Thursday, September 29, 2011

Self-Consciousness aka I Hope Everyone is *Well* Impressed

Comic by Toothpaste For Dinner

I'm becoming a fan of Billy Collins. He's witty and funny in the work I've seen so far and I like that.  I think it's difficult to do - difficult to be funny in a poem and have it express the humor genuinely and not come off too jokey, of limerick proportions. What better place to look at self consciousness, right? 

Billy Collin's poem Workshop is an excellent example of humor and self consciousness done right.  The poem itself is about the act of critiquing one's own work and the work of others. It is incredibly clever, with lines in it that reveals some of the truth of the process of critiquing using humor as a tool.  The first few lines set the rhetorical tone for the piece: "I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title./It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now/ so immediately the poem has my attention". 

I was grinning right away because even though I may not have heard this exact phrase before, I know I have in some form or another. The diction in this is important as well because it reinforces the rhetoric by lending a  "common" voice to the speaker of the poem - it is clearly meant to be a person in a workshop critiquing a poem. From the perspective of self-consciousness, the choice of this person as the speaker of the poem is important; the tone of the poem with this content changes dramatically with changes in the speaker.

The trope of a student/work-shopper continues throughout the poem. Lines like the following ones again bring humor and rhetorical perspective: "I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges/which gives me a very clear picture."

What I found interesting in this line though is that is was one of the strongest, image-wise, but it still doesn't diverge from the rhetorical stance that the poem has created.  It also is hilarious. I can hear someone saying this in class and if I'm honest, it's one of those comments that makes me feel like maybe we bullshit each other a bit too much at times. On the other hand, it reveals the literal self-consciousness that students of poetry share.  We aren't experts, and for the most part, we're just responding to what we like. This thread is picked up again and again in this poem, tying various levels of self-consciousness, the figurative, in the perspective of the speaker and the literal in the diction of the poet, which is especially illustrated in the fifth stanza:
             Maybe it’s just me, 
            And what’s an obbligato of snow? 
            Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets. 
            At that point I’m lost. I need help. 

The concept of "self-consciousness" is very evident in this poem.  Diction choices like "obbligato" and "decaffeinated" show an attention to detail in this poem but also points to the pit-falls of over-working. It proves that there is a place for it and that it is effective when not over-done. I think if it were written without out it, it wouldn't be as effective because it takes attention to detail and consistency of voice in this poem for the humor and rhetoric to be successful. Otherwise it could turn into pure absurdity, flat and uninteresting, or come of as heavy-handed and condescending.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Image, Diction, Rhetoric - Analyzing Grandma's and Oranges

        --Gary Soto

The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore. We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted -
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickle in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn’t say anything.
I took the nickle from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady’s eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all

A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl’s hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.

Soto's poem, like so many others, is a combination of image, diction, and rhetoric.  The diction in this maybe the weakest as it doesn't call upon much beyond the actual meaning of the words, but it doesn't detract from the poem, it is what allows the rhetoric and the images to do their work.  Image and rhetoric are on even keel with one another, supporting each other.  Soto's images are vivid, they are truly the first element that is seen in this poem.  Soto uses colors and rich sensory language to craft his images.  Similarly, he crafts images that work like diction works - images that evoke nostalgic responses in the reader that have far reaching historic values ascribed to them.  By partnering image and rhetoric in this way, Soto creates a potent and absorbing poem; one that is familiar to the reader, even if they have not experienced this scenario themselves.  Soto uses image and rhetoric to tap into our shared cultural experience of young life and love.

The Morning Baking

--Carolyn Forché

Grandma, come back, I forgot
How much lard for these rolls

Think you can put yourself in the ground
Like plain potatoes and grow in Ohio?

I am damn sick of getting fat like you
Think you can lie through your Slovak?

Tell filthy stories about the blood sausage?
Pish-pish nights at the virgin in Detroit?

I blame your raising me up for my Slav tongue
You beat me up out back, taught me to dance

I'll tell you I don't remember any kind of bread
Your wavy loaves of flesh

Stink through my sleep
The stars on your silk robes

But I'm glad I'll look when I'm old
Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk

Copyright © 1976 Carolyn Forché. All Rights Reserved.

Forché's poem takes a similar approach, in that she combines each of these elements, but in this case, I see each of these elements working in tandem, at the same time. I like this because it allows me to see which element is most potent, with all parts being equal.  With words like "plain" she calls upon the iconography of the midwest, but also the words other meanings - unattractive, straightforward, a field of land.  This is just one of the many brilliant moments of diction in this poem.

The imagery is also very vivid.  Lines like "your wavy loaves of flesh/Stink through my sleep" are born in an instant in the minds eye; like Soto's poem, the picture is painted clearly and one is able to identify and call forth the image even without direct experience, because we share it already. Imagery is the most immediate and powerful vehicle a poem can utilize and this poem uses it effectively.

Though images are powerful and diction adds complexity and layers of meaning, it is rhetoric that guides the reader though the poem, though the experience and points to what the poet wants to share through the poem.  Without rhetoric, the poem can often be just an exercise - a game of language. For me, rhetoric is what elevates a poem from a cathartic exercise to an observation of the human condition, something that allows us to express the sensations of life that can't merely be said, but can only be pointed to.

The when image, diction and rhetoric are used like this, they add extraordinary complexity and layers of meaning that make poetry a wonderful well that can be drawn from again and again.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Notes on Kinnell's “Sheffield Ghazal 4: Driving West”

                                    ---Galway Kinnell
A tractor-trailer carrying two dozen crushed automobiles
   overtakes a tractor-trailer carrying a dozen new.
Oil is a form of waiting.
The internal combustion engine converts the stasis of
   millennia into motion.
Cars howl on rain-wetted roads.
Airplanes rise through the downpour and throw us through
   the blue sky.
The idea of the airplane subverts earthly life.
Computers can deliver nuclear explosions to precisely
   anywhere on earth.
A lightning bolt is made entirely of error.
Erratic Mercurys and errant Cavaliers roam the highways.
A girl puts her head on a boy's shoulder; they are driving west.
The windshield wipers wipe, homesickness one way, wanderlust
   the other, back and forth.
This happened to your father and to you, Galway -- sick to
   stay, longing to come up against the ends of the earth,
   and climb over.

I think that image works hand in hand with the diction of this poem to channel the rhetoric revealed at the end of the poem.  Kinnell writes some excellent images in this poem and uses them to transport the reader to this associative mindscape of beatnik style road-wandering. The images give the narrative interest and strength, they keep the reader reading, even when the associations and the literal meaning of the language doesn't make clear sense.  I think image is especially important here because it is vital to the effectiveness of the diction Kinnell employs and it is also important for the ghazal form, loosely associated images are center-stage in a ghazal, and Kinnell does them well.

This poem is the first example Hoagland gives for his discourse on diction. This poem survives on it, it is the flesh of the poem. The diction is what forges the connection between the images that Kinnell creates and the rhetoric that is to follow. Through the diction in this poem, Kinnell is able to call upon the nostalgia, the sentiment and the mythos of America and American identity, as well as the underside of it - consumerism, the nonchalance of our environmental impact, etc. All of this is conveyed in a few lines and it is done effectively with the diction in this poem. He does it by using "speech that is consciously making reference to the history of its usage" (Hogland, Tony Real Sofistikashun, p. 7).

This is the skeleton on which all of the rest of this hangs. Without the rhetoric, the direction of the poem would be lost and scattered, resulting in a flat, derivative poem instead of the vivid, associative, and interesting poem that "Driving Westward" is. Hogland points to the last few lines as the moment of rhetoric for this poem but I think it occurs throughout.  The lines about oil, the first few on crushed and new cars, all of these lines hold a level of rhetoric in them especially when you consider diction and image.  The combination of them, and the juxtaposition of images gives shape and form to the rhetoric of the poem.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

I Go Back to May, 1937

PBS/The Poetry Foundation - Poetry Everywhere

There are things that I liked and didn't like about Sharon Olds' reading of her poem I Go Back to May, 1937. The poem is excellent and the metaphors are striking. One of my favorites is "the/ red tiles glinting like bent/plates of blood behind his head..." The poem is carnal and violent and tumultuous. A screaming scene of an accident the reader and the speaker of the poem can do nothing about except witness it. Which is what makes it so interesting. Olds reading of it, on the other hand is the opposite. It is calm and measured. There are only small increases in volume or emotion in the delivery of the poem.

She uses what my wife calls "the annoying poetry voice" or the "annoying therapist voice". I don't find the voice or delivery annoying, but in the case of this poem, I don't think that style of delivery serve the poem as well as a more animated delivery might. I think that Olds' delivery distances the listener from one of the strengths of the poem. The immediateness of the emotion and turmoil of the poem's speaker and the intensity of the subject matter. One thing I really didn't like about the reading Olds gives is the slow singling out of the last word. I can't think of why it would be done and I think it, again, represses the energy of the poem.

I do like "the annoying poetry voice" because when done right, it delivers an auditory layout of the punctuation and line breaks of the poem. I like that because it demonstrates the craft of poetry that tends to become somewhat muddled or invisible in readings. I've always been told that line breaks and punctuation have audible expression in poetry, that they have assigned pauses and silences when reading it, but many times, when hearing others read, they aren't incorporated. Olds does a good job of including them, and so I enjoyed that aspect of her reading, I just wish there was more of a happy medium between the stripping of emotional potency of a piece and skilled, clear delivery for this poem.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

What The Dead Bring

 The Dead 

           --Susan Mitchell

At night the dead come down to the river to drink.
They unburden themselves of their fears,
their worries for us. They take out the old photographs.
They pat the lines in our hands and tell our futures,
which are cracked and yellow.
Some dead find their way to our houses.
They go up to the attics.
They read the letters they sent us, insatiable
for signs of their love.
They tell each other stories.
They make so much noise
they wake us
as they did when we were children and they stayed up
drinking all night in the kitchen.

Susan Mitchell's poem The Dead was one of my favorites of the second week. It reads as part ghost story, part nostalgic poem. I think a number of things worked for this poem, most notably, the imagery and rhetoric of the piece as well as the inclusion of the ghost/death theme.  It keeps the poem fresh and able to call on the readers emotional responses without being flat, trite, or overly nostalgic. 

I liked it because it uses a combination of imagery and rhetoric to relate the narrative.  There is a sequence of events, but it isn't strictly narrative. The poem is evocative; it pulls on the reader emotionally and intellectually. The connections aren't readily made for you. The language paints the image and Mitchell relies on our natural tendency to create and forge associations between the images and meaning. Sometimes blurring the lines in between.

Mitchell misleads the reader in a way by ascribing attributes to "the dead" that they can't have, such as worry, or burdens, or even the act of drinking. She makes them ghosts, parents, lovers, fortunetellers, but though our emotions, though the mismatch of the dead with things that only the living can feel and do, she makes them us, the readers - the people left behind by the dead. By the end of the poem you realize that it's you drinking and remembering, you seeking out the word crisscross of folds in an old love letter, and you, keeping your kids up, passing on the memories and heartache that will belong to them next.  It gives the poem a level of folk-tale and evokes the tradition of oral storytelling, which is what I think works best for this poem.