Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (Dalí, 1954)
Here I deconstruct the poem that was posted on Monday, June 24. The rest of this post was written prior to the poem’s genesis.
I’m going to write a poem. What’s unusual about this poem is that I’m going to meticulously document every step of the creative process. Then, if the poem is good, there will be a scientific record of how the poem was composed. If the poem is not good, then at least I tried, right?
Step 1: What qualities do I want my poem to have?
Here are some poems I admire:
“The Conqueror Worm”, Edgar Allen Poe
“Second Coming”, W. B. Yeats
“Out out –”, Robert Frost
“Beija-Flor (Hummingbird)”, Diane Ackerman
“pity this busy monster, manunkind”, e. e. cummings
“Chicago”, Carl Sandburg
“Kubla Khan”, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
As you can tell, most of these poems are rather famous, which indicates that I haven’t read much poetry in my life. Nonetheless these poems are highly regarded, for the most part; I don’t really know how critics rate “The Conqueror Worm”.
Now, I’ve listed these poems not for inspiration, but for analysis. If these are the poems I like, if these are the poems that come to mind when I think of poetry, then what is the common denominator? What do these poems have that others do not? If I can figure this out, then I am that much closer to writing a poem that I would enjoy.
First observation: only two of the poems rhyme, the first and the last. But all of the poetry is alliterative: all of it is meant to be read aloud:
“The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle…”
“And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled…”
“When you kiss me,
the waters wed in my ribs, dark and pale
rivers exchange their potions—she gives him
love’s power, he gives her love’s lure…”
I think my poem needs to be alliterative, then, and maybe even rhyme…I like poetry that is meant to be read aloud.
Dirac once said “The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way.” With that in mind, let’s look at themes. Here are the poems, “translated” into plain English under Dirac’s dictum:
“The Conqueror Worm”
“Human life is mad folly ending in hideous death, the universe is controlled by dark forces man cannot understand, and the only supernatural forces that might help are powerless spectators who can only affirm the tragedy of the scene.” [from Wikipedia] i.e. Life is folly.
Things are getting more chaotic. Things are getting out of hand. It almost reminds one of the legend of the “Second Coming” of Christ, which—rather than giving comfort—disturbs me. It’s almost as if Christ and the Antichrist were one and the same. i.e. Things are getting worse.
“Out out –”
Chainsaws are dangerous. But more than that: if you die, that’s sad, sure, but the world will move on and ultimately not give a crap about your passing. i.e. The world is indifferent.
“Beija-Flor (Hummingbird) ”
When you kiss me, all sorts of emotions and feelings and thoughts and chemical imbalances swirl through me. One can almost describe this myriad of reactions with organic, jungle-like imagery, strung together like a shaman’s chant. i.e. Passion is jungle-like.
“pity this busy monster, manunkind”
Mankind is not kind. Progress is not good. Science and reason ignore what’s important: things such as nature and spirituality. Death would be better. In fact, let’s kill ourselves. i.e. Progress sucks.
Chicago is a big, sprawling, messy, industrious, colorful place. And that’s just fine. i.e. A city can be beautiful.
Imagination is a powerful thing. I can create visions of entire worlds in my mind. And those visions are more beautiful than any place that’s really real, even if I cannot convey them to you, the reader. Visiting such places in one’s mind is as close as you can get to visiting paradise. i.e. Imagination is an escape.
[These summaries, with the exception of the first, are my interpretations only. If one of these interpretations is “wrong” (whatever that means) then it is the fault of the poet, for writing something vague enough to be misinterpreted.]
It’s interesting to note that I like all of these poems, if even I do not agree with their sentiment. All told, I disagree with approximately two of them. I will not say which.
Is there a common thread? Well, most of them are dark in tone; most of them are rational; most of them convey a sense of complexity (in the sense that they view black/white dichotomies as being too facile to describe real-world realities). They touch on death, life, the universe around us, love, beauty, aesthetics, and creativity. There is no talk of gods, magic, superstition, or philosophy. I would classify them all as rational (although the e. e. cummings poem is ranting against the rational). “Beija-Flor” is rational in that it reminds me that passion (and lust) are natural, organic, biological, biochemical processes…it’s only natural to describe passion in humid, wet, zoological terms. And what of “Kubla Khan”? Isn’t it mystical, spiritual? In my view, it is only mystical in a metaphorical sense. It evokes a mysterious, wondrous place that we can only journey to in our imagination; I don’t think anyone reading the poem would think that it describes a real place. That is, the poem is fiction, and as such, mysticism and spirituality are perfectly welcome.
This is an aside, but I’ve often felt that some people enjoy obtuseness for its own sake. They like there to be a message in a poem, a theme; but they want the message to be hidden in some clever way. This has three purposes, in my view. Firstly, it acts as a shibboleth, a kind of in-joke. “You don’t get the poem? Well of course you don’t. You haven’t studied 19th century existential Flemish poetry like I have. But those of you that have studied 19th century existential Flemish poetry, oh boy! You’re in for a treat!” Many poets sprinkle obscure references all over the place, to reward those who are “in” on the joke. The problem is, if you’re not in on the joke, those references seem obtrusive and condescending. How many more people would enjoy “The Second Coming” if it lacked the phrase “Spiritus Mundi”, which today just sounds like bragging: “Hey! I took Latin at the Godolphin School!” If I were writing the poem today I would replace the phrase with “collective consciousness” and the poem might be improved thereby.
The second purpose to “hide” a message or theme is to provide enjoyment for the reader when they figure things out. It’s much like a literary version of a Sudoku puzzle. “Oh I get it! I figured it out! The knight represents honor, and the plowman represents pragmatism! He’s just trying to say that honor is sometimes dangerous, but being pragmatic will feed you in the end!”
Q. But why didn’t the poet just say that, instead of obscuring his meaning?
A. So you could enjoy figuring things out. It’s the same reason that 1000-piece puzzles don’t come out of the box already assembled.
So what’s the third reason to hide a theme? I hate to admit it, but maybe, in rare instances, you can say something with more power when you allude to it tangentially than when you say it directly. It’s why Lincoln referred to the “better angels of our nature” rather than to our “consciences”. Here’s where the real art in poetry lies; name dropping Latin phrases and hiding meaning behind contrived façades is craft, not art. But I may be wrong.
So. Let’s set a modest goal. Let’s make the poem (my poem; the one I want to write) rational, complex, dark, and layered. By layered, I mean that I want some of the imagery to have more than one meaning. But I won’t think too deeply on the meaning: I’ll choose words and phrases that have connections, that resonate with one another, but I will let my intuition guide me. There may be a few references (only a few!) that require some thought to unravel (we have to throw a bone to the literary Sudoku people, after all) but, on balance, I want the meaning of the poem to be obvious. That being said, I think how the poem sounds is more important than what it says. I like “The Second Coming” but let’s be clear: the message “things are getting worse” is rather banal. It’s just that the poem sounds so cool when you read it aloud…
OK then. What should the poem say? I’ll decide that later. Let’s start with some images first, selected at random, based on books on my desk.
I have Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds of North America; turning to a random page I see the Pileated Woodpecker on p. 189.
Let’s brainstorm and see what happens:
The Pileated Woodpecker is a large bird; I’ve seen them several times in my life, usually in dark woods. Being a woodpecker, they eat insects out of trees, especially ants. So some poetic thoughts already bubble to the surface: here’s this bird that thrives on grubs, on larvae, that live in the woodwork; from the dead stump grow grubs that tunnel through the wood, and are eaten by this large large bird that reminds one of the mythic (and probably extinct) ivory-billed woodpecker. And there is a local connection, in the mountains, here; I’ve seen these birds in my very own yard on two occasions. Including once last week. Is that a sign? Is the universe saying something to me? Was I meant to see a Pileated Woodpecker just then? Or is it just coincidence; the kind of coincidence that acts as a grace note to our lives, a sort of turn or trill?
Next we have toilet paper modeled by an Archimedean spiral (I’m not kidding). Not surprisingly, it’s from a Clifford Pickover book (Mazes for the Mind, 1992).
The vilest thing can be modeled with mathematical beauty. Although toilet paper is not vile; it’s actually quite nice…hence all the teddy bears and babies…much better than corn cobs… I wonder what Archimedes would think of his spiral being used to represent Charmin. Poor guy; tradition has it he was skewered on a pike by some Roman brute, while drawing circles in the sand…we can spiral outward for greater meaning, spiral inward for greater focus…and in the end if the poem means nothing we can wipe it all away and flush it down…
Then there’s the Borromean rings on p. 296 of Baez and Muniain, Gauge Fields, Knots, and Gravity (1994).
No two of the rings are linked; yet all three are inseparable. It’s going to be hard to get away from Trinity allusions. I could go the other direction…invoke knot theory: 6 crossings. 9 sticks. This makes me think of Led Zeppelin’s Four Sticks, and so of course I have some Led Zeppelin playing now…Ramble On…Gollum, the evil one…
And to tie it all together, a random quote:
“During our sunset dash through Portland the muttering commenced again, more distinctly than before, and as I listened I caught a stream of utterly insane drivel about Asenath.” (H. P. Lovecraft, 1933)
Now the ideas go into the hopper…this is easier with Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V:
You thrive on grubs…that live in the woodwork…from a dead stump grow grubs that tunnel through the wood… this large, large mythic bird…with ivory shining in the sun… in the mountains…is that a sign? What is the universe saying? It is the kind of coincidence that acts as a grace note to our lives…a sort of turn or trill…The vilest thing can be modeled with mathematical beauty…I wonder what Archimedes would think of his spiral being used to wipe away our sins…skewered on a pike by some Roman brute…drawing circles in the sand…we spiral outward for greater meaning, spiral inward for greater focus…and in the end if our lives mean nothing it is nonetheless wiped away and all flushed down… No two of the rings are linked; yet all three are inseparable. But this is not the Trinity. 3,6,9…Three is the magic number…6 crossings; 9 sticks. But now I ramble… During our sunset dash through Portland the muttering commenced again, more distinctly than before, and as I listened I caught a stream of utterly insane drivel…
A theme has emerged to me, from the haze: an amalgam of Poe, Frost, and Sandburg, and the theme is this: the world is indifferent, life is folly, but there is a beautiful structure underneath. So can we turn our phrases into a poem?
I’ll let the reader judge the results.
Artwork: Guillaume Jacquenot.
The old man turns, a circle, and watches his death approach.
At that moment, what is the universe whispering?
It says something, I fear, beyond reproach.
Is there turn or trill to grace the old man’s sorrow,
Or fill his burning tears with grace?
Does he see a vortex flushing blood and ink
Out, out into the darkest place?
Spiral outward, now, for greater vision,
Spiral inward for greater force—
It is sunset. Equations flow around us few.
Though not linked, we are inseparable, divine.
Take nine sticks and make the sign
Of aleph naught and cross
A bridge from you to you.
We thrive on larvae which twist in a woodwork of our making;
But only when the light refracts just so
Does anyone see ivory glinting in the sun—
[If you liked this post, don’t forget my book Why Is There Anything? is now available for download on the Kindle!]
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