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

Student work: 80 Flowers poems

The danger on all sides with this exercise was Staying On Topic. Some of the ones below manage to get gorgeously off-topic once and again. Others stick to a putative topic but the texture and resonance of the language exceeds all topicality. In several you can see a hesitant limbering-up in the first line or two then a far more confident soar. I’m really struck, once more, typing these up, how good they are at what they do.


POTATO

The dull dust-bowl craggy-exterior couch
rotten kitchen five-pound-bag wrinkly-skin grocery
Ireland-famine Idaho-farming scarecrow rolling dry
yellow dirt ground roots economy
thin-sliced thanksgiving mashed boring lazy
cook-it boil-it bake-it fry-it mash-it
vegetable grimes lumens old-man harvest
french-fries electrical-currents round brown gun
suds buds crud grudge spud


SIPS OF WHISKEY

Carefree ciaos binding sinners dawn
hairless in feature gruesome quenched
disease be sweet with June
a cloud full as cups
streaking glasses wiggled off noses
revenge useless teeth rotted sunflower
quick slandered years opium swander
easiness night wish us eve


PLUMB

Jump man castle princess save
brick gold life die pit
plant tube bite pants small
underground black greenness gone warp
spring cloud shell wing lift
ghost browning night gap stairs
air fish bridge leap straightaway
fire spin axe fall finish


TEA

Eyeballs until milky bubbling wave
Spiced wet sun sugar thumb
Porcelain Ukraine melts heated eve
Ancient opaque petals stir temple
Black steam with heavy blink
Soothed pinky stains marriage peel
Waking garden hearth quiet pour
Tea-leaf enjoys museum whisper sip


IF NOT, WINTER

white knife winter’s home again
green blade red between lips
ardor-arbor again wet as knife
shoots green movement legs-in-ground come
bouqueted breath mist kneads moon
like-I-scent foxlog winter breathing hoarfrost
tendrils fungi frankly disputing sparrows
youth-blood sapling lusts sorrows spring


Eat coffee grounds running morning
downwind wine orchards grapes making
beans process tea leaves scatter
summer flowers foating dirty water
fallen babes hotchocolate system milk
crash liquid brakes warm throat
stove appliances cats meow food
sleepy timer Nyquil roses out


HERMIT THRUSH

Winter parks ground cup nests
Forests breed westward rare vagrants
Stock speckled dark low wings
Underwing reddish releases nature song
Well known high melody altered
Unassuming harmonic ethereal modern media
Descending spiral pitches uniquely simple
Delicate earth tailed feathered hermit


SIREN

Pearls of wisdom sea salt
green blue glass sand shimmering
wet sting bare feet black-and-brown
aimless below thirty hot disappearing
sails tossed-up stones cuts grins
angel-kisses your game gulls aquamarine
ocean push-and-pull drops chilled out
in cycles shore between toes


WIND TURBINES

Pinwheel wheat fields spinning desert
hotel room hills slow hands
discovery channel children turning sun
energy lights dry crisp miles
telephone wires tattoo distance golden
white semis rise and fall
old highway birds spinning dusk
Columbia Gorge asphalt passengers flicker.


CARTOONS

blue plum slits skin ink
clotted pulled clocks push death
tidy pray box shine we
kneel love spin wheeled wilt
eggs crumble each star reels
breaks brew dolls plotted temples
glum lots drew sticks mud
castes loamed castle knots giggle


Finally some individual lines I really admired:

bone saw reek red cross

stub cylinder opiate lounge chair

Large not purple fat water

treasure wild paper golden by

Lives green in room mountainside

roof yellow circle entrance tree

Spring-bent sprung-scent love

Split-infinity slips toes tips

Exercise: Zukofsky’s word-flowers

This one came in three parts — a reading assignment, a journal assignment, a writing assignment. The first two meant (along with an in-class introduction to metonymy) (in which I promised we’d use the word more broadly than it usually is) (all language I do think it is metonymic just as all of it’s metaphoric) as robust prep for the third. And I was right they would find it a hard exercise! Maybe the hardest of the quarter. It did ask them to set aside things they’d spent years learning to do well, e.g., staying on topic, making proper sentences.

The exercise (with some of their work to follow) —

1. Reading

A few pages from Louis Zukofsky’s late word-flower sequence 80 Flowers. Like that one and this one:

STARGLOW

Starglow dwarf china rose shrubthorn
lantern fashion-fare airing car-tire crushed
young’s churning old rambler’s flown
to sky can cut back
a crown transplanted patient of
drought sun’s gold firerimmed branched
greeting thyme’s autumn sprig head
happier winter sculpt white rose

MOUNTAIN LAUREL

Known color grown mountain laurel
broadleaf of acid earth margin
entire green winter years hoarfrost
mooned pod honesty open unvoiced
May-grown acute 5-petal calicoflower cluster
10-slender rods spring seed sway
trefoil birds throat Not thyme’s
spur-flower calico clusters laurelled well


2. Journal exercise

Metonymy is calling one thing to mind by naming another that’s habitually associated with it. For instance, the phrase “red wheel barrow” calls to mind a barnyard, and perhaps a pile of dirt, or hay bales. Pick two individual words in 80 Flowers and describe the metonymic resonance of each — the things it calls to mind by habitual association. NOTE: Some metonymic associations are personal and idiosyncratic — associat­ing a red wheelbarrow with Indians, say, because there’s a mural with the poem on Indian Street. Try to steer away from those associations, and towards associations you can trust would be shared by a typical reader.

(In a class soon after we looked at how context, a word’s neighbour words, draw some metonymic associations into the foreground, and let others recede into the background.)


3. Writing exercise

Each of Zukofsky’s poems consists of eight five-word lines. Instead of coming together into sentences, the words make a sort of kaleidoscopic image of the flower — fragmentary, unparaphraseable. In fact, you might say that the relationship between any two adjacent words is not syntactic but metonymic, interested not in making a statement, but in drawing out habitual associations. Write a poem that uses the same form: eight five-word lines, compound words as you please, words next to each other not to make sentence sense, but to make richly textured juxtapositions.

Creeley’s Pieces

Had a brief (5 min) but good (very) discussion in my afternoon section of this bit from Robert Creeley’s Pieces.

Cup.
Bowl.
Saucer.
Full.

We’d talked about integrity of the line, its wholeness, and I asked whether these lines, short as they are, felt complete. Do they offer an experience that satisfies and then releases you to the next experience. I expected great resistance but they so got it.

One saw a telegraphic narrative of breakfast (cereal and coffee). Another one of lunch (a cup or a bowl of soup). Another saw a formal patterning that reminded him of the buildup and falling off of a short story (three letters, four letters, six letters—over two syllables!—then down to four).

And all of the resonances metonymic. A poetry of everydayness.


I can’t hear pieces as not also peaces.

As in, the mind of pieces, is a mind of peaces.

Very different from our sense of “going to pieces,” falling apart, fragmenting, disintegrating. Here, rather, that any part, however wayward, however bereft or stranded, is its own whole.


My old teacher, Daido Roshi, said to us often, You’re perfect and complete, just as you are. He was no softy, he was a dragon, but he said that. I remember one sesshin (meditation intensive) when I was in a hard way, I went in for dokusan (face-to-face teaching) and blurted out, tearstreaky and snotfaced, Perfect and complete under all the conditioning (dumb learned damage we carry), or perfect and complete with all the conditioning? With he said and rang the bell. Creeley’s Pieces brings me back to that.


A beautiful thought of Thich Nhat Hanh. There is no way to peace, peace is the way. Do I harm it, and I hope not, by this variance, there’s no such as peace, there are only peaces.

Creeley had no patience for any zen bs or so I’ve heard. And yet the most dharmic poet I know. Here’s Dogen’s “body and mind falling away”—

Here here
here. Here.

And here, the myriad ways of seeing water, Dogen says different modes of being have—

The bird
flies
out the
window. She
flies.

    .

The bird flies
out the
window. She
flies.

     .

The bird
flies. She
flies.

A variance, for sure, on Williams’s old woman, those plums.


A cup, a bowl, a saucer, all full, not in the sense of bearing up some matter, though they might that also, but in themselves, present, there.

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

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?