Today is the final day of our time together, examining some of the major anatomical features of the lyrical-narrative free verse poem. I've saved the title and possible epigraph(s) for last because my experience is that the better ones emerge from the poem, rather than from dictating to the poem what it's about.
When I woke up this morning I knew there was horror, I
remembered the rain last night and I knew the ice had
come. I knew the doves would be dragging their stiff tails and
I knew the years would be filled with broken branches. I sing
this for Hubert Humphrey, dead last night, and I sing it
for the frozen trees and the bouquet of frozen buds,
and the tiny puffs of smoke now rising from our chimneys
like the smoke of cave men rising from their fissures,
their faces red with wisdom, their dirty hands scraping
grease from the stones and shaking ashes from their beds,
their black eyes weeping over the chunks of fire,
their tears turning to ice as they leave the circle.
By Gerald Stern. From The Red Coal (Houghton Mifflin, 1981)
If you have been with me from the beginning of this online retreat, you will likely remember the hypothetical young poet from Richard Wilbur's essay, "Writing Off the Subject" who wrote down the title "Autumn Rain" and then attempted to write a poem about autumn rain, running out of what to say about the subject in 2 or 3 lines (Day 2, HERE). Part of the problem is the poet began with the title before he knew what the poem was going to be about. I turn again to Verlyn Klinkenborg to elaborate:
The piece you're writing is about what you find in the piece you're writing. [Re-read that sentence!]
No matter how factual, how nonfictional, how purposeful a piece it is.
Sooner or later, you'll become more interested in what you're able to say on the page and less interested in your intentions. [!]
You'll rely less on the priority of your intentions and more on the immediacy of writing.
It may sound as if I'm describing a formless sort of writing.
Not at all.
Form is discovery too.
It's perfectly possible to write this way even when constricted by
A narrow subject, a small space, and a tight deadline. [Line breaks and capitalization the author's.]
If you accept Hugo's and Klinkenborg's assertion that you don't know what you're writing about UNTIL you discover it IN what you're writing, then waiting to title your poem (or to select an epigraph--if it even needs one--see Heather Bowlan's essay below), until after the poem is written makes a lot of sense.
It may be possible that Stern wrote down the title "Ice, Ice" before he wrote any lines in the above poem, but I doubt it. I doubt that he knew prior to writing the poem that he would include ice twice, and its first use (line 2) would be in the present and its second use (last line) would be in prehistory. That correspondence is what makes the title so perfect. And I believe more perfect titles can be discovered after writing the poem.
"Almost every poem could have an epigraph if inspiration and interest were the criteria," begins Heather Bowlan in her essay "Against Epigraphs" published online HERE. "But I'd like to propose the opposite," she continues. "Let's put a moratorium on epigraphs until we know why we have them in the first place." Bowlan's main criticism is one many of us have experienced firsthand: epigraphs often contain stronger language than the poem that follows it. "[The epigraph] raises the stakes before the poem even begins," says Bowlan. Yet, she later asserts that there are ways an epigraph can work.
"Epigraphs can act as a lens for our poems, focusing our thoughts and language in response to an idea, helping us find our way into a subject." But this is not easy, Bowlan acknowledges: "This is difficult, patient work; to find an epigraph that can have a subtle or quiet power, and to write and wait to find out if the epigraph and poem resonate."
This last statement seems to assume that the epigraph is selected prior to writing the poem. I would assert that a better way is to write the poem first and then discover whether an epigraph is needed and, if so, what it should be. In other words, the default setting most poems should have in regard to both titles and epigraphs is "wait and see." Wait and see what turns up in the poem.
A personal pet peeve is taking the first line of the poem as the title. How many poetry readings have I attended where a reader says: "The title of my next poem is "The Sun is Going Down." Pause. Then they read the title: "The Sun is Going Down." Pause. Then the first line of the poem: "The Sun..."--well you get it. I do like titles that appear in the poem, but later, and not always exactly the way they appear. Like "Ice, Ice." Nice.
For a poem you have yet to write:
1. Write down the following as a provisional title to a poem: "Poem About What I'm Going to Find in the Poem As I Write it."
2. Write the poem.
3. Find what it is you wrote about that sounds like a good title.
4. Repeat #3 three more times.
5. Provisionally substitute each of the four title candidates for the original title.
6. Choose whichever title causes you to gasp (even a little) when you get to the part in your poem that prompted the title.
For a poem you've already written this week:
1. If the poem has a title, cross it out or delete it.
2. Look more carefully to see what the poem might really be about.
3. Select 3-4 possible candidates that might be more what the poem is really about.
4. Provisionally substitute each of these title candidates for the original title.
5. Choose whichever title causes you to gasp (even a little) when you get to the part in your poem that prompted the new title.
Final closing thoughts from Verlyn Klinkenborg (that can be applied to titles or any other lines of poetry):
You're holding an audition.
Many sentences [words, lines, titles] will try out.
One gets the part.
This will get easier with practice.
Don't be alarmed if it takes a day or two of trying out [lines]
Before you find the promising one.
It may only be promising enough to lead you to the
real [words, lines, title].
How do you decide what works?
Your emerging skill as a reader will help.
You'll read your lines against the backdrop of all the rest of your reading.
You'll get better at examine your own choices--the ones you've already made
And the ones you see waiting to be made as you reread
what you've written.
In closing, I'd like to thank Marin Poetry Center for sponsoring this online writing retreat, and Rebecca Foust for inviting me to host it this week. As I'm sure many of you have experienced, I have learned a lot preparing for these posts. I took to heart the advice that I didn't really know what I was writing about until I set out writing. I did have a few ideas, but I allowed the poems I selected to dictate much of what I said. Thank you to all of these wonderful poets whose work I've shared. And thank you to you wonderful poets who have dropped by and tried some of the prompts. I've received multiple emails with copies of poems written this week from those prompts, and been encouraged by some of you telling me these posts have broken you out of a writing slump. I would love to have you post poems written from these posts or any comments you may have in the comments section.
Naugatuck River Review (website here) is a journal of "Narrative poetry that sings." They are not open for submission at this time, but they publish two journals a year and one of them is comprised of finalists and semifinalists to their annual poetry contest.
Nine After Dinner Drinks to Make Your Stomach Feel Good: HERE.
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