Speaking of lines (Julie Paschkis’s post of two weeks ago and Laura Kvasnosky’s post last week) I’ve been thinking a little about narrative lines (which accumulate into stories) and lyrical lines (which accumulate into poems.) What got me started on all this, in relation to those most recent posts, was this video (if the embedded video doesn’t play, just click here.) I wrote a little about it in my own blog, The Drift Record, last week, but I want to share it here on Books Around the Table:
I have no idea what that song says. But the woman enlivens it in a way that suggests both revelry (the woman’s full-throated delivery, her delight) and sorrow (the waver, the dip at times into a quieter voice, the frown.) Someone told me “It could be a drinking song.” Yes, it could be, though not many drinking songs fall into a minor key. Could be a love song? Doesn’t feel quite dreamy or tender enough – I don’t hear betrayal or devotion in it. I watch and listen to it all again and again, to hear her voice, to watch her eyebrows and eyes and smile, to see the way her hands move, to hear the phrasing of the words in combination with the melody. I let the nonsense (that is, the non-sense of it) into me.
Music (poetic line) vs. Meaning (narrative line.) I like thinking about those terms. They’re a little combative, and the longer I contemplate them, the more sparks they send off.
I have a knee-jerk reaction to poems where I can find no hint of music – meter, rhyme, alliteration, repetition, consonance, assonance, discernible patterns…all those tricky and beautiful tools poets can use to make their work memorable, word by word. My eye scans over a poem looking for them – they can hide! – and if I don’t find them on first scan, I have to cut the poem some slack in order to like it. Once in awhile, the slack allows me to discover a poem with a compelling narrative line or a way of looking at the world which is interesting even if non-musical. But usually, the lack of craftsmanship (which is what knowing how to use those tools is all about) leaves me cold. Confess what you want to confess in prose, fine, but if you’re going to write a poem, craft it and let it sing the way the woman in that video sings. Think about structure. Think about melody.
Structure? What’s that have to do with poetry? Certainly both stories and poems have structures. Fiction isn’t built on air, no matter how short (microfiction) or long (oof – 784 pages – The Goldfinch, anyone?) nor is poetry, despite the fact that a poem can feel light as air. Look hard enough (that’s our job as careful readers, and as writers, right?) and you’ll find a structure. But the narrative lines of poetry and fiction seem architectural – they determine, often, whether the story or poem stands or falls. The overriding metaphor when thinking of literature this way is in how relates to physics – what weight will the wall ( the story / the poem) bear before it collapses? Literary work can be mathematical in the same way architecture can be – you want it to stand up.
But the words of a poetic line also involve song (fiction sentences not as much, unless readers and critics call it “poetic” writing.) The poetic line involves breath, syllables fall on a musical scale; they involve both meter and patterns of vocalization. The lines of a lyric poem can play out as musical notes, which is why poems and songs so often convey emotion and meaning even if untranslated.
If I hum that, will I get the tonal register of it…? Obviously, providing us with meaning and music is why lines of great poetry remain memorable. But I find it fascinating that a song or a poem can transfix us without any translation provided. That’s what Archibald MacLeish means in his poem “Ars Poetica,” when he tells us that “a poem should not mean but be.”
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
A poem should be equal to:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean
I used to think the last two lines of that poem were non-sensical – they irritated me. But the more I read poetry, the more I can make room for it. Ideally, I’d like a poem to both mean AND be. But I can let go of meaning – I can enjoy the experience of a poem just washing over me or – in the case of that video – filling me up.
By the way if you know what that song says, don’t tell me yet. I’m savoring not knowing!!