Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Density

Carol Peters posted a terrific poem by Laurie Sheck today. I've been reading it over and over, trying to tease apart all the ways in which it wallops me upside the head, trying to figure out how she manages to get the poem to hold as much as it does without it becoming so dense and heavy it just plummets like the proverbial lead balloon.

A poem is like the air. Really, it'll make sense in a minute. The atmosphere can hold only so much moisture before it releases the accumulated water in rain, or fog; how much it can hold depends in part on the temperature (think about how much more humid it is in the summer than in the winter, at least in this part of the world). Similarly, how a poem is constructed -- its temperature, its movement, etc. -- influences how much it can carry: how much imagery, how much information, how much feeling, how much strangeness. Poems fail sometimes, or at least mine do sometimes, because the poet fails to construct a strong enough scaffolding to carry all that they're trying to stuff into the poem -- or, conversely, because they construct the poem in such a way that it can carry a great deal and then fail to give the poem enough to carry.

Sheck wants to say a great deal in this poem: "the dark like a god // and our small bodies like errors / the god wants to take back again"? Daaamn. And there are so many lines in this poem with that level of weight, of freightedness. And yet it doesn't feel crowded, crammed-together. The poem is at its optimum humidity, carrying just as much as it is constructed to comfortably carry. Part of that, I think, is the underlying iambic meter. It's certainly not a regular meter by any stretch of the imagination, but it's there as an undercurrent, and it gives the reader something to hold on to.

I think the use of questions creates a certain space in the poem, too, a space that keeps the intensity of the imagery from dragging it down too much. I love it when poets ask questions in poems. Love it. I certainly like it better than when they try to give me lofty answers (something I catch myself trying to do too often, ugh).

And of course, there is specificity of image, the intensely visual and aural ("The drawers of the cash registers clack open again and again / like solved equations" or "how he rubs his palms into his eyes // then slides his bony shoulders and thin face toward the light / of the narrow doorway"). This kind of imagery gives the poem a solid structure on which the poet can hang all kinds of more abstract stuff.

I'm finding that I crave density and weight in poems, that it's something I aspire to and (in my opinion) rarely achieve. I either don't push the poem to do enough, or I try to stick too much stuff in there and it falls apart. I want to spend more time with poems like Sheck's and try to figure out how they do what they do. I think this poem is doing a lot that I haven't put my finger on yet.

And now for something completely different... :)

This poem is definitely not dense, at least not in the sense I've been talking about. It will go away in a day or so. I think I may read it at Sunday's benefit reading, though. Just for grins.


[the poem went *poof*! for my next trick, I'll pull a rabbit out of ... ok, no, I won't. ]

4 comments:

Garbo said...

I like your poem a lot. It's funny but also recenters me about what art's for. The concept I got the most help from in The Artist's Way was that we can't use a business model for art and that it's the act of producing, and not the product, that matters because that's what revs up flagging spirit.

On the density question -- I've been aiming for something like it in fiction. As I mature (or maybe just age), I am less interested in dazzling readers than in satisfying them. I'm working on a book which has lots of historical detail, lots of layers, and characters who have more than one notable trait and more than one kind of relationship. Yet I don't want my writing to be confusing or so dense with facts and meanings that it's become both a novel and a fruitcake.

Garbo said...

Oh yeah, I forgot to say that you don't know if this particular poem will bring you love or not. It's not guaranteed to, but I definitely began a relationship with someone who I heard read a cool poem. Embarassingly enough, I clapped too soon, mistaking a meaningful pause for the ending. The relationship worked out okay anyway.

Carol Peters said...

Sheck's also using repetition:

what land . . . Land of transactions

behind the aisles . . . the long aisles . . . Aisles of clocks

safe glare . . . keep it safe

brick ovens . . . and damp . . . into the oven-dark . . . the musty dampness holds the ovens . . . the oven dark . . . dark of his closed hands . . . the larger stockroom dark . . . what waits outside this dark . . . doesn’t want to know this dark . . . dimness and damp brick

sharp-edged present tense . . . What tense is it . . . What tense in which memories . . . What tense in which we sit . . . what tense in which the musty dampness . . . no tense for this

the dark like a god . . . the god wants to take back

street-cries skip and flare . . . tactics, sirens, cries

Anne said...

Garbo: Hmm, I'll keep my ears open for people clapping in the wrong spots at my readings! Come to think of it, I'm just happy when they clap at all. ;)

Carol: Yes! I had meant to mention repetition (she repeats words, constructions, and sounds as well) and it completely went out of my brain as I was typing. Seems like her repetitions sort of function like mile markers, so that you don't get too lost or bogged down -- "oh yes, this looks familiar, I must be on the right track." Oddly enough (considering how much repetition there is), it doesn't feel heavy-handed to me.