The permutations of poetry

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Spare a thought for the poets.

When your favourite band records their latest 12 track album, there are 479,001,600 ways they can arrange the songs on the album.

When a poet writes an average-sized book of 70 poems, there are 11,978,571,669,969,891,796,072,783,721,689,098,736,458,938,142,546,425,857,555,362,864,628,009,582,789,845,319,680,000,000,000,000,000 ways they can arrange the poems. And, even if they arrange them well, it’ll be something that’s scarcely noticed.

Every book of poems I’ve had a hand in editing has gone through a tried and tested process. The poems are printed, then laid out on a large floor for painstaking arrangement and rearrangement. It’s an arcane task that’s part intuition, and part logic. Its aim is to find a compelling order and a natural balance for the poems’ themes, images, vocabulary, etcetera.

But, anyway, that’s the maths.

Recommended: Writing the long poem

There seem to be those who regard the craft of poetry as an engaging and useful topic for discussion, and those who regard it as a somewhat contemptible and self-indulgent one. I’m among those who often find something insightful or useful in discussions about the practicalities of writing poetry, whether it’s via a writers’ festival, a radio interview, or a podcast. And the more practical the discussion is the better.

I recently watched a number of videos by poets.org, including a video in which American poet Ron Padgett talks about writing long poems. In particular, he suggests the following writing strategy:

‘I just made a dumb rule. I said, I’m going to write every day. I’m going to sit down at my desk every day and I’m going to write ten pages. And I don’t care if it’s good or bad, or indifferent, or if it’s notational or whatever. I’m going to write ten pages every day. And I did that for five or six days … I came up with about fifty or sixty pages of material and I put it away for a while. And I went and looked at it again later and a lot of it was dreck … But some of it was pretty good. I was surprised. So I did the obvious thing: I took out all the dreck and I stuck the other pieces together … It all fit together and made this long poem.’

The full video is available here:

Those familiar with Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson may be aware that Padgett is the author of several of the poems supposedly written by the eponymous main character, played by Adam Driver:

Four things: a reflection

Thom Sullivan  Poet Poetry NaPoWriMo 19

Personally, it was a week for celebrating the birthdays of friends and colleagues, an enjoyable poetry reading at Holy Rollers Studios, as part of the South Australian Living Artists (SALA) Festival, and the ascendancy of spring in Adelaide. In the wider world, this week marked the 18th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, which is the starting point for 4 things that were on my mind this week: 3 poems, and 1 folk rock song.

1.
In a contributor’s note in The Best American Poetry 2005, American poet Kay Ryan (b. 1945) writes about the provenance of her poem ‘Home to Roost’. She explains that what she regarded as an essentially personal poem was written several months before September 11, and was under consideration by a poetry editor when the attacks occurred. It’s a short, simple poem full of foreboding: ‘The chickens / are circling and / blotting out the / day…’, she writes, ‘Yes, / the sky is dark / with chickens’. After the attacks, Ryan hastily withdrew the poem, which had taken on new, irresistible significance as a commentary on the United States’ involvement in global affairs: ‘Now they have / come home / to roost – all / the same kind / at the same speed.’ Ryan went on to publish the poem some years later, after the sting had gone out of it, but it’s impossible still to read it as a purely personal poem. As Ryan writes in the note, the poem was ‘warped’ by the events of that day. Ref. Muldoon, P. and Lehman, D. (2005). ‘The Best American Poetry, 2005.’ New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 185.

2.
At the time of the September 11 attacks I was 19, and in my second year of university. It was a troubling time to be a young male, newly of military age, with little sense of proportion about the events that may transpire in the following months and years. A sense of trepidation wasn’t entirely unwarranted. After all, my father, my grandfathers and my great-grandfathers either served in the military (my maternal grandfather served in World War II), or were at some risk of conscription while they were of military age. My mind turned to a series of poems written by American poet Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1941) about his experiences as a war correspondent in Vietnam. The poems were published in 1988’s Dien Cai Dau. Komunyakaa’s poem ‘Thanks’ is a litany of thankfulness to an unknown and unnamed force that kept him alive in the jungles of Vietnam: ‘Thanks for the tree / between me & a sniper’s bullet. / I don’t know what made the grass / sway seconds before the Viet Cong / raised his soundless rifle. / Some voice always followed, / telling me which foot / to put down first.’ His poem, like Ryan’s, ends with a sense of the unknowable or unnamable, though in Komunyakaa’s poem it’s a benign power rather than a sense of foreboding: ‘I know that something / stood among those lost trees / & moved only when I moved.’

3.
Komunyakaa’s poem brings to mind ‘The One I Love’, a single from Life in Slow Motion, a 2005 album by English singer-songwriter David Gray (b. 1968). Supposedly, the song has been a popular choice as a wedding waltz, due to its buoyant vocal hook and ostensibly quixotic lyrics: ‘Gonna close my eyes, girl / And watch you go / Running through this life, darling / Like a field of snow’. Yet a closer listen reveals that it, too, is a song about war. Where Komunyakaa’s poem refers to the ‘sniper’s bullet’, the speaker of Gray’s song watches ‘As the tracer glides / In its graceful arc’. Where the speaker of Komunyakaa’s poem recalls being distracted by the thought of a woman in San Francisco (her ‘wild colors’), Gray’s speaker is a wounded soldier recalling the memory of his beloved as he bleeds out: ‘There’s things I might’ve said / Only wish I could / Now I’m leaking life faster / Than I’m leaking blood’. As to the date of the war Gray’s speaker describes, the soldier mentions dancing the ‘twist and shout’, which likely dates it to the Vietnam War era, with the release of The Top Notes’ ‘Twist and Shout’ in 1961, and The Beatles’ cover of 1963.

4.
At the time of the September 11 attacks, Australian poet Thomas Shapcott (b. 1935) was teaching creative writing in the English Department in which I was studying. The events of that day prompted him to write his poem ‘New Year’s Eve’, which was published in 2006’s The City of Empty Rooms. In his poem, he writes: ‘If Modernism died in the ovens of Auschwitz / Or at the Nuremberg Trials / Then Post Modernism met its death / On 11 September 2001 in New York.’ No doubt, it’s a contention that’s been hashed and rehashed in countless bar and barbecue conversations since then: the idea that September 11 ended Post Modernism and shocked us into a new age of ‘passionate intensity’, to borrow a phrase from ‘The Second Coming’ by WB Yeats (1865–1939), which was heavily quoted at the time. We find a similar sense of foreboding or unease in ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold (1822–1888), possibly written while Arnold was on his honeymoon. Arnold’s poem might only have come down to us as an example of romantic melancholy, if at all, were it not so prophetic about the devastations of the century that would follow: ‘we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.’ What Shapcott reflects on in hindsight is perhaps anticipated in Yeats’ word ‘conviction’, and Arnold’s ‘certitude’.

Poetry reading: NO WAVE / Holy Rollers

No Wave Poetry ReadingOn Thursday, 12 September 2019, I’ll be appearing at the NO WAVE poetry reading at Holy Rollers Studios, 69 Prospect Road, Prospect, from 7.30pm. The reading accompanies Holy Rollers’ exhibition, The Scene is the Seen, which is part of the South Australian Living Artists (SALA) Festival. The event will feature readings by Em Konig, Alison Flett, Edith Lyre, Jill Jones, Thomas McCammon, and me. Further details on Facebook.