New Tallow & Glue up. Here's the entire entry, though, if you have time and can make it over to the column, I'd appreciate comments there as well.
Keeping It Real: What a good poem can do.Thanks for reading. Trying not to neglect the blog as much. More soon. With Kansas pictures too.
Though I haven’t had a lot of time as of late to participate in the workshopping of the poems bravely posted in the Monday Workshop threads, I’ve been very pleased to see that the comments have been consistently respectful and helpful and encouraging. Everyone seems to have the betterment of the poem in mind, all despite the fact that communication is not always easy when using a medium as impersonal as the internet(s).
And while I understand different people approach poetry from different avenues, I also think that often the biggest roadblock for communication about poems (especially in a workshop environment) is terminology. For example, when discussing a poem, what do we really mean when we use words like image, metaphor, cadence, breath, line break, emotion, pacing? Without common definitions, reciprocal communication falters.
I’d like to begin the discussion of this issue with the body of a poem by Jack Gilbert.
He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.
Jack Gilbert was born in 1925 and grew up in Pittsburgh. After dropping out of high school, Gilbert scraped by selling brushes door-to-door and working in the steel mills. He first began writing poems in 1947 after he was mistakenly admitted to the University of Pittsburgh due to an administrative error. From there Gilbert moved around a lot: Paris, Aix, Italy, the Haight where he was friends with Allen Ginsberg, and Greece where he lived with poet Linda Gregg for 6 years. He then married Michiko Nogami whose death from cancer became a large part of the subject matter for The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 from which the above poem was taken.
After an initial read, Gilbert’s poem may seem too imagistically simple and his use of narrative glaringly straightforward or even too emotionally plain to render a second reading. But don’t let Gilbert’s unadorned style dissuade you from reading further. Although uncomplicated in manner, Gilbert’s poems pack a punch.
Sometimes the best place to start when discussing a poem is to ask simply, “What’s happening in this poem?” or, “What’s the movie of the poem?” rather than immediately attempting to unpack a moral of the story or some conceptual life-application as if all poems were inherently parabolic. So, what do we have here?
In a nutshell, the poem is a description of the manner in which a man moves his body to accommodate the weight of a box that is too heavy. The images of the poem are clear and straightforward which is accomplished by employing a precise diction (word choice), words like: underneath, against, hooking, gives out, pulling, thumbs, fingers, shoulder, slightly, stretched up, numb. His sentences and grammar, his use of clear and exact prepositions, verbs, nouns, adverbs, adjectives, his overall use of language, is extremely exact, which begs the question: Why write like this? Isn’t a poem supposed to be confusing, indirect, opaque? Something the reader can never really understand? Well, not necessarily.
I began by saying the poem is a description of the manner in which a man carries a heavy box, and I think that’s right, but isn’t there something more going on here? Take a look at those first three words, “He manages like....” So much is accomplished by those three words. We have a subject for the poem: a man. And although we don’t know the reason, we know what he does: he manages. And then there’s that tricky third word, “like” which makes a simile (a comparison using “like” or “as”) of how the man manages.
Literally speaking, there is no heavy box in the literal story of the poem. If there is a story, it’s a very simple one, two words in fact: “He manages.” What is so fantastic about this poem is that Gilbert is comparing the way the man manages something to the way one might carry a very heavy box. Two words spin out via the simile into thirteen lines of perfect description.
As a reader, you are there with the man. You can feel the box. You can feel the pain in your muscles. You can feel your fingers tighten. You can feel the weight shift. You can feel the heaviness. It’s the simple, clear description that makes this possible, that gives you access to the poem, that illuminates something in your own life. You become that man in the poem and the box becomes whatever is heavy in your own life, whatever it is that you manage.
At the same time, you may be asking, “So what. What’s the poem about for the writer? Why even write this?” You may be wondering about Gilbert’s inspiration of the poem. But, do we really need to know this to get something from the poem? Do we really need to know the writer’s or poem’s “backstory,” that which is behind the poem, to “get something” from it?
I would argue that we don’t. The description and movement combined with the structure of the poem gives us access to the larger importance of the poem. And this is something we all should strive for in our own writing: that we be clear in our poems. Poems needn’t be riddles. If the writing is clear and precise, your reader won’t need the “backstory.” But for those of you still asking for a little “backstory,” here’s the title of the poem: Michiko Dead.
Another word that gets tossed around in workshops is “abstract.” But, what do we mean by this?
I believe the word “abstract” is often used incorrectly. The denotation of “abstract” is a concept or term that does not correspond to a concrete object. These are concepts like goodness, justice, beauty, etc. All of those Platonic ideals. Words that encompass ideas. Colloquially though, I think we use not the definition of the word but rather its connotation.
When something is “abstract” it is open to subjective interpretation, it’s meaning is not nailed down, and this is often thought of being a positive quality in poems because this type of language seems more inclusive. Yes, we do want to be inclusive, but, if you’re writing a poem and you have something you want to say, why be vague about it? Why use theoretical or intangible language? Why skirt around the issue in an attempt to be all-encompassing when concrete description and clear and precise and concrete imagery will actually more fully say what it is that you really intend?
At the same time I do understand why using abstract language and imagery seems like the right thing to do. It’s because the subject matter of the poem feels so emotionally huge that the only way to even approach describing it is through diction that feels equally large, important, and lofty. But, I would argue, this type of diction only ends up confusing and frustrating the reader who simply wants to know what it is you’re talking about, what it is you have to say. They just want you to “keep it real.”
Here’s another Gilbert poem from The Great Fires that “keeps it real.”
I came back from the funeral and crawled
around the apartment, crying hard,
searching for my wife's hair.
For two months got them from the drain,
from the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator,
and off the clothes in the closet.
But after other Japanese women came,
there was no way to be sure which were
hers, and I stopped. A year later,
repotting Michiko's avocado, I find
a long black hair tangled in the dirt.
To paraphrase Emily Dickinson, you can recognize a good poem when it lops off the top of your head. This poem does that because every fiber of the poem resists abstraction and vague subjectivity. As with “Michiko Dead,” the images of the poem are concrete, precise, and clear. It’s not open to interpretation. There’s nothing confusing about it. Gilbert says what he means, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. As a result we have a clear picture of the story and its emotion and are devastated.
That’s what a good poem can do.
“Michiko Dead” and “Married” from The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 by Jack Gilbert. Copyright © 1994 by Jack Gilbert.