The shortest day. Losing the plotamus.
No, not really. That was just to get your attention. Well, it was the shortest day yesterday – but also an absolute beauty in this neck of the woods. Bright, brilliant sunshine and December gleaming for all it was worth.
But someone probably noticed I didn’t blog last week. This was because I had disappeared under the mountain of tasks, partly a result of Christmas, and partly Other Things.
Meanwhile, the submission envelopes were stacking up alarmingly, and arriving faster than I could open them. In the middle of all the December mayhem, it’s calming to sit and read poems from real people. But it’s been hard getting proper time to do that. I’m one of those people who slows down if pressure builds up. I slow down and go on longer, and dream about hippopotami (at least I did last night).
And although – yes – I do love poetry and language and all that stuff, I’m also endlessly analytical. I’ve never understood why I write what I call ‘poems’, let alone anyone else. So I constantly try to work out what’s going on and how it’s happening in the here and now, which is different from any other time as well as similar to every other time.
In last year’s December window, 77 sets of poems arrived. This year, so far, there have been 115 by post and 7 electronically, because the new online sub allows people to send up to 5 by email.
However, the online sub is now in a dodgy situation because of a new European Union VAT rule that comes into place in January. This requires the seller (me) to apply the VAT of the home country of the buyer to any digital sale. And then, obviously, to pay the appropriate sum to the tax revenue agents of the requisite country, thus making the small amount of income even smaller, and the time required to do it even greater. Insane.
But that’s just more plodding for the hippopotamiss. Meanwhile, I’m reading the poems people have sent. I was a bit worried that the online people would try to discuss the feedback with me – by email. I can’t do that because I don’t have time, even though if I were the poet, I know I would feel I wanted to explain what the sixteenth stanza meant too. But most of the poets have been admirably restrained.
Back to the postal ones, which are still arriving. And the reading.
I’m interested in the forms and shapes. It’s what I see first. What shape the poem is on the page. I flick through the set. If they’re all similar in appearance, I wonder if the poet writes all her poems that shape. To me, the shape of the poem is part of the form of the poem, which is (if the thing is a humdinger) inextricably tied up with what the poem is saying/meaning. This indefinable business of it all coming together is part of the magic. If it works, it’s astounding. And rare.
When poems are divided up into neat chunks: couplets or triplets or quatrains, that’s okay. It looks nice. It looks like a pattern, and I like patterns. If I get to the third stanza and find myself wondering why the poem’s in quatrains, it usually means it hasn’t ‘hooked’ me. Because although I am, self-confessedly, analytical, I know I’m not supposed to be analysing the stanza format while reading.
Similarly, I hate the way I go on about sentence structure or syntax. I really do. But often I get lost in the opening sentence by line three. This can happen for all sorts of reasons, not least using a sequence of words in which each one could, for a moment, be either a noun or a verb or an adjective. Something like this:
Frost walks break, cooling, and again
seasons hope open before the wheelbarrow
that peril jacks here catching all the attention! Oh I know
confusion purposes this.
Of course that was an extreme example because anyone would find it confusing. But you see my point. When you read ‘Frost walks break’, you’re not sure whether ‘walks’ or ‘break’ is the verb. Same with ‘hope’ and ‘open’.
I often draw attention to a difficulty in finding a finite verb. Oh hopping hippopotami – what is this, an English lesson? Using the term ‘finite verb’ is a short cut. I mean the bit of the verb that’s clearly attached to the subject of the sentence, the bit that completes a statement. Verb = doing/being word, right? With a finite verb, the doing/being gets done. With bits of verbs, like participles, the doing isn’t finished so you get a sentence fragment, or non-grammatical sentence. Like this:
Moving into the sun again, and coming
back and not knowing, even then, which
way the sun, the
setting sun, the falling sun.
There’s no finite verb in that group of lines. This doesn’t mean the lines are wrong. It means there’s an interesting, displaced, floating effect. No finite verb means no position in time. I could put a finite verb in, of course, and everything would change, though not necessarily for the better:
Moving into the sun again, and coming
back and not knowing, even then, which
way the sun, the
setting sun, the falling sun was going.
All the same, when reading the second version, you feel you (sort of) know where you are. You’re in the past, for a start, even though the action is fluid. But in that first sentence, the lack of a finite verb is more taxing for the reader. And that’s without even mentioning the line breaks.
Line breaks are just another poetry trick. They can accomplish all sorts of things and this is part of the fun. But they’re also little barriers, positioned deliberately. They create tiny hitches in the rhythm, or the sense, or the flow of meaning. If those tiny hitches become major snags – because you can’t see where the central thread’s going – that’s a problem, unless the poem is (in some sense or other) about confusion. Which, just to confuse the hippopotamuse further, it might be.
There are poems that manage one single sentence across three six-line stanzas. Gerry Cambridge has just sent a beauty on his Christmas card. When this works (as it did in Gerry’s case) it is a joy. In such an instance the reader glides securely through the poem like a skier in perfect snow, and then goes back and does the whole thing again. And again. Just for the pleasure of it.
But so often it doesn’t work. Many poets seem afraid to write short sentences. I suspect there’s an unconscious sense that poems shouldn’t seem easy. If they were easy to understand at first reading, would they be poems?
Well, yes. They might well be poems. Poems can do anything. Short, long, convoluted, crazy.
On balance, though, I think it’s good to keep the reader with you, at least until she gets to the end. If she falls off her skis in the middle, she may never get back on. Or she may get onto a different poem.
In my perilous feedback to poets, I’ve been doing the usual thing of drawing attention to ‘leaning verbs’, because their proliferation is still astonishing. I was amused to see the ‘Blind Criticism’ example in this month’s issue of The North has one at the very end, which puts the author (I won’t give her away) smartly into the contemp-po box. And you can see it isn’t a bad thing. But there’s something familiar about it. It’s not, to my mind, the best thing. Because the best thing is not quite like anything you’ve read before.
It’s also possible that I’m losing it. Yes, plot lost. Hippoplotamus lostus. If you read a huge quantity of poems, you can't miss the recurring trends. You can’t fail to see how often the word ‘heft’ pops up. Poor ‘heft’. Used as a verb, it was once singular and different. Not now. Lottaheftamus.
And the number of poems that follow the ‘then’ and ‘but now’ format! And the number of lines beginning with my least favourite word,‘as’. Not to mention the ubiquity of ‘we were stood’ or ‘we were satamus’, which causes me physical pain.
Sometimes I think it’s a good thing to be exquisitely sensitive to language and phrasing. Sometimes I know it’s not.
Here’s the list of contemp-po features that have been smacking me in the eye over the last ten days. I’ve modified a little since the last time round, where there was more illustration of the last two, so if you want to know more about what I meant, follow the link:
- lots of‘I’ plus present tense: ‘I see’ and ‘I watch’ and ‘I think’
- disappearing subjects (verb with no ‘I’ or ‘he’ or ‘you’)
- poems in couplets
- entire poem based on one metaphor (sometimes it works)
- over-mixed metaphor (crossed logics)
- death by adjectives
- a lot of cross-stanza enjambment
- colons, semi-colons and dashes that don’t (for me) do much
- long sentences that lose the reader
- multiple statements lacking finite verbs
- sentences or stanzas starting ‘And’ and ‘But’
- first few lines dead (no bite) or hard to follow
- titles with a witty (?) double meaning
- title steals thunder of the best (last?) line or phrase
- numerous ‘as’ sentences (see blog 26.05.2011)
- anaphora structure (eg each line begins ‘because’)
- the last word of the last line is ‘love’
- the word ‘yet’ flags an epiphany (resist! resist!)
- the word ‘for’ meaning ‘because’
- then, followed a few lines later by suddenly (regrettable in prose, let alone poetry)
- perplexing line breaks, which is nearly but not quite as bad as
- line breaks on ‘significant’ word like ‘break’ or ‘turn’ or ‘over’
- a rhyme at, or very near, the end, but none anywhere else
- no punctuation, and then some suddenly arrives
- the ‘leaning verb thing’
- the ‘how’ and ‘the way’ clause repetition
- line breaks sometimes serves as a pause (no comma) but other line breaks are enjambed so the line break isn’t a pause at all and it all gets . . . difficult
- poems that only fit comfortably on a page at least A4 in size
- ‘I was sat under a tree’; ‘we were stood by the bar’—contemporary usage that works conversationally but sits uneasily in formal writing (so sez Nellie and see OxfordWords blog on this)
- scant awareness of assonance – one of the best tricks in the book. Maybe even the best.
Back to the envelopes now. Oh, one last word. Some nice people have deferred sending poems, they tell me, because they don’t want me to be overburdened. But theirs could be the ones I would like most. I know I can’t keep this up forever. By next December, there may not be a window at all. So send them now while the hippo muse is still (relatively) amusing and before the postamus crumbles. Hip, hip, hurrotamus!