blood sends shivers. You might dangerously wake into power. What just passed through here? A wind-riffle in the grass where something invisible walks, invoking panic. These are perhaps the most dangerous poems of all, the most mysterious. Your hair stands on end. Even poets try hard to suppress their panic in the face this Unknown, and revert to little poems that try to do too little, deliberately avoiding the uncontrollable.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Broadly-speaking I’m opposed to classifications because as you as you say what a thing is then you are immediately suggesting that there are things it might not be. A sonnet clearly cannot be a limerick and, presumably, a methodical poem cannot be undisciplined. Therefore we begin by acknowledging the limitations of our craft; we never get to play with a full deck of cards and even if we did it would probably be Happy Families when we needed the tarot.

A fun, if incomplete, list.

8:05 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yeah, it's an incomplete list. I could have gone on a lot longer, if I felt like I wanted to devote the time to it, drawing ever finer distinctions. One thing I'll say for it, though, at least it's not a polarized binary list, or an Us vs. Them taxonomy system like most people with an ideology to promote or an axe to grind produce. You know, the manifesto list that separates the writer from what he is rebelling against. My list, failed as it is, at least goes off in some other directions, and I tried real hard not to set up binary distinctions without also undercutting them.

9:38 AM  

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