Thursday, March 29, 2012


Ever notice how often you hear phrases like, “Oh, it was like . . . ” or “Let me tell you what it felt like—it felt like . . . . “ Maybe some day neuroscientists will be able to pin point (note the figure of speech) a region (another figure of speech) in the human brain that has to do with metaphor and simile. (Maybe other animals have this too, for all I know—chimps? whales?—I have my doubts about ants and salamanders). 
In any case, I’m referring to a natural, perhaps biologically-driven, propensity we have to compare one thing with another thing.  Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, A. E. Housman, Robert Frost—all of the poets we admire and whose poems we remember, were experts in metaphor, that’s for sure. T.S. Eliot was once asked what, for him, were the greatest lines of English poetry, and he answered (without hesitation, I understand) by quoting Horatio’s two lines spoken to Hamlet: 

But look, the Morn, in russet mantle clad,                                         
walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill.

Can you see what Horatio is saying? Can you see the morning as a person dressed in “russet” (the color of the sun) clothing, “walking over the “dew of yon high eastern hill”? (the sun rising in the East?) And it seems to have just flowed out of Shakespeare’s pen, his mind—it seems so naturally conceived and spoken. He must have been in love with metaphor by the age of three! Some people, once they have read or heard what Horatio said, can no longer see a sunrise without recalling the lines. 
Consider some more metaphors from a list I once made up for my classes:

R. Eberhart describing a swarm of bees over an ocean as

              a great banner waving from the sea

Eberhart describing cancer cells viewed through a microscope as

              a virulent, laughing gang

The prose writer Aldo Leopold also described 

                banners of geese . . .

G.M. Hopkins describing thunder as
              floors of sound (a tactile metaphor)

M. Moore describing a butterfly’s movements through the air:

              The butterfly bobs like wreckage on the sea.

K. Patchen:
Sun on his naked shoulder     
like a sparkling hand . . .
L. Simpson describing covered wagons coming over a hill as
                   white skulls

D. Thomas describing the death of an old woman:

                   Her fist of a face died clenched on a round pain . . .

Poe describing a calm sea as

                    . . . a wilderness of glass . . .

Sylvia Plath describing pears on trees as

                   . . . little Buddhas . . .

Some poet (forgot who) describing the universe as

                    . . . a deep throw of stars

A junior high student describing the wind in one line:

                   The eternal moving van hauling the sands of time.

Yeats’ last two lines of a poem: 

I must lie down where all the ladders start,                                
In the foul rang-and-bone shop of the heart. 
Karl Shapiro describing teenagers in an old-fashioned drug store:

          . . . they slump in booths like rags,

          not even drunk.

                   Bill Knott describing a woman, saying 

                             Your eyelashes are a narcotic.     
            *    *     *

Randall Jarrell began a poem about a woman (whose good friend has died) shopping in a supermarket (“Next Day”) in this way:

                     Moving from Cheer to Joy from Joy to All . . .

(Since I read the poem maybe 30 years ago, I’ve hardly ever been able to walk down the detergents isle of a super market without the line coming to me.)    

Metaphor and simile are essentially the same thing, except that with simile a poet uses words such as “like” or “as.” “Time is like . . .” “My love is like a red, red rose . . .” Sometimes it works better to use “like” or “as” instead of saying just “is.” “My love is a red, red rose” is fine too, but the word “like” gives the line and image a bit more force, I think.  

Beware of clichés and bad metaphors, and don’t mix your metaphors; that is, don’t start out calling something a doorknob and end up calling it a mouse’s whisker, unless you’re working with humor. To say a person is “sharp as a tack” is an interesting image, but of course it’s a cliché. How about “hotter than Hell?” It’s a cliché that’s been around for so long that we even hear things like: “It’s colder than Hell,” or “He’s taller than Hell.” (can you picture those?) Poets, of course, generally avoid clichés, but sometimes they employ them with uniqueness, as in “Once upon a time” becoming, with Dylan Thomas, “Once below a time.” Or: “Anyone lived in a pretty how town.”—cummings—we may have heard something like “Oh how pretty that town is . . .”)

Robert Frost has a line in “Birches,” which was, I’m convinced, influenced strongly by P.B. Shelly’s lines in “Adonais,” which go like this:  

Life like a dome of many-colored glass                                         
stains the white radiance of Eternity.

Here’s what Frost wrote in his poem: 

Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away,                                
You’d think the inner dome of Heaven had fallen.

Do you agree that Frost was definitely aware of Shelly’s lines when he wrote “Birches”?  

You might, for an assignment for yourself, want to look at an object in your     house or yard and then compare it with something very unlike that object—to see if you can make a connection anyway. Do it with several objects—see if you can discover something unique and interesting—“like eggs laid by tigers,” as Dylan Thomas once said. Metaphor, of course, can bring two things together than seem totally different. Karl Shapiro began his poem about a housefly (“The Fly”) with this line: 

                   O hideous little bat, the size of snot . . .

Well, yes, they are nasty, those little creatures. Later in the poem he speaks of a horse’s tail fending off flies:

At your approach the great horse stomps and paws,           
bringing the hurricane of his heavy tail.

Wonderful poetry, for sure. Note not just the metaphor in “hurricane of his heavy tail” but the three “h” sounds in succession, which imitate the sound of the wind. Hhhhhhhhhhhhh. Hurricane and tail: at first they don’t seem to have any connection. But what if you were a fly?     

Monday, March 19, 2012

3. Poetry is concise

     Poetry is, as Shakespeare—the greatest poet of the English language—put it, “the force of few words.” If you can say what you have to say in eight words, why use nine or ten or 24? Of course, sometimes, for an effect, you may want to use more words . . .  again, there are always exceptions.  But brevity is certainly one of the most important characteristics of poetry—being able to say something interesting in just a few well-chosen words.

Who knows for sure (there are no fossils to prove it), but I like to think that the very first poets were those who had a talent or gift for conciseness. What most people, trying to say something, would struggle with, using 25 to 50 words, those original poets could put into one short burst of words, maybe 5 or 10 at most. And I’ll bet they also had a gift for finding an image to say what they had to say. And so, these early poets may have been quite useful to the communities they lived in, especially if what they had to say had an impact on survival, and was even memorable for a lot of people.    

Maybe you’re familiar with the shortest poem in history? Check it out in the book of records. It’s called “Fleas,” and has two short lines, and it even rimes:

Did you know that the great boxer Ali was a poet? Here’s a short one by       him, the title of which is ME?


Quite concise, you’ll have to agree, though there’s a bunch of “we’s" in it.     
When it comes to conciseness in poetry, haiku is the best example I can think of. It consists of three lines, with a pattern of 5-7-5 syllables. There’s also loose or nontraditional haiku, a lot of which is being written these days (along with traditional haiku). In this case, a haiku can be just one line, or two, and the number of syllables will vary.

Let me give you some examples of haiku (the word is both singular and plural). Consider Basho, the most famous haiku writer of all, and one of his most famous haiku:

                   a crow alights
                   on a withered branch—
                   autumn evening

(translated from the Japanese, and so the syllable count is not 5-7-5 in English.)
          Notice the following characteristics of Basho’s haiku, and of haiku in general:

1.   Simplicity, which comes from literalness, directness—no wasted words, and generally no abstract words such as “love,” “beauty,” “joy,” etc.—straight talk, and image-making (no messing around).
2.   Imagery—typically a haiku will contain details from the observation of nature. All haiku contain some kind of imagery, often just one detail of observation—which can amount to a revelation.
3.   The identification of a season, in Basho’s case, Autumn. This doesn’t mean that you have to name a season—all you have to do is mention falling leaves (fall) or snow (winter) and that is sufficient. You’ll find that a haiku doesn’t always indicate a season of the year, but usually it does—and I understand that this seasonal reference was there in the earliest haiku, which came from Japan .
4.   Lack of metaphor and simile—why? Because haiku in effect says that the world is the world, things are what they are. Haiku emphasize the “is-ness” and “such-ness” of things.
5.   Two-part structure—notice the dash after “branch”—which often allows the poem to end on some sort of revelation or insight: when “a crow alights on a withered branch,” that single detail of nature means, simply, that it is autumn.  
6.   The connectedness of all things—as I understand it, in Buddhism (which haiku is informed by), you understand that everything is connected with everything else—if you deleted just one wave from an ocean, that ocean would no longer exist; if you removed one person from the universe, the universe would no longer exist—“All things are one thing, and that one thing is all things” (John Steinbeck’s words) .
7.   Present tense—a haiku is almost always in present tense, the NOW—everything in a haiku is happening right now, as it’s perceived by the haiku poet, and by the reader of the haiku. Not yesterday or tomorrow or next week. Nowness is extremely important in Buddhist thinking.

 A few more examples of haiku by past haiku writers:  

my clogs stick in the mud

even though the temple bell
stops ringing, the sound keeps
coming out of the flowers

fish shop—
how cold the lips
of the bream!

two of my own haiku:

         the man repairing
the old fence looks up with two
nails between his lips
the rain-washed stone toad
in the bird bath: clean Buddha  
looking at the yard
a  few recent, non-traditional haiku:

in a paper cup—
a long way from home
                   --Gary Hotham

soldier unfolding the scent of a letter
--Chad Lee Robinson, an SDSU graduate, and well-known haiku poet—you can look him up on the web, where you’ll find hundreds of haiku by all kinds of haiku poets

crossing a bridge
I enter her
time zone
          --Chad Lee Robinson

weight lifter
slowly lifting
the tea cup
          --Garry Gay

letting go
                of the oars . . .
                             spring breeze
                   --Chad Lee Robinson

The haiku tradition is of course Asian, and Asian poetry and art and thinking have been influencing Western and American poetry and art, as well as psychology, and everything else (maybe you’ve heard of mindfulness meditation, for example?) for a long time. I’ve lived in China for a total of two years, and I’ve been influenced by Chinese and Japanese poetry and philosophy. What impresses me always is the brevity, the suggestiveness of Asian art. These poets and artists don’t overdo; they imply and suggest, and leave the rest up to the reader or looker. There is a very strong sense of being able to say a lot in a few words, in poetry, for instance. But this is true in painting as well, for instance in Chinese paintings of bamboo. A few brush strokes will suffice, but there’s plenty of experience and expertise behind each of those brush strokes. I once talked to a Chinese artist who said that American artists, in his opinion, tend to “put too much into their paintings.” He said that in a Chinese painting, if the artist includes a fish, he or she doesn’t have to include water as well, since it’s obvious that a fish lives in water! That’s the attitude I’m speaking of:  in other words, “less is more.” A good attitude to cultivate as a poet. I suppose F. Scott Fitsgerald was right when he said that some writers are “putter inners” and some are “leaver outers.” Poets are the latter kind, no doubt. See the poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” if you haven’t already seen it. It’s by Wallace Stevens. Each stanza is a short poem, almost a haiku.

Of course there are all kinds of short poems. The old GREEK ANTHOLOGY contains short, epigrammatic poems, which have had a great influence on poetry all over the world. (see for instance, A SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY by Edgar Lee Masters.)Consider these two poems from the American poet, John Frederick Nims, in his book OF FLESH AND BLOOD. The first poem is called “Transfusion,” the second, “Pastoral.”

                         Once Cruddy in the countryside
                         touched poison ivy. And it died. 

                         Three rattlers sank their fangs in Dr. Crudd.
                         "Thank you," he bowed. "It much improves the blood." 

(healthy attitude in this second poem--agree?)  Finally, let me suggest that you may be a poet who works well with short bursts of words. Give it a try. Maybe that’s the way you want to make your poems because that’s the way you can do it best. A matter of short and sweet. Nothing wrong with that.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

2: Repetition is often at the heart of good poetry.

According to the poet Theodore Roethke, “Repetition  . . . is the very essence of poetry.” Repetition can involve words, phrases, lines, meter, rime—all kinds of things. It certainly is an aid to memory, and so it is often involved in why a poem becomes memorable. Take a look at the book of Psalms in the Bible, or Ecclesiastes, especially the latter: “A time to . . . a time to . . . . Does the use of repetition mean that the poem is always going to work? Of course not. But it often helps. And here’s another point: when you repeat something in a poem, such as a refrain, make sure it’s worth repeating. In the song/poem, the line, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” is worth repeating, and it sets up the entire song: “Where have all the young men gone?” Also, note the power of: “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” in the same song.

Nursery rimes, of course, contain a lot of repetition. Sometimes this is in the rhythm/meter, as in “One, two, buckle my shoe . . . .” “Hinx, minx, the old witch winks . . . .” Metered poetry is naturally repetitious: “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?” says Christopher Marlowe in a famous poem. Da DA da DA da DA da DA da DA? And then this same rhythm—iambic pentameter—is repeated throughout the poem. All of Shakespeare’s plays, and his sonnets and long poems, are written in iambic pentameter (though there is some prose in the plays). Consider, for example, from ROMEO AND JULIET:
“But soft, what light from yonder window breaks,” says Romeo, looking up at Juliet on the balcony. Then:
“It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” All iambic pentameter. And it sounds like someone talking too! Agree? A famous actor once said that Shakespeare’s lines are “stickable,” that is, they stick in the memory easily, readily. He was a playwright, of course, not only a poet. And—he was an actor.

Your poem may be structured on a pattern of repetition, for instance, if you begin every stanza with the same phrasing. Lately I did this in a poem in which every stanza begins with “When.” “When I pick up . . ., When I walk . . . ” and so on. It’s probably one of the oldest devices in poetry. And it’s a universal. All human cultures have poetry, and poetry generally contains that universal characteristic known as repetition.

The catalogue poem is based on repetition. Typically, every line begins with the same syntax, as in the famous catalogue poem by Christopher Smart about his cat: “For I will consider my cat Jeoffry/ For he . . . .” etc. You might want to look at the poem if you haven’t already.

Whitman’s free verse contains a lot of repetition:

           . . . what I shall assume, you shall assume . . .
. . . When I heard the learn’d astronomer . . .                                 

when the proofs, the figures were arranged in columns before me . . .

And Carl Sandburg and Allen Ginsberg—who owed much to Whitman’s poetry—also used plenty of repetition in their work.

You might want to write a catalogue poem in which you begin every line with the same phrase—try to think up an unusual, interesting phrase to use, not something you’ve seen before. The lucky thing about doing a catalogue poem is that you don’t have to worry about an ending, since all you need to do is just stop. You don’t have to invent any conclusion or final stanza or line.  Just stop. And there is your ending.

Another assignment you might give yourself: find a poem that you like a lot, a poem that’s structured on repetition, and use its repetitious structure in your own way to make your own poem. I recommend blatant imitation to poets who haven’t yet written much poetry, and even to those who have. I tell them: imitate other poets’ poems deliberately, and find out how their poems “work.” And remember too that “there’s nothing new under the sun.” That is, those poets whose poems you imitate or emulate, also imitated and stole from (T.S. Eliot’s phrase) what they were reading. We’re all imitators, emulators. That’s how we find out how poetry works. After awhile, we break away from our “models” and strike out on our own. But we always owe a lot to the poets who came before us, and showed us how to make poems, just as they learned from the poets whose works they read and imitated.

Want to be a good bull rider? Then you have to go to rodeos and watch the bull riders, observe them carefully, even take notes. Then when you get up on the bull you’ll know a whole lot more about what you need to do than if you hadn’t gone to rodeos and observed bull riders doing what they do. See what I mean? The same is true for writing poetry. Theodore Roethke said that the ability to write poetry is related to the ability to remember. Remember what? One thing for sure: the poems you’ve read. So, be a reader of poetry, as well as a writer of it.