As we navigate an age of velocity and information, it is often easy to befall the entrapment of disengagement with our own simplicity as human beings. The Artist is a figure attributed to emotion, and as such, it holds dominion over such a vast and spectral realm, that the sensation if of infinitude. But although emotions might be infinite in variables, we’re not. We are inherently capped beings with limits and thresholds, those which we can expand and increase with effort and work, but never fully evade them all-together.
I’ve talked much about format and content and how they must be weighed simultaneously, but one of the greatest reflection of that is the act of overdraw, where we feel the need and obligation to feel so original, so nouvelle, that we start sacrificing the very foundations of what makes poetry, well, poetry.
I also talk much about what poetry is to me (emphasis on to me), but for understanding my view, one must understand where it comes from:
“Prose: words in their best order; poetry: the best words in the best order.”
― Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The simplest, most sincere description of poetry I think I’ve ever come across. Why? Well, if we extend the topic, we can get a grasp of how divisive the opinion over poetry is. Some say it is lyrical, others say it is formless, and most say it is simply the act of versing. The boundaries of such are virtually non-existent. According to present Academia, an entire book about nuclear chemistry can constitute a poem, might it be claimed as such by the author, especially when illogically, in my view, poetic prose was placed on the category of poetry and not prose. We might as well name is a prosaic poem.
I reject this notion when applied to poetry that I’m interested in purchasing, again, it is necessary to draw the separation between poetry as a therapy and artistic release, and poetry as a commerce and constituent Art.
Because if poetry doesn’t need to be anything, well, then it doesn’t need to exist, just another term whose vagueness makes it dispensable. That is exactly why it is vanishing, because of that shift to the unreal, because people have so little to expect nowadays when they buy a poetry book, it simply isn’t a genre they can truly identify with. There is nothing to materially identify with, there are no shapes to feel, akin to standing in an dark room and be expected to find the needle.
We order to reclaim the singular and unique form poetry once had — that of being the best words in their best order — we must be wary of what those words and that order mean, and in this case, substance and form.
Modernism made us aware that substance is very mutable and specific, so one must outcast the idea that certain words must be used in order to achieve certain results. Emotion isn’t math, and nor is poetry. That much, I absolutely agree with — as Bukowski showed us, we mustn’t be geniuses to express ourselves with brilliancy, because sincerity and conveyance are often times more important than the subject actually being conveyed.
Modernism deconstructed a toxic fuel to poetry, but it left a lot to desire when it came to form. Authors like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, for example, are notable exceptions of the movement in great part because of their stunning formation of thoughts, and even if seen as a strike at lyricism at the time, they both maintained a brilliant rhythm and sound formation. But these, as good as they might be, do not fully represent the Modernistic movement, and at the time, many authors stomped form into a grain of insult. (So much so, Frost would be incessantly attacked for being too traditional compared to his Modernistic contemporaries, something still happening today within poetry circles).
We want new things, we want better things, but we often disregard what has come before, may it not fit our creative will. But how can one create something truly new without knowledge of what has already been done? Of what worked and did not?
And form isn’t just lyricism or rhyme, it isn’t syllabic division or stanzaic structures, nor is it sestinas, haikus and sonnets. Form is less than all of that, because it is simply how you transmit what you want to transmit, what vehicle moves you towards your words rather than furthering the distance. And that might be simply verse autonomy, or the usage of extreme punctuation. Unlike content, form is not infinite, but its limitations shouldn’t be something that scares us, but rather, dares us to find ways to create freely.
In reality, I have the absolute notion that none of my poems are truly new, they have references and influences, and I’m aware of all of them, because that awareness allows me to reshape my thoughts into something only I could construct. Words are to poetry as oil is to a canvas, they’ve all been seen before, broken apart merged together, but your dance with these old fragments of communication and beauty, that beautiful waltz of colour, that is something indisputably yours. A poem which I can call truly mine is still floating at distant seas, but I write as I swim, and one day, I’m gonna get there.
All I ask, after all of this, is that you come with me.
P.S: Have you ever heard of Bossa Nova? If so, check out Baden Powell‘s “Poesia On Guitar“, an album that attempts to translate poetry into melodic tracks without singing, and it brilliantly manages to do just that.
I’m dipping my toes into confessional poetry. I’m awful at it, but is it quite fun.
This one is very sloppy structure-wise, but I’m living this thirties fantasy right now and I really felt like writing some stuff related to that, not sure why. But it makes me really happy!
The entire poem has references to Al Bowlly.
Thank you so much for reading,
A little while back (I seem to start all my posts with this phrase), I started writing a book of actual fiction, as in, not poetry, called Brass Towers. With less and less time on my hands, and still trying to finish the various projects of poetry I have ongoing, this one got a bit lost, but I still have some hope it might see light of day. Here goes a rough-cut excerpt that I like, considering I don’t have nearly as much experience with prose as I do with poetry:
(A reminder, this is a character in the work, and not actually me writing about myself, although… it’s probably both)
As I lay my head against the bed-frame, I hope for better days. Some hope for those, others hope for better nights, and along those plaguing and exhausting hours of sleepless thought: we hope. As human misery goes, we hate hoping as much as we require it, since it fuels our glimpses of those better days, because hoping is somehow less painful than anything else we could be doing. We hope for days when we won’t need to hope anymore, in that sickly irony of circular thought, and those better days have knocked our wooden doors thousands of times over, banged, even. They scream to be claimed, but we are busy at the moment, we are busy hoping that they will come. We are addicted to hope, and in such woven spheres of contemplation, even knowing how much hope can hurt and how much misery it can bring, we keep hoping… for days that aren’t as miserable, for days that never come.
If only, perhaps, the sciences of the mind or arts of the psyche could provide a more easing method of withstanding life and its barrage of variables, we could stop the cycle of hope, and we could once-and-for-all close that wretched box Pandora opened so long ago, or even erase our understanding of human inadequacies and undo Eve’s apple eating habit. But closing a box or un-eating an apple are far too mundane to syphon our hope, no, they are insufficient. We yearn tragedy, great loves tossed into the claws of cruel oceans, even greater minds felled by their own ambitions, high spiritual connections with concepts that have far evaded our reductive minds, all grandeur, all splendour and garish displays of agony, because we already have hope to give and sell, but a fictional character only translates fully into our reality when it becomes hopeless, because hopelessness takes the highest courage, and because it is the most tangible thing we could never be.
With my head still laid upon the bed-frame, I look back: my childish years, filled to the brim with hope hidden between rays of sunlight, I hoped pine cones would fall so I could harvest the seeds and eat them, I hoped my words could convince Felicity to join me into the endless quest of fantasy awaiting beyond those pines. My adolescence, stacked with confusion and hopes for lesser confusion, a deep yearn for better days in adulthood, those that we produce, direct and act inside our minds, running so smoothly and beautifully, with liberty as the soundtrack and hope… always there, writing the screenplay. Now, an adult, nothing runs as smoothly as I’d hoped, Felicity never joined me behind those pines of magical wonder, she instead moved to Delaware. And as fate would have it, the pine cones were barren and seedless. I still hope for all the same themes under different guises, all a match of semantics duelling within ones mind. Felicity was my hope of love, which I never felt; pine cones were my hope for luck, which I never had; and life beyond the pines was my hope to escape, which I never did.
I still hope for all those things, all those days, as much as I miss them, and between missing hope as it was and hoping for it to cease, there is little of me left, and even that little me seems to be annoyingly hopeful.
Y’all, I’ve been reading too much American poetry, so I’m going through this mixed phase of modernism and romanticism, I hope something good comes out of this because its certainly weird for me to write like this.
Disclaimer: bulletless doesn’t seem to be a real word, but I don’t get why, so I’m gonna use it anyway.
Disclaimer 2: I’ve since revised the second part of the poem, so if you’re reading for a second time, you may find it different than the original. If you seek the original, you can find it here.
One relatively important thing I’ve taken notice lately by glancing at academic standpoints to grand compositions is symbology by association and how that impacts the _weight_ of a present verse or structure. The greatest example might be any poem written by T.S. Eliot (most notably, The Waste Land), which packs a myriad of literary and symbolic references in a singular modernistic composition almost subdivided by those very same symbols. (II: A Game of Chess contains references to the Prothalamion, Verlaine, Sappho, St. Augustine, and many more. Although this part of the composition is considerable in length, one can still assume the level of referential usage is greater than the one of the specific narrative.)
So, the question lays still: how are these references important to the spine of the poem, and not only Waste Land, any poem that references anything?
One general device of “writing the best words in the best order” (a quote by Samuel Taylor Coleridge believed to be said in 1827, when asked about poetry),
is the usage of symbols to convey a wider sense of emotion. As magical as poetry can be, it can also be very restrictive, you must be economical in every verse and stanza, siphoning from inner images in order to convey as much as possible with as little words as possible. Importing symbols from previous works of literary culture allows for a greater condensation of the message, through the somatic marker present in those works (of course, it relies on the knowledge from the reader’s side to actually know the referencing, otherwise it loses all leverage and becomes rather the opposite: a confusing word-salad).
Exemplifying, if I wanted to relay the toxic nature of hope without going through the hassle of creating a full stanzaic foundation for it, because that toxic interaction is only background to the skeletal basis of the poem, I can import from a generally known and easy-to-understand mythological fable (as many have before me, mythology is great for this exercise)
‘All evils dare not compare to Pandora’s youthful hope’
Merely an example, Pandora’s Box fable ends with the opening of the box and subsequent discovery of hope being the last of evils locked within it, also the only one that didn’t flee. The symbolical magnitude of this fable is great, and great will also be the impact it has on your poems message, if used correctly.
“But Johnny, you cursed fool, I haven’t seen many of these on your poems!” says Lucian the Annoyed, with a monstrous expression in stand-by to ambush.
I actually make a slightly ridiculous amount of references in my poetry, but I avoid the usage of names as I don’t find their sonority very helpful to the flow. Some names work, others do not, but I generally avoid them all, and prefer subtle references to film or music in place of literary symbolism. It is, however, nowhere as ridiculous as Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot, they took it a bit too far, in my humble opinion (I’m not a fan of either, I do not enjoy poems that overly rely on symbolic imports because I prefer poetry to homework), although T.S. Eliot’s Love Song is still one of my favourite compositions of any author, which proves that the level of connectivity between a symbolical poem and it’s reader is how much it relates to that readers elected literary sphere.
TL;DR, use references and challenge yourself to stretch them and paint them some beauty as you do it, but also allow them to be accessible and thematically fluid with the poem, not only cosmetically. Also, do not sacrifice the spine of your poem by jamming in a fun-summon, all pieces must still fit, as I said on Poetic Tips I and II.
And in that note, I too should take my tips, since I recurrently make all the mistakes displayed above.