Student work: Poems with no metaphors in ’em

The exercise: Compose a short poem with no metaphor or simile in it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with metaphor. Some of my best friends are metaphors. But we in the West are metaphor junkies, thank you Aristotle (“to be a master of metaphor is the greatest thing by far, a sign of genius”). So it’s good now and then to go dry. What can you do minus that junk? How do you make a poem work without yer fix?

Hello, syntax and line. Hello, metonymy. Hello, objectivist mode, basically, though I save that for elsewhile. And coinages, hello too! Language is full of forces we are totally out of control of and yet surf fluently in our wake and sleep with astonished ease. Tweak them just a bit and you draw them into awareness and that’s poetry. (See what went on there with wake, e.g.? Didn’t intend it, just saw it and commented latterly, and that’s prose.)

Enough preamble, on to some student work.


Here’s one by Steve Lemma – excuse me, that’s “Goldenrod Steve” – that’s quite careful, in a seemingly careless way, with the composition, the putting-in-places, of its syntax – fragments and all. It also has an admirably various line, not just its length, also how little or much torque it asserts upon the syntax of the thought passing through.  

Subtle
fading
ink running down the wrist.

Specifically!

Subtle fading
blues.

Darker than
the
car,

Lighter

than
your irreparable attitude.

Welcome to this side of the world,
kid.

You may n
ever make it back.

The under
belly is hungry
almost
as much as me.

I think a couple of the moves here, re: the line, are stretches, but that’s less important to me, as teacher, than that he’s messing around, trying stuff out. (BTW, I’m counting the comparisons as not similes, since they compare extant objects in the poem’s field, to others the same.)


First aside. “Go dry.” Is that metaphor or metonym? How about “that junk”?


Another one, by Rob Jones – turns out no one wants to be anonymous, why was I doing that, don’t remember, probably had a good reason that’ll come back to bite me – short and sweet –

FREQUENCIES

That ringing,
A sound
I will never hear again.

The frequencies

Heard less
And less frequently,
As my eardrums become less taut.

My proposal to Rob was, cut the last line. With that line the poem is nailed to its occasion. Without it, the occasion’s forgot, and the language can widen beyond whatever thought happened to incite it. (This is an curious case of what Richard Hugo called the “triggering subject” showing up in the last line. But one feels it was held in reserve all the poem long – I’m suggesting, hold it in reserve even longer, till the poem is fine without it.)


Second aside. Compose, not write, because as I did say later, they mighta done a visual poem, and solved their problem right there. I give maddeningly open exercises. But in them every word does matter: “embody spring” means embody spring; “myth consciousness” means myth consciousness. Why so uptight? In the poem, too, every word matters, otherwise no word does, in which case, stop.


Here’s another, by Alex Hastings, who has a very Creeleyan ear for speech under pressure – pressure of strong feeling dimly understood (TOTAL INSIGHT MOMENT: Creeley was an avatar of Shakespeare), and she’s been learning how to get, not just the dimness, also the understanding and the strength, onto the page, by way of line, syntax, the tortured dance of them.

Legs
crossed over
cheap carpet, we
blink at our
each tired
faces and pick
another
fight.

Change the slightest thing here and you wreck it. For instance, fix the syntax, “each other’s tired / faces” – wrecked. The contortion of the syntax there recalls me to how my powers of language flee me when I’m in a fight with someone I love and who says they love me but isn’t seeming like that. I mean, oh my students, you can create great storms of emotion in a poem without ever naming an emotion. Also, FYI, without many adjectives – “cheap,” “tired” are the only here.


Third aside. Since I went to Urban Dictionary (“elsewhile”) – the poetry of that. Our natural unconscious and dionysiac poetic fluency. And let’s aleatorize the fuck out of it. My pasketti is boiling so let’s be quick also. Random number generator to choose letter then entry. Let’s say thrice and see what comes.

 “Zombie company.”

1. A technically bankrupt company that is kept alive with large infusions of government money for the sake of “stability” in the U.S. financial system. 2. A large financial company with negative net worth that continues to operate, despite having no clear path to solvency. 3. The UnDead of Wall Street.

“rrrrrrrrrrs”

what stoner says when mad

stoner 1: rrrrrrrs, i need money to buy weed, but i smoke weed because i have money.

preppie boy 1: wait…..what?

gpoyefd

Gratuitous Picture Of Yourself Every Fucking Day

I see a picture of someone who is asleep in class, “GPOYEFD”

So I was real worried, around word two, how I was going to get a poem out of this, but GPOYEFD saved the day. Does this not come together as an incisive remark upon the tedium a certain once awesome post-apocalyptic fantasia has come to?

AMC ODE

Zombie? Company.
Rrrrrrrs.
Gratuitous picture of yourself,
every fucking day.

I go back and forth on the comma. Imagine it spoken by a career extra.


Coupla more. This by Lauren Edison, who like Alex is working in a short line, not quite as enjambed, and not quite as spare of sense data, but headed in that dir.

DEPRESSION

I wake
to a preset tune
and white plaster walls.
Barren, save for shadows.
I blink. Rollover.
My screen says 7:00
January 18. Monday.

This wall, too, is barren.

Lauren’s syntaxes are intact, untorqued – she looks for what can be got through denotation and lineation within the rules of normative syntax, inhabited austerely. I am on her case about titles.


And one more, from Haley Kenville, which I suddenly now realize is her myth consciousness poem, that I was looking for in the exercise she submitted for that assignment, and was kinda hard on. (I’ll do a post on that ex., I hope.) Hear myth mind in that third bullet point?

In Order;

• Call ahead,
they’ll want to know you’ll be early
• Roll in late with hair
still wet from shower.
• Saturate trees with buds, so
they are prepped for your petal
firework finale
• Reign. Relax.
They have been waiting for your ascension

Not sure what she’s doing there with punc but that last line rocks my world. Because of the indefiniteness of the “you” – possible because the poem has let go of its inciting occasion – it points to me and to you, and anything green in anyone, even as it also calls to the Persephone-figure (as I read her) of the poem’s surface levels.


Last aside. Realizing once more how much of my teaching style comes from my Zen training. Don’t feed the ego – affirm the person. Cultivate intuition, spontaneity, not-knowing. Nourish faith in their inborn abilities, empathy, insight. And, be always poking, wherever they’re at rest, unsettle them.

And, to that last, I am always causing problems – as if my students didn’t have enough problems already? One asks me a question, and instead of answering him, I respond with a question. Then, as he’s working towards an answer, I interrupt him with another question. I must be maddening.

The intent’s generous – how can I in this moment help you further your inquiry – but I’m a limited human being. Right this moment anyway I’m feeling my limits. Often the generous is mixed up with stress or my own shit or simple fatigue or I’ve got a tummyache. I’m not often the Platonic ideal of Socrates the method seems to want.

Dude. Zen, Plato, you should ride a motorcycle, and then maybe write a book.

What am I here to say. I’m grasping towards a place where fucking it up somewhat is still okay. For them or for me. Hurting other people heedlessly is not okay – don’t do that in my classroom. You’ll hurt other people, I have, you will, but not heedlessly, please. Also, don’t be lazy – this is the Zen training coming in – treat this as the matter of life and death it is (OMG did I write that, do I believe it, I do). Other than that, be free.

And with that, my dream syllabus, any course

Don’t hurt anyone heedlessly.
Don’t be lazy.
Treat it as a matter of life and death.
Other than, in that, be free.

this post must come to an end. Oh and here’s Bodhidharma for ya.


bodhidharma2a

In a station of the Metro

The poem, as most all know —

IN A STATION OF THE METRO

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

I had two aims in our discussion of this too too famous poem. One, get a feel for how sound underwrites sense. Two, sharpen our feeling for the logos of the image. Logos, did I really say that. Bloody pretentious. But logic seemed too wee a word. Logos as in way, coherence, holdingtogether. PIE root, *leg-, “to gather.”


Sound underwriting sense. We’d done our rock and stone thang. The stop at the end of rock is a jagged sharpness. The nasal at the end of rock is a dying rounded fall. And those sounds underwrite the senses of their words.

How now with Pound. Asked them first what they saw with the first line. Eventual consensus — ghostly faces in a trainish station underground — misty, blur-edged, as in something Impressionist.

The second line? How did those petals get to hang on that bough? The bough (limb of tree not fore of ship) (why we had to clarify that goes to something important about teaching language and its poetry) is wet.

Wet how?

Most likely with rain.

And being wet means?

If wet, sticky, and petals that fall there, stick there.

Next comes, logos of the image, what kind of petals? Daisy? Rose?


One pictured the former. K so how did those petals come to be there? Someone brought a bouquet of daisies into the woods and when her or his beloved didn’t show threw the bouquet in a pique and it hit a pine tree and broke up and some petals stuck there?

Um yeah maybe?

It’s possible, sure, but other possibles?

Occam’s Razor comes to play here. The simplest account is often best. And so we came to — cherry blossoms, blown a bit about in a rainstorm, come loose, float around, land on the limb of the tree that bore them, to spend a little while adhered there.


“Too too.” Not that it not warrant its fame. But such fame keeps us from seeing it afresh. And freshness is its all — that much it shares with haiku, though it’s not one, no really, not really.


Penultimate Q, what’s the second line, cherry blossoms struck to presumably a cherry tree, got to do with the first, ghostly faces in an underground transit crowd?

Silence, a bit.

Anything cherry blossoms have in common with faces?

I picture an oval.

And right there’s what one called the metaphoric bridge. The likeness that draws two differences into relation. I’m not a big fan of metaphor, it’s a lie and makes things other than they is, but gotta admire this one, by this reading, its assertion of non-non-difference.


Coupla quals here. One, the faces, the shapes of them, help us to come to cherry petals, as much as the petals help us to see faces afresh. Two, the colours of the petals, pinkish-white, are part of the metaphoric bridge as well, and suggest a racially pretty homogenous Metro crowd. Maybe not inaccurate for Paris in 1912. But it does place and date the poem.


Final Q, how do the sounds of the lines support their senses? My whole purpose though the getting-there may have been more lovely than the gotten-to.

Apparition — except for the plosive p, softest among the stops, it’s all liquids and nasals. The blurred and softened sounds make the faces that much softer, blurrier, more deeply ghostly.

Wet, black bough — the first word ends in a stop, the second begins and ends with ones, the third begins with one. At the centre of the phrase is a sharply delineated core. Giving the cherry petals on the bough more clarity and definition than the faces they’re metaphors for.


In so far as the poem, its image and sounds, is about transience, the fleetingness of all this, it’s striking that the cherry petals are granted more clarity definition and permanence than the faces they’re figure for. If the poem may be called out for chinoiserie the ground of the cry is here.


LASTLY. Pound’s advice, that we compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, lives even in a thing so small as the comma after “wet.”

The stop, t, already punctuates it. Neither syntax nor articulation asks for more. But the comma makes one last refinement of the phasing — slowing just a little more the movement of breath and mind hand-in-hand through the line.

With that, wet comes a bit closer to the vegetal slowness of far longer syllables, blackbough—slows enough to join their company. The very words, wet, black, bough, become cherry petals, adhering to the poem a small while, then blown off.


NEXT UP. More on Pound on the musical phrase. A thing I wrote for Donald Revell, one of the fathers to my mind.

Two locust trees

To broaden our discussion of parts of speech, their places and powers, we read two versions of a poem by William Carlos Williams, “The Locust Tree in Flower.” One goes this way.

Among
the leaves
bright

green
of wrist-thick
tree

and old
stiff broken
branch

ferncool
swaying
loosely strung —

come May
again
white blossom

clusters
hide
to spill

their sweets
almost
unnoticed

down
and quickly
fall

A very pretty poem about a pretty old tree. A lovely coined word, “ferncool,” whose extravagance only starts to look off in the light of the renunciations of the later version. Which goes this way.

Among
of
green

stiff
old
bright

broken
branch
come

white
sweet
May

again

This poem never fails to stun me. Ten Thirteen words on ten thirteen lines. (Oops. One line short of a sonnet.) All but three are monosyllables. The thing’s almost entirely empty. And out of that great narrow strait the poem blossoms endlessly.

And not a metaphor to be found here. All the power comes from metonymic resonance and a powerful torque applied to syntax.

For instance the strange construction

Among
of
green

How can we be both among and of? Among means in the midst of but distinct from. Of means belonging to and identified with.

Are we thrown to a green we remain apart from? Or do we belong to a green we can’t get out of? Spring is the swell and swirl of the new it is and does. And so the poem dizzies, endizzes, lucky us.

Master Dogen said to his monks:

When you paint spring, don’t paint willows, plums, peaches, or apricots — just paint spring. Painting willows, plums, peaches, or apricots is painting willows, plums, peaches, or apricots. It’s not yet painting spring.

The longer poem paints a pretty picture of a locust tree. The shorter invites us to be spring in the tree.

These thoughts, by the way, formed in collaboration with my students, who saw deep and well into this one.


POSTSCRIPT. Want a master class in revision? Track how the first version becomes the second. What words go, what words stay, how the words that stay drift into new places. The depth of the letting go here is astonishing. Nothing less than total.


Black Locust

Blake and the vision thing

Norman’s talk this morning has me thinking about Blake and vision and metaphor. The myth he made, I want to say from scratch, but in fact through some sly composting, offers to our minds four, I want to say worlds, but really, visions. Four ways of seeing that express themselves as worlds.

Blake felt sure one lives in such a world as one makes in mind. Thus the “mind-forged manacles” of “London.” His letter to Thomas Butts (previous post) lays the four out one way. In the prophetic poems he sets them before us as Eden, Beulah, Generation, and Ulro.

I asked this morning if “birds are forms of attention” is a metaphor or literal. Maybe the answer might depend on what realm one’s in that moment.

In Eden, the sentence is an insult to birds and attention. Not untrue but vulgar to say. In Beulah it’s a literal truth. In Generation it’s a metaphor. In Ulro, hell, it’s a lie. Them’s my thinks of an evening.

Birds of attention

One thing I love at Samish Island are the birds. Great blue herons, bald eagles, barn swallows, robins; all through a day of sitting your mind is woven into and out of by robinsong. And today, on the drive back, a redtail hawk on a power line, and the sheer abundance in the eye of two goldfinches on a wire fence.

An old thought came back, birds are forms of attention, sometimes the mind twits and chitters, others it floats on thermals, others it dodges cars eating road carrion.

When I say that, birds are forms of attention, is that a metaphor. I don’t think I mean it as one. I’m thinking I mean it literally.

If any thing is also every thing, then metaphor’s no longer a lie, but maybe too it’s no longer metaphor. It’s just a different mode of literal.

Blake’s fourfold vision in the back of my mind here — probably because Norman talked about Blake, his “Fly” and his “London,” this morning. More on that soon but first to the gym.

On metaphor

Metaphor has fallen out of my work almost completely. I think there’s one in the whole of Dumuzi. Why is that? (Not a rhetorical question.) Something in metaphor feels violent to me — wrenching a thing out of being-as-it-is so it can be yoked to some other thing and lend to its glory.

A metaphor is, at the least, a lie, and to go along with it, we need to split our consciousness in two — the one who accepts the lie, and the one who knows it for a lie. (Compare to the split induced by accentual-syllabic meters — one ear attentive to concrete particular speech rhythms, one to an abstract metrical pattern.)

Donald Revell on mixing metaphors: “A good way to kill the damn things off.”

Metonymy seems gentler, letting its two terms hang out together equably.

Both enlarge consciousness — one by an abrupt rending, the other by a steady gentle pressure outward.

I wonder, is compost, what actually happens in the compost bin, the vegetal smushing, closer to metaphor or metonymy?