Why I Do What I Do

My poems have become shorter. Nine lines and less. What do I hope to achieve?

An initial answer is that in this way they contain only what is essential, they cut to the chase. I think, too, they may appear to be only the endings of poems, or something in the manner of a pitch for a movie idea (or poem), or an outline. Could they be miniatures?
It may not be as simple as that.

Recently I was emailed a photograph of a Robert Montgomery billboard. These words appeared where we are usually treated to an ad: The people you love / become ghosts inside / of you and like this / you keep them alive. Couldn’t a poem operate in this way within the pages of a book or website? Crucially stated, starkly, wouldn’t a different kind of poetry emerge. A mystery about it, similar to the mystery that surrounds the objects of the everyday world? It is what I call the ghost-trace or ghost-image.

It is that which is left out, but its presence is as keen as that which is left to observe. Likely the allure has its origin in the sound-byte. Or historically in the memorable short speech. And, of course, in the brevity of a twitter.

These are, of course, fragments. Someone said (Anne Carson?) that by definition fragments are not perceived as whole, unto themselves. If one considers a statue with an arm broken off, or perhaps a sculptured head viewed in a museum which has survived its human-figure statue by hundreds of years, one can see the fragment in a slightly different light. The “head” does not seem lacking, nor dependent, but has become completely and purely an object in its own right.

I identified, in my reading of books of poems, my habit of reading the shorter poems first, then returning and reading the rest of the poems. Shouldn’t this correspond with my writing process? This recognition, and appropriation, was the beginning of my recent modus operandi. Certainly I grapple with this process, but it seems right. It may not be permanent, but it suits the things I want to say now.

I should not be / Fearless of land, / Where the slow / Pours./ I do not see why I should / Overtake, should miss / And long / If still I held them. / They would find me / True. An example of my process. This is from Robert Frost’s poem, Into My Own. Originally eighty-seven words, it is stripped (de-Frosted) to thirty-three words. This is not a revision of Frost, but a distillation of his poem. But I don’t have a bone to pick with Robert Frost — he is magnificent. As an experiment, I applied my process to his, finding a second poem within his. But I wouldn’t want to be the one to explain that to Robert Frost.


Filed under: Poetics, Prose