CavanKerry Press, for example, rejected two or three different and substantial revisions of the manuscript that became my second book, Words for What Those Men Have Done, for reasons that boiled down to my not being able to get out of my own way within my own poems. (I was, to put it differently, trying too hard and too self-consciously to make the poems do what I wanted them to do, turning them more into poeticized editorials than works of art.) It wasn’t till I realized that I had fallen too much in love with the formal concept I had for the book as a whole, which was connected to ideas about chamber music and string quartets—ideas that would take too long to explain here—that I was able to hunker down with the language and take the time necessary to transform the manuscript into something worth publishing.
One reason I had such a hard time seeing this problem in the first place was that Words For What Those Men Have Done is so deeply personal. It deals far more explicitly than The Silence of Men with my experience as a survivor of childhood sexual violence, and it was, therefore, correspondingly more difficult and painful to write. The formal scheme I’d come up with for organizing the book–four or five long poems divided into four or five movements each–had been my way of making that pain and difficulty manageable, establishing the boundaries that would give it structure and meaning. I hadn’t understood that this structure’s purpose was, in reality, to enable me to generate the poetic material I needed. To turn that material into successful poems, enough of them to fill a book, I needed to allow the structures that would hold those poems to emerge organically–and that required patience.
Now that I have completed a first draft of this new manuscript—the working title is This Sentence Is A Metaphor For Bridge—I realize that I have been through more or less the same process. I just didn’t need to have the manuscript rejected three times for me to figure it out. After I finished Words for What Those Men Have Done, I was, quite frankly, tired of talking about myself. It wasn’t just that I didn’t want to go back yet again to the violence of my childhood, or the intimate questions about manhood and masculinity that my poems sometimes explore, or the issues of my Jewish identity, or my marriage. I just didn’t think I had anything new to say, at least not in poetry. I wanted to write something that would take me out of myself, that would force me to focus more on the poem as a self-consciously constructed linguistic object, and so I set myself what I thought at first would be a purely formal exercise, sort of like playing scales on the piano. I decided to write sonnets, a form I have always loved, that would not only follow as strictly as possible the rules of the form, but that would also adhere to a set of guidelines meant to take me–my autobiographical self–out of the the poems as much as possible. These are all the rules I created:
- I would write in strict iambic pentameter
- All rhymes would be full rhymes (a rule I ended up having to break only once)
- While I would not hold myself strictly to the Shakespearean or Petrarchan rhetorical structures, the rhyme schemes would adhere absolutely to one or the other of those forms (a rule I broke a couple of times)
- I would not use the first person singular pronoun, I, unless it was spoken in direct speech by a character in the poem
- As much as possible, rather than relying on narrative or logical momentum to move the poem forward, I would rely on the music of the language
I rarely set aside “writing time”” to work on these poems. Rather, I composed them piecemeal, usually on my phone, while I was riding the train or standing in line at the supermarket–pretty much anywhere but at my desk. If I got stuck or interrupted mid-line, as I often did, I just put the poem aside until I could pick it up again. When I did, though, instead of reading through all the lines I’d written previously, I looked only at the line that had been interrupted, and maybe the line before it, finding a way to continue based on the music—the rhythm, the sound patterning—of that bit of language. I didn’t give these sonnets titles, only numbers, and once a sonnet was done, I did not look at it again. I just moved on to the next one.
After I had about thirty of these sonnets, I began to realize I was in the middle of something more than a palate-cleansing exercise, and I started to imagine I was writing a sonnet sequence. Woudn’t it be great if I could get to a hundred, I thought, and wouldn’t it be cool that they’d all be so strictly formal? In the end, I completed 120 sonnets before I ran out of steam, and I certainly as impressed with myself. Only thirty-four more and I’d have as many as Shakespeare! This is when I started showing the sonnets to a few of my friends who are also poets. All of them found the work exciting, but what they found most exciting—something I did not catch at first because my head was still filled with the sonnet-writing nature project—was the voice I was writing in, not the poetic form I’d given to that voice. Based on their excitement I started revising the poems with an eye towards publication, but even in those revisions, I remained almost slavishly committed both to the rules I’d started with and to the sonnet sequence as the form the manuscript would take.
It wasn’t till I sat down at the beginning of June, with a three month stretch of more or less uninterrupted Monday-through-Friday mornings ahead of me, that I started to see just how many of the sonnets did not hold together as sonnets and would not hold together no matter how much I tinkered with them. Once I accepted this fact, I started to hear more clearly the voice my friends had been excited about, and it is that voice I am exploring as I further revise and hone this manuscript. Since I am still in the middle of discovering just what this voice is all about, I don’t want to say too much about the voice itself–except that I agree with my friends who hear in it a connection to the work I did co-translating classical Iranian poetry (specifically Farid al-Din Attar and Saadi of Shiraz). What I will say is that figuring out how to make this voice work rhythmically and sonically has thrown me back onto questions of craft–counting metrical feet or syllables; figuring out how to make a meter, or a line, or a stanza rhythmically interesting; crafting sound patterns, including rhyme, that contribute meaningfully to the movement and substance of the poem–no less rigorously than writing the sonnets did in the first place.
Indeed, the necessary concern with craft that writing the sonnets imposed on me is part of why I started writing the series of blog posts that I am calling “Craft Talk.” I’ve written three of these posts so far. The first one, about a poem called “A Convention of Little Dogs,” from Quincy Troupe’s book, The Architecture of Language, deals with how Troupe creates what I experience as the kinds of rhythms a jazz drummer might create, and how this emerges from the way Troupe bends and stretches the syntax of a sentence–or, maybe it’s that he hears a rhythm and he bends the syntax to fit what he hears. Either way, writing the post allowed me to get a look under the hood, so to speak, of one of Troupe’s poems and examine more closely how he uses rhythm that as a driving force in his work.
The second Craft Talk I wrote is about The Cattle of the Lord, a book of poems by the Portuguese poet Rosa Alice Branco, translated by Alexis Levitin. This post looked at how how Levitin was able in English to recreate both the chiseled syntax and complex lineation of Branco’s original–or at least as much of the original as I was able to glean from a side by side comparison with the translations.
The third Craft Talk, which I called “Figuring Out Why a Poem Doesn’t Work for Me,” is about Kaveh Akbar’s award-winning collection Calling a Wolf a Wolf. I bought this book in large measure because of the tremendous enthusiasm with which it has been received and talked about, but even though there’s a lot in it that I like–I think Akbar is a talented poet whose career will be worth following–my experience of reading this book just hasn’t lived up to the hype. I wrote this third craft-talk post to figure out why and ended up reaffirming for myself the same lesson that working on This Sentence Is A Metaphor For Bridge has been teaching me: the importance of not getting in the way of your own work, of not trying too hard to direct a poem where you think it ought to go, and how one effect of trying to do that can be that your readers will think you don’t trust them.
I first learned this lesson from an essay Hayden Carruth wrote about Robert Frost–called, simply enough, “Robert Frost”–which I read in Effluences from the Sacred Caves way back in the 1980s, when I was first starting to take myself seriously as a poet. Indeed, I learned more from this book about craft in all its aspects, and also about what it means to hold oneself and others accountable to that craft, then I did from most of the teachers I had at the time. One of the things I most respected about Carruth was that he held no one sacred. No one, in his estimation, was above criticism; and no one, certainly, was above failure. He read poetry, was deeply, deeply committed to reading poetry in the way I tell my creative writing students they need to learn to read, as a writer, not as a critic.
Over the last couple of weeks, motivated in large measure by everything I’ve written about above, I’ve been rereading Carruth’s book of essays, and while much of what he wrote about is dated–and it is, by today’s standards very white (which, from what I know about Carruth, probably devolves more from the fact that most of the pieces were commissioned than from his own sensibility)–how he writes about about poetry, the way he reads it and talks about it, seems to me as relevant today as ever.
Anyway, back to what Carruth had to say about Robert Frost:
What one finds upon reading the Collected Poems is a relatively small number of first-rate pieces and a much larger number of unsuccessful ones. I don’t mean the failures are “bad poems”; a few are, but scores and scores of them are poems that almost make it–almost but not quite. Usually they contain fine descriptions, pointed imagery, apt and characteristic language; but then at some point they turn talky, insistent, too literal, as if Frost were trying to coerce the meaning from his own poetic materials. And in fact I think this is exactly what he was trying to do. Call it vanity, arrogance, or whatever: Frost came to distrust his own imagination, and believed he could make his poems do and say what he wanted them to do and say.
In his conclusion, Carruth argues that Frost’s failed poems are in fact a gift to the rest of us, a reminder that we are all, in our own work, subject to the same “vanity, arrogance, or whatever.”
What I admired, what moved me, about Carruth’s essays when I first read them, and what I admire and am moved by when I read them now, is the simplicity and depth and breadth of his commitment to poetry, not to any one school, not to any particular notion of poetic greatness or achievement, not to any given political agenda, but simply to the idea that, because poetry is a cultural necessity (even if a culture like ours doesn’t particularly value it), writing poetry is work worth doing and worth doing well.1 Central to the art of doing it well, I am sure Carruth would agree, is having the patience not to give in to “vanity, arrogance, or whatever.”
As usual, I’d love to hear what you think. For the end of our summer, my wife and I are off to do some rail biking in the Adirondacks. I hope that whatever you’re doing, it is fun, adventurous, meaningful–or all three rolled into one.
- Which is not to say Carruth was apolitical, or that he did not have ideas about who was and who was not a great poet or about the state of poetry as an art in his time.