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. ]