Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Metaphors, Masks, Clarity, Roripaugh, Corn: I'm learning how to write

A few months ago I jotted some lines in response to a friend's comment questioning the depth or validity of impersonal public mourning--a pile of bouquets honoring a stranger's death. I knew, or believe, those flowers do indeed represent a sincere grief, and not mawkishness.

The lines I wrote had to do with a scene in Crime and Punishment. Raskilnikov dreams of a horse being beaten to death. It's pretty gruesome, but that is what came to mind, then Princess Diana and the outpouring when she was killed. My thoughts moved closer to home, America--New York and L.A.--cities where I know teenagers are killed by random bullets.

It was all a good idea for a poem but I couldn't move it. The lines sat on the virtual page in my computer. I considered deleting, but didn't, more out of laziness than any belief the poem would ever get legs. But a few days ago, it did. I can't say why, but I returned to it, partly because it was there in the long document that holds all new poems, and I was there. I worked on it every day with glee.

This morning it occurred to me to question my memory of the Dostoevsky. Given that it once took me about fourteen tries to get the name right for Achilles' friend (Patroclus) killed in that war, I knew I should not rely on memory. What I wrote above is correct, but I hadn't remembered it that way. And if I couldn't remember--for my own poem--why should I expect anyone else to?

In the time between my first draft and this morning I read Lee Ann Roripaugh's latest collection, On the Cusp of a Dangerous Year (Southern Illinois University Press). I can't overstate how fine, marvelous, astute, rhythmic, sensual, funny, tragic, transformative and insanely affecting Roripaugh's work is. And what lingered in my para-conscious mind, relative to "For One Who Questioned the Grief," the poem mentioned above, was how clear her work is.

The easy word is accessible but that could be wrongly read as easy, which Roripaugh is far from. As a professor, she has a bead on how all sorts understand and think about poetry, true, but more than that she has the gift--which may also be sheer willingness to write draft after draft--of creating luminosity in the everyday, a caterpillar, a midnight drive home, "the flittering plop of moths."

Not one of the poems in this collection begins, as "For One..." did, "No one mends the horse's leg, / not Raskilnikov, not Fyodor."

I can laugh now. What was I thinking? Not very poetry-y and quite a reach. This is not Tom Sawyer getting Huck Finn to help him paint a fence. Not a paraphrase of "the best of times, the worst of times" & co. In other words, not a reference it's relatively fair to expect readers to remember. It's a reference that must be retrieved from the memory banks, if not Google.

As of this morning the poem opens with, "When a stranger is killed and laid to rest / at the alter for Public Mass of Remembrance." I'm not saying that's my high point but it's clear. For me it's risky in that I'm stating where I'm headed, what this poem is going to be about. For me, that feels--repeat--risky. My training--in life, not poetry--was to be clever. And stylistically, again in life, to hint rather than state. Of course my nature is more blunt so there's always a battle.

I was prompted to write this entry in response to the remarkably thoughtful Alfred Corn's Weblog. His essay today,
Metaphor, Masks, Coding
is an exploration of a poet's decision to metaphorize rather than be "straightforward" (Corn's word). The title is almost Margaret Meadish, as if we poets were so distant from our culture as to think we needed masks from any dimension as intercessionary devices.

Anyway, I have felt, over the past month, that I am just beginning to know how to write a poem. Sometimes I purposely metaphorize (nasty word) or create a metaphor because I am bored. In the same way a poet told me to meet her at the little yellow man. When I got to the street corner in Brooklyn there was no little yellow statue. She'd been referring to markings on an online map. This last little incident is hardly conclusive but does demonstrate poets' odd ways of seeing and describing the world.

Note: Sorry I still haven't figured out links, here. Sigh.
The image is young Margaret Mead with an Eskimo mask.

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