Thursday, June 5, 2008

Poetic Lies

As I read a poem of mine aloud to my class yesterday, I had to look at the page. Not only could I not remember the words, but it took effort to place emphasis on them. I didn't know which words were most important.

Some of this is my mediocre public speaking abilities, which I am working on. This reading was an assignment for a class I'm taking this summer called "Oral Interpretation." It's a doosy. However, I realized that I was having so much difficulty with the peom not because of my own nervousness or poor enunciation, but because the words and even the meaning of the poem had been changed drastically from the first draft.

A very short poem makes the reader think, "This must have been scrawled into a notebook at lightning speed!" As if an observation of something beautiful made an instant impression on the author and that impression turned itself, mid-reception, into alliterated and near-rhymed phrases that regurgitated onto the page. These short poems seem to let the reader in on this very intimate, transparent look at the poet's mind and methods. But it is not so.

The impressionistic qualities of a short peom are absolutely reminiscent of what inspires us to write them. Mine have been born from watching flies on a garbage can, biting into a cauliflower, and smelling tar by a railroad, to name a few triggers. And just as the reader may suspect, these thoughts are usually transcribed with great haste on any available substrate, as not to let the impression slip away.

But alliteration and near-rhymes don't often present themselves to an emotion riddled writer. Breathing in gulps of air to savor the smell of the poem's subject or watching it through the haze of stinging lids precludes checking the verses for mouthfeel and tense changes. Sometimes they come out fine just naturally. But not often.

"I could write a poem about this place,

but it would only be a fib."


There is always revision. Add some consonance here. Change the rhythm there. Make the metaphors unmixed and pure. Look at the shape of it. Try some mimesis -- parentheses? staggered lines? The finished product is not an impression, but a fabrication.

So I couldn't remember the words. I kept wanting to say "spindley spiders" where I'd revised with "silvery spiders." The workshoppers had thought the former to be too alliterative. I had changed the adjectives and verbs about the trees a hundred times, to keep the tenses straight, to make the trees alive, or to turn them back into objects. So I had no idea where to place the emphasis.

My professor is not a poet. When I realized that I was spouting poetic lies I excused myself. I was embarrassed for something only I could know. The professor didn't understand how I could have written something and not know how to say it.

I am too honest.

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