I decided to reconfigure my detailing of the creative process behind several of my previous poems for the past week by publishing a series of posts. What follows are poems 8 & 9 and ” Notes on World-building,” a short essay, more or less, about the idea of building worlds in poetry to contextualize and translate experience, ideas, and emotions. I examine a few poets who have particularly inspired me in the creation of the 30/30 Poems.
“Walking the dog to the park”
Poem for Day 8, “Walking the dog to the park,” was written around the same instant as the poem for Day 9, “Weaving,” the latter which I revisited and adapted into its dynamic structure the following evening.
The idea of this poem can be represented in its static, odd structure, beginning with a contextualizing couplet (a continuation of the title), immediately followed by a block of prose, split by slashes. The slashes obviously refer to the slats in the fence. The perspective is as static as the frozen trees; the players on the court caught in a space, fixed in “mid-leap,” the ball becoming a “fountained / arc.”
This poem owes a lot to my obsessive consumption of language poetry back in 2013-2014. I experimented heavily with how poems could be structured, encouraged by the poetry of Rukeyser, June Jordan, Jean Valentine, Juliana Spahr (the second reader of my MFA thesis), and Ted Berrigan. However, these poets don’t all fit necessarily into the school of language poetry; but let’s just assume they take a page each from William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens.
“Weaving,” like “Walking…” constructs a world. These two poems happen to take pace in a similar world (my neighborhood in Kundulun District, Baotou, back in 2015-2017). In this poem, the structure mimics the task of stripping willow leaves, bending and threading the bare branches into shapes. The third stanza parallels the visual interlacing of those discarded leaves. We’re left with the final products (those forms that pre-existed in our heads): “One helmet // One bowl // One green skull.”
Notes on World-Building in Poetry: Orr, Bishop, Valentine
In my poetics I’ve taken a line to heart from Gregory Orr in his books Poetry as Survival and Richer Entanglements. Allow me to bastardize his quote: Poems take the trauma of lived experience and frame it, creating worlds within the poem for the experienced to be contextualized and translated for the reader. I like that idea of each poem being its own world, contextualizing the initial impulse, experience, emotion–inherent raison d’etre.
Orr illustrates this contextualizing/world-building in his heartbreaking poem, “Gathering the Bones Together.” He creates this world using familiar childhood scenes replete with surrealist imagery and lyric motifs, populating that world with mourners in a house filling with smoke, a deer hanging from the rafters of a barn, snails gliding over black pools of rot as “little death-swans.” An example of this can be seen in how Orr develops an initial setting (not fixed throughout the poem):
The deer carcass hangs from a rafter.
Wrapped in blankets, a boy keeps watch
from a pile of loose hay. Then he sleeps
and dreams about a death that is coming (lines 1-4):
Setting is not necessarily indicative of world-building; what the setting does, however, is generate an ominous atmosphere, a tonal frame of sorts, as well as introducing the elements that weave in and out of the poem (a dead animal, a barn, the boy, death). All this contextualizing of tone, lyric cadence, and image is performed to express the utter horror of Orr killing his own brother in a shooting accident when they were children. The actual event is stripped of any artifice, simple incisive line-breaking and careful syntax:
A gun goes off
and the youngest brother
falls to the ground.
A boy with a rifle
stands beside him,
The tragic event is unburdened of device, nearly artless. The long poem, “Gathering the Bones,” prepares the reader for this moment–unadorned of any figurative language, juxtaposing images, or authorial tone–through the previous contextualizing at work in the different sections of the poem, building the world that houses this pivotal event in the life of this poet.
Not all experiences I wish to capture are traumatic; I’m perfectly content creating spaces and scenes, imbuing them with abstract ideas and gestures. Elizabeth Bishop provides numerous examples of this world-building in action for the sake of contextualizing memory, place, emotion, people, and ideas. The poems I have in mind are more setting-specific, with explicit locations: “The Moose,” “Cape Breton,” “At the Fishhouses,” and “In the Waiting Room.” The last poem does present a traumatic–but not tragic–pivotal childhood event–a young girl becoming aware of the world and recognizing herself as an agent in that world.
These exemplary poems are long in the tooth, patient, and highly detailed.
Someone on the short-form end of the spectrum of world building is Jean Valentine. Valentine uses white space (like the veteran L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poet that she is) to enhance the quiet dramas of her poems, or pry them open. She pushes the envelop of what a poem can look like through radical structuring. Her frequently short elliptic poems feel like miniature worlds; the poet-persona often exists in them, speaking directly to people, things, and readers in a characteristically meditative voice, ever contextualizing her dialogues and observations with familiar, personal objects. The inclusion of objects (recurring, recomposing, deconstructing), the sparseness of language, and deep intimacy of her speakers draw us into her miniature worlds.
Recurrence is tricky, especially because it references formulae. And no doubt about it, in each collection Valentine exhibits these formulae. One collection, however, Break the Glass, opens it up wide, dashing that notion of formulae. In Break the Glass, the near-eponymous poem, “If a Person Visits Someone in a Dream, in Some Cultures the Dreamer Thanks Them,” is an epistle to her deceased poet friend Reginald Shepherd (the poetry world has been incomplete without him). Here, Valentine builds a world through this letter, which is also a quilted bedspread, and a dream. The section breaking punctuation (in some print versions an asterisk–I use the same) resembles a needle pricking, stitching the diverse sections together–some halting, some spare and odd, some prosey. The contextualizing through meditative voice, image (“A pelican / out of her migratory path / […] absently pecks at her breast”), and shifting settings (“At a hotel in another star”) build a world that houses the climactic (in the online version, final) section:
Can you breathe all right?
Break the glass shout
and break the glass force the room
break the thread Open
the music behind the glass
The dramatic section, which its imperatives and spaces, feels unprecedented in this otherwise quiet, elegiac poem. Valentine contextualizes this moment–the shouting, the breaking of glass, the forcing open of doors, the splitting of threads–through juxtaposition. She builds a stark, somber world (yet brimming with warmth) that somehow houses a dramatic moment. Tension and release expertly devliered.
The poems detailed above, annotated with an eye for world-building in poetry, have inspired and challenged me. I don’t follow a single style, but I vary it up. My poems follow, rather, an impulse. But impulses don’t stand alone. They are driven by something else. And external influence (in the form of reading and thinking), is just one of those driving forces.