The Pressure of Silence, Poems Like People, and the Pleasures of Digging Snow
"Much contemporary verse is colloquial, prosaic, apparently 'free,' going about its business without rhyme or meter or stanzaic pattern of any kind. But such poems, to survive, need two essential components: first, their makers need to have truly mastered line-break, which is simply to say that he or she can keenly feel the pressure of silence; second, the poem must act upon you in a way that resembles a human encounter. For alone, in your memory, you, you, what's the difference -- to the cells, to the synapses -- between a poem you remember and a person you recall? You want lamps to go on." --from the essay/chapter "Black" in On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell
On Poetry is one of the best books on prosody. It's more entertaining and far less technical than Robert B. Shaw's "Blank Verse," but both books together provide a fairly robust (and readable) education in poetry. This quote is another pulled from my last journal, part of my "archive-and-actually-'use'-the-material-you-wrote-down-there-dummy" project for this blog.
Maxwell's "pressure of silence" is such an accurate description of line break. And his axiom that "the poem must act upon you in a way that resembles a human encounter," is one that I've been imparting to my students ever since I read the line -- it's a quick, easily applied criteria for both reader and writer: does the poem live and breathe? Does it seem like someone you'd like to spend time with? If the poet is honest with herself, this criteria really helps trim away detritus. It helps her know when a collection of lines and stanzas on a page has moved beyond the mechanics of verse and into the realm of poetry. Which brings to mind dear old Walcott:
In one of my graduate classes, back when I was a fucking baby with stars in my eyes, Derek Walcott said that most of what we write, if we're lucky, is just good verse. Every once in a while (for him), or once in a lifetime (me), we write a poem.
That's right. I just quoted my own blog post.
Anyway, Maxwell was a student of Walcott and so it makes sense that I (really, anyone) would see a connection between their insights.
|What writing looks like at AWP18 (really, just copying over text at this point)|
Currently I'm writing a lot of . . . just verse, and it's a stretch to call it that, I suppose. I'm participating in the Brooklyn Art Library's Sketchbook Project through a collaboration with M.S. -- we alternate weeks with the sketchbook and add to its pages (me, sketches through text; her, sketches through drawing). In late April we'll mail it back and the B.A.L. will catalog it and create a digital copy. It's something that's different enough from my normal mode of creating -- and sharing -- poems that my interest is piqued and pressure is low -- it's fun, invigorating, and keeps me from obsessing too much over what'll happen to the work in the long run because, ultimately, I already know: It'll be archived. Some people will see it. And M.S. and I will have created something together, accomplished something, and that's keeping me afloat while all the other stuff tries to sink me.
This week has been a welcome anomaly from routine. The fourth nor'easter of the year came through and dumped some more snow on us and closed down the college for two days, which has afforded me some time to catch up on grading. I have to catch up on CW festival updates to the web site, advertising, etc., too, which feels more and more formidable as time goes on and I don't do those things.
And yet, despite the snow, the birds are back. It was odd digging out the driveway from 6 inches of snow yesterday and hearing their morning song in the bright sunshine. But a good kind of odd. It made me glad to be outside in the cool air and sunshine, physically engaged, and in particular, outside of my own head.