Line and Poetry

20821239I read a few pages of Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses (2014) this morning — which is very enjoyable, by the way, pick it up if you can — and while reading recalled an experience I had publishing one of my own poems in a small journal. The poem was a little gimmicky. Titled “Liber Abaci,” it was based on the Fibonacci sequence, a series of numbers in which each number is based on the sum of the two preceding ones: 0+1=1; 1+2=3; 2+3=5; 3+5=8; 5+8=13; 13+8=21, etc. The sequence was discovered by Leonard de Pisa in 1202, later known as Fibonacci, and is historically and mathematically significant because it’s so often found in nature: tree branches, leaves on a stem, bracts on a pine cone, fern leaves, and on and on.

I wrote my poem so that each line had a number of syllables corresponding to each sum in the sequence. 1, 3, 5, 8, 13, and then 21. The poem was six lines long ending with a twenty-one syllable line almost too long for the page, and it compared objects in nature to a woman waking up in the morning and not wanting to get out of bed. I used words like “stone” and “mountainous.”

Now I’d like to describe publishing in the United States: there’s real publishing, and then there’s poetry publishing. In real publishing, publishers allow authors to see proof copies and make corrections before the book goes to press. If the publisher edits or changes your work, you know about it, and you know how and usually why. In poetry publishing, at least most US poetry publishing, you don’t see your poem until you get it mailed back to you in the published work, you may not have even been told your work was being published, and often they — whoever they are, but they’re everywhere, you know them — do whatever they want to your poem without telling you.

In my case, the published product was eleven lines instead of six, none of the line breaks were followed, and of course that ridiculously long twenty-one syllable line was broken up into at least three lines. The editor of the collection didn’t understand the main conceit of the poem, didn’t understand the placement of the line breaks, and was only reading the poem for imagery and nothing else. In all fairness, it’s a weird and unexpected conceit, but the poem looked weird enough that s/he might have thought to ask first. I would bet, though, counting syllables doesn’t land on the editor’s radar, but even if it did in this case, the pattern may not have been identifiable.

Either way, I initially wanted to title this post “The Unbearable Stupidity of Poetry Publishers,” but somehow (and in the end only partially) restrained myself. To be honest, I’ve collected a number chapbooks and poetry collections over the past couple of years, and aside from the big publishing houses, what I find is very inconsistent. Some of it is very good, but quite often poetry publishers and editors seem to care only about what is being said with no attention to how, or how well, and the results are often juvenile and embarrassing. Poetry publishing follows the basic US business model: selling a lot of stuff cheap will make you rich, so don’t sweat the details or worry about quality. Save time and money and just get it out there, especially if you can get a bunch of people to pay you to publish their work. The product itself doesn’t matter.

So I’d like to start on the ground floor about what a poem is. A poem is a written creative work characterized by attention to…

  1. rhythm
  2. sound
  3. imagery
  4. metaphor/metonymy
  5. originality in its use of all of the above

Notice what I’m not saying: “meaning” and “emotion.” It’s not that meaning and emotion don’t matter, but that meaning and emotion don’t make a poem a poem. Prose works, both fiction and nonfiction, convey meaning and emotion. Paintings and sculptures do. Movies do. Facial expressions do. Hand gestures do. Almost everything does, but not everything is a poem. What makes a poem a poem is attention to rhythm, sound, imagery, and metaphor/metonymy, not meaning (in a big sense — imagery and metaphor are a kind of attention to meaning) and emotion. Poets who know what they are doing certainly convey meaning and emotion, but they do so by paying this kind of attention, by paying attention to the craft of writing a poem.

Rhythm and sound don’t necessarily mean fixed rhyme and meter, as in a sonnet. Free verse pays attention to rhythm and sound too, and employs it deftly to create emotional and other effects. It’s not that free verse doesn’t follow any patterns of sound and rhythm, just not fixed patterns of sound and rhythm. Free verse creates its own patterns and its own effects. But I think this brings us to a fundamental truth about poetry: what makes a poem a poem is its attention to line.

How poems divide up their lines controls their rhythm, sound (whether or not they’re using rhyme), metaphor and metonymy (as words at the ends of lines will be implicitly linked), and the poem’s arrangement of white space, which can also convey meaning. In other words, the poem’s use of line, more than anything else, is what makes a poem a poem. There is one exception: prose poetry, which runs its lines from one margin to the other just like prose, but that’s a lone exception. Otherwise, you know that a poem is a poem just by looking at it because it is broken up into lines, even if you don’t know anything else about poetry, or in other words, if you’re like most poetry publishers.

So mungling up a poem’s line breaks is a cardinal sin, and not paying attention to where you put your line breaks is a sign of ignorance in poetry writing. Amateur poets pay attention, and use line more or less effectively (as do professionals), but a complete lack of attention means you haven’t written a poem but a sentence with line breaks. And no, a sentence with line breaks is not a poem. It might be a greeting card, or a song lyric, and it might get you laid, or published, or both, but it’s not a poem.

So, if you like reading poetry, and want to try writing poetry, and especially if you’re publishing poetry: pay attention to line. Start there. Write the whole thing out as one sentence and then break it up into lines again and ask yourself: what changed? If you noticed a difference, that’s a poem.

 

How I Learned to Love Bad Student Papers

I read once that J.R.R. Tolkien came up with the idea for The Hobbit while grading student exams. Bent over a desk, grinding away scoring exam book after exam book, he finally came across one with a blank page at the back. He was so relieved by that short break from grading that he wrote on the blank page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He wrote the novel The Hobbit to find out what hobbits were.

After eighteen years of teaching college English, during most of which I’ve taught at least one section of first year writing (often more), I’ve come to appreciate how Tolkien felt. Grading papers is one of the worst parts of the job, and I’ve heard that from quite a few fellow English teachers as well. I could quote from my Facebook feed right now.

It’s partly the tedium of grading paper after paper that’s performing the same task, and it’s partly that student papers are always very much early works: students seldom have the time to fully revise, some students don’t attempt to write well at all, and others just don’t seem to have been taught. After spending years in graduate school reading literature, great writing, the best writing, it’s hard to spend that much time reading writing that’s often the opposite.

But then I started listening to myself.

I’ve been telling my students for years that writing is an acquired and then developed skill, like playing a musical instrument or a sport. You can’t shoot free throws at over 60% without standing on the line and practicing shot after shot. You can’t really play guitar or the piano without hours of practice, a lot of it boring: scales. And you can’t learn to write well without writing a lot and without reading a lot. Those two skills — reading and writing — are intimately related.

In other words, I’ve started telling my students, you only learn to write well by writing badly, and by writing badly a lot. And on top of that, even though I’m years past my Ph.D. now, and even though I’ve been publishing since about 1991 (my first poems appeared in a student-run college literary journal, The Valencian), and even though I’ve been reading constantly and like crazy since I was a kid, I still write badly. Sometimes, not all the time, but still sometimes. Even just this year.

At one point I looked at a batch of student papers, some of which were remarkable (in either one direction or the other), and I told myself. . . this is them trying. This is them doing the work of becoming good writers. This is my students following my advice and writing. . . badly, or well, they were still writing. Some of them were on training wheels, some of them were riding wheelies down the street with their hands behind their heads, but they were all on the bicycle, moving forward.

So when I listened to myself, finally, I learned that I loved bad student papers.

Writing for College and Beyond Book Site Up

Bright Futures Publishing is providing marketing and administrative support for the new first-year writing textbook Writing for College and Beyond (Lulu Press, 2019). Contact Bright Futures Publishing for desk or review copies, and check out the book webpages for more information, including links to ordering information, the table of contents, the book flyer, testimonials, and a list of special feature.

Writing for College and Beyond is a new kind of first-year writing text, one that emphasizes connections between the writing students do in typical English composition classes and their future business and professional careers. It’s also fully customizable for departmental or group orders. Contact Bright Futures Publishing for more information.

Rock and Romanticism on RCRR

Many thanks to the website Romantic Circles Reviews and Receptions for inviting me to guest post to their blog about my Rock and Romanticism titles, and many thanks to Suzanne Barnett for inviting me to do so.

Updates on Publishing

wbccover
First, Writing for College and Beyond is now out and desk and review copies are available. Check out the book site, and if you’re a first-year writing instructor and would like a review or desk copy, or would like to review it for your journal, email me.

 

 

 

 

 

CoverRDC
Next, Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History was published in April 2019. Consider ordering it for your library, for yourself, or for review in your journal. This edited anthology explores how crises in democracy during different historical periods influenced the development of different theories or methods of interpreting written works.

 

 

 

Rock and Romanticism: Blake and Wordsworth, Book Cover
Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2 (2018) 
is doing great. It’s been nominated for an ASCAP music writing award and has been reviewed by ChoiceReview 19, and Rock Music Studies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cover Image, Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms
Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms
 (2018) is doing great too. It’s been reviewed by Review 19.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, I’m happy to report that David Bowie and Romanticism: The Chameleon Poet and the Changeling Self is now under contract, and Women in Rock/Women in Literature: The Emancipation of Female Will is under consideration with a publisher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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