I really enjoyed these two linked lectures, in which two poets put forth theories that you can see them engaging directly in their own poetic craft. Dora Malech focuses on “inconstancy” and the excitement that happens when the speaker of a poem changes her mind. Tarfia Faizullah talks about vulnerability as a key tool, an issue that I’ve also discussed in relation to writing personal nonfiction (link to downloadable essay, here). They use these concepts as ways to think about bringing multiple selves into our poems.
The assignments at the end relate mostly to Dora’s lecture. Tarfia’s portion starts at 12:11.
[This post is part of a series of my notes on a video lectures from the free How Writers Write Poetry e-course from The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.]
On Syntactic Turns and Multiple Selves
Dora Malech = two collections of poetry + Ruth Lily Fellowship
“The word” is a promise, a contract, faith and constancy. This urge can carry over into our writing, but is not always helpful. It can stand in the way of discovery.
“No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”
In “the poems that excite us and that become touchstones for us in our own lives, we find that there’s an element of inconstancy, of change, of going back on one’s words. And that is, in a way, the kind of hallmark of a writer like Shakespeare.” His sonnets are full of coordinating conjunctions, “that I like to call hinge words, words where you watch a mind change.”
So we watch a mind not giving us a clear stance, but “wrestling with an issue, a question, an emotion, a state of mind.”
Example: Woman’s Constancy by John Donne
“In our myths, that idea of inconstancy is so often negative. Orpheus turns around and he’s punished. Lot’s wife looks back and she’s punished. And so poetry becomes this place where we can go to dignify and find beauty in the ways in which we can’t keep our word, the ways in which we are unfaithful and that’s part of the human condition on some level.”
Ways to create change of mind in a poem:
- hinge words: or, but, though, if, unless.
- break the metrical contract — change the expectation
- the nature of the metaphor
Example: Sailing to Byzantium by W. B. Yeats. Uses both: the meter changes after the word unless.
Example: Free Union (L’Union Libre) by Andre Breton uses multiple images/metaphors for the wife, to demonstrate the shifting nature of the bond.
Example: Facing It by Yosef Komunyakaa. Notice the turn after the word No. It’s beautiful to inhabit multiple truths at once; you don’t have to choose one or the other.
“In a world in which fact and reason are valued, in which politicians are called flip-floppers if they change their mind, in which our word is our bond, we’re supposed to be men and women of our words, poetry is a place where we can go to find the thrilling plurality of our words, in which we can be men and women of all of our words. … So I would encourage you to give me, your reader, not only your word, singular, but the thrilling plurality of your words. … You can show the reader that they’re not alone in their stumbling, in their stuttering, in their confusion, in their uncertainty.”
On Syntax and Vulnerability
Tarfia Faizullah = editor of the Asian Literary Review + winner of awards + Fulbrighter + lives in Detroit + author of Seam on Bangladeshi war rape survivors
“Syntax is identity.” – Li-Young Lee
Poetry allows the self to be multiple. “As an individual, for example, I am a Bangladeshi- American, Brooklyn-born, raised in West Texas, currently living in Detroit woman. And as a self, I am somebody who is very concerned with how to both, how to live outside of those prescribed categories while also allowing those categories to remain as fully intact as possible.”
That’s why we say “the speaker” not “the poet” when talking about the voice of a poem; it allows for the fact that it could be a multiple aspect of the poet.
Distinction between confessionalism (subjective) and autobiography (objective). Vulnerability = owning the various phases and multiple histories we’ve been through, and how this can allow us to write in many different modes. Break through categories and ideologies.
Globalization is happening but we are not all learning/globalizing at the same rate. Delving into our own inner lives enables us to be more empathetic to each other and also ourselves.
Key questions: “How do we write a truly vulnerable poem that is informed by our experiences and our perspectives, but not necessarily beholden to them? … How do we marry content and form in order to create a truly human poem?”
Vulnerability is what’s really happening in American poetics right now. It enables poets to use a lot of different techniques and tools, not fidelity to one aesthetic or movement.
Example: In Black and White by Erica Dawson. She is a neo-formalist and fearless in what she brings into a rigidly formal structure. Pop culture, vernacular language, gestures come into the poem.
You don’t need to just rely on description. Syntax can create atmosphere, orient the reader — not just in time and place but also in a set of concerns, emotional or intellectual.
Example: There Are Birds Here by Jamaal May. Uses a single word to describe the phenomenon of looking: “no.” Talks back at the reader to transcend the stereotypical idea of what Detroit is. There is an “I” but it describes the full self that is paying attention, not a personal/individual history. It asks us to consider a landscape in a very expansive yet precise way.
“All earthly experience is partial.”
“I can only define it as kind of gradual accumulation of information and as a specialization. You can know more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing. It’s hopeless – so that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects.”
Vulnerability allows us to accept this uncertainty and that we’ll never fully know everything, and still talk about multiple possibilities of the “ghostly objects.”
• A sonnet which has a major change/turn – voice, style, sonic possibility, attention, argument.
• Write a poem with six hinge words — such as and, but, or, nor, yet, so, until, except, unless, no, not, or any other word or phrase that turns the logic of your sentence.