As you may know, this and every Wednesday for the next little while I will be expanding on many of the points covered in my October, 2011 post about making the poetry manuscript. If you’ve not read that original post, it’s called “On Making The Poetry Manuscript” and is available here. This is the second installment.
Here was point #2 from my post on Manuscript Making:
2) Every time we write a poem we announce to the world what we think a poem is. The poems we write when urging – wittingly or unconsciously – a particular aesthetic are the ones that belong in the same book. Spread all of your poems out on the floor, a floor that doesn’t need to be disturbed (easy for me to say, I know) and look at them. Read them. Live with them for days and days. See what relationships seem to be developing between the poems. What does that poem by the bureau have to say to the poem under the bed? Where do you see common images developing? In what directions do your various threads lead? What seem to be your concerns as a poet during this period of creativity, and how do they seem to want to group. What sorts of discoveries are your poems making? The process of inclusion and ordering is organic, calculated, thoughtful, instinctual, unconscious, and a somewhat Zen. You need time to permit all of those matters and anti-matters to work upon you, and upon your poems.
And now, here’s your advanced version:
Last Saturday/Sunday we held a poetry conference in Barters Island, Maine, just off Boothbay Harbor. Everyone brought with them a stack of poems and we sat out in a glorious boat house that sits above the Sheepscott Estuary, a boathouse finished out like the interior of a ship, and I spent most of the weekend exploring and explicating those points listed above, advanced version, including 18 paths (just for starters):
- What is the sort of poem or poems does this poet write?
- What makes it distinctly hers or his?
- In what language or languages do those poems speak with and to one another?
- What sorts of relationships do they like to develop (or avoid)?
- How do those poems share a similar approach to the work of images?
- What and where are the discoveries inside them – overt or (as more often happens) still subterranean–not yet fully found or mined?
- What stylistic devices (what strategies) does each poet chose as his/her own?
- How compatible are those chosen strategies?
- Where do the poems tend to focus their energies: on the general (in space or time), or on the particular?
- How careful is the poet (and therefore, the poem) in generating a language that avoids sentimentality?
- Is the poem aware of the way it controls tone? (i.e., putting diction and syntax to work in establishing a “speaker’s” attitudes on the page);
- Is the poem aware of the ways in which abstract images (skillfully employed) can be persuaded to suggest the tangible stuff of the world? Or do those abstractions merely fly off like a hot-air balloon?
- Is the poem aware of the ways in which concrete, sensory-rooted images and gestures, can be made to do the inner work of abstractions?
- Do the poems demonstrate an awareness of power of ellipsis (i.e., moving even slightly away from the need to be wholly inclusive, to spell out every moment, and to risk the drama of the dreamscape where not everything adds up, nor can it?
- What strategies invite the reader to participate in enhancing the dramatic tension implied by the poem?
- What strategies render a poem intimate, rather than private and excluding?
- How do you recognize risks taken on the page?
- How do you recognize a poem that has been written with the patience necessary to stay within hailing distance of its best ideas?
Our work together last weekend, like your work alone with your own manuscript, is about finding ways to “concretize the ephemeral,” as one of the participants in this past weekend’s Barters Island Poetry Conference put it to me beautifully and generously about what she felt that we accomplished.
Let me brag on you for just a moment, because doing this work without help is like putting together the most complex Ikea furniture, without plans or tools. Here’s what she (a conference participant) posted on FB immediately after the conference:
I just got back from the Tupelo poetry workshop in Maine with Jeffrey Levine and a small group of gifted, courageous poets from wide-ranging backgrounds. It was a profound experience: affirming yet challenging, practical but also great fun. I understand better now, where my poetic strengths are and how I need to grow. Meeting and working with Jeffrey is life-giving and mind-stretching. I feel fortunate to have found a literary press that balances high standards with down-to-earth sensibilities. No affectations, just pure and intensive mentoring. THANK YOU, Tupelo!
Now that’s a blurb to die for!
So, in last week’s blog, I had the cats (yours and mine) on top of the poems, while taking the position that we’d all be well advised to start working at the level of the line, of the stanza, of the poem. Let’s find out, I said, whether the book is ready to be called a book.
So this week, let’s look at the manuscript as a manuscript. Here follows your recipe. (You are welcome to come to Truchas, New Mexico with me–and Mark Doty, and Veronica Golos–for the “Perfect Ten Manuscript Conference” at the end of October and have the full “cooking class” experience for yourself. There are only six spots left. They won’t last.)
Now, there on the Lower Sheepscott River we spent an entire weekend actually walking down all of the 18 paths (above), thinking together (for example) about ways that the concrete holds an assortment of abstract meanings within its structure, and the abstract – the ephemeral – is capable of standing in (through gesture and image and evocation of the five senses) for a set of concrete emotions and experiences. We are capable of great writing to the degree that we can let the thing be what it is, so that it can shine (or whatever) before us as it is, while the veil of abstractions—woven through either by our routines or by other people’s empty phrases—falls away. Then we see, as it were, for the first time. And then and only then we can re-imagine what abstract shapes the hard matter of the world can carry.
So, let’s chase the cat away for an hour and look hard at those pages in front of you, alone and palely loitering, and puzzle out together what to do about them. Where are the trail blazes in the dark, rainy forest? Here are a few. It’s not quite like having a spirit guide, but it will give you a good start (and perhaps get you ready for the Sangre de Cristo mountains):
Start by asking yourself, “What are my strategies, my stylistic impulses?
Isn’t it interesting that we tend to have so many distinctive ways of working within the same manuscript? Can you identify poems in your stacks in which you feature some (or more) of these various ways of working:
- A narrative-inflected voice that you employ in poems that tell stories, that take their sweet time with it, that are “inclusive” in, well, just about every sense of the word;
- A more lyric voice, spare, more “Eastern” voice – that shows from time-to-time as whole poems, and often in the final stanza;
- A meditative stance that comes and goes;
- A somewhat elliptical design, perhaps even a bit experimental, perhaps a dash of Emily Dickinson, that informs just a very few of your poems, but (again) shows up more often as your poems work toward closure;
- Poems in which (your having internalized Elizabeth Bishop’s “Questions of Travel”) your offer up a poem or two as a collection of images and recollections;
- Perhaps a few in which irony, or sadness, or despair, or – bravissima – ecstasy, play important parts.
Do this work. Note on your poems in colored markers where you’re doing what. Chart your poems by strategy. Map out where you’ve been with these poems, how you’ve done it, and where each poem seems to be heading. Follow those leads to the poem that picks up those strategies and concerns. Apply the 18 signposts (above) to a dispassionate reading of each and every poem to see whether it’s one you’ll want to include, and what work it requires before it joins the growing stack. Invite the cat back for company. Those are just rough suggestions above, those 18 points. Most will apply to your work, maybe some won’t. There are more ways of working than any of us can count. Even I, reader of 4,000 manuscripts per year for 15 years, rarely see two manuscript that go about it in the same way.
But for now, try to see through to what you do, and how you do it, and take good notes.
Note how our thinking and writing tends to become saddled with prefabricated, stylistic mannerisms that do not reveal but rather, obscure the look of things. Look hard. Learn to see your poems with new eyes, to look in ways you may have forgotten, not ruthlessly (because you can’t see by knitting the brow or darkening the eyes), but by standing apart from the self-as-writer and inhabiting the body of the self-as-reader. Eventually you’ll want to see each poem as a provocation: to permit one poem act as a provocation for another, and that for another, and so on, eventually finding (or revising) (or writing) the poem that wants to lay a hand upon the shoulder of another, and move it this way or that.
Learn a modest and earthbound sobriety. As the philosopher Heidegger puts it, “Just learn again to descend into the poverty of (your) materials.” And inside those poems, upon which you cast a keen, discerning eye, see if you can announce to yourself, first, the ways in which you work, and next, which way or ways of working seem to work most successfully. Where have you paid close attention within the poem, where have you been patient, where have you focused your lens close to the bone and stayed there, working at eye level, rather than trying to take on the entire globe, expanding the earthy, crumbly quotidian stuff into airy abstractions? To see is to know. “I know” in ancient Greek is oida, means literally, “I have seen.” See with your other self, the one who knows you well, doesn’t judge, and whose only ambition for you is that you write as well as you can.
Please do join me next week for “On Making the Poetry Manuscript, New and Improved, Part III.”