Mary Ann Samyn
August 30, 2010
Some of the best advice I’ve ever received came from my friend Rebecca and was not in the context of poetry but could have been. She said, “Don’t forget to bring yourself along.” My poems are the record of my effort. So, too, is this essay:
I recently made two purchases at a favorite used bookstore: Just a Box and Puppet Party, both by Goldie Taub Chernoff with pictures by Margaret Hartelius. Scholastic, no surprise, published these books in, no surprise again, 1971, a crafty time.
The books are, in a word, delightful.
Just a Box reminds us that “a box can be a horse” or a train. Just “cut on [the] dotted line; fold on [the] solid line,” and there you have it, boys and girls. At the Puppet Party, “the troll and the dragon are cardboard tubes.” “I have a terrible temper,” growls the green troll as a nearby mouse squeaks “help!” And a stage, don’t you know, can be “a blanket over a chair . . . a three-sided cardboard . . . a bush or hedge . . . [even] an apron” held high above the head.1
Surely there’s some instruction here for poets: “everything you need is right in the house.”
I’m not, or not only, thinking, though, of found material but also of the materials themselves: as forms. The cereal box says “cereal” as certainly as do its sugary or disappointingly not-so-sugary contents and not only on its label but also via its shape. We are familiar.
And then the box is a caboose or coal car, the body of an elephant or a cage for a lion. But not, it turns out, a cradle for a doll. We’ll need an oatmeal canister for that. Not a canoe, either. A toothpaste box is better suited.
The sonnet is, perhaps, our most familiar poetic cage for a lion. But what’s the old saying: it’s the spaces that make the cage—?
All poems are formal poems, I was taught (Charles Wright). All questions, formal questions.
You’ve got the lion, presumably, by the tail. If not, we’ll wait while you set out a treat . . .
My lion is named Mary Ann. She prefers the spaces but understands about the bars.
Your average circus wagon is not your average savanna. Or zoo enclosure or glitzy Vegas show where Mary Ann wears a collar of rhinestones and bells.
To write the lion, as of course you must, is to write the cage, the method of transport, the spotlight, and what’s downstage. Even the savanna is not without boundaries; all poems are formal poems.
What I write is Mary Ann-ness. This is subject matter. It is also form.
Just as the ferocity of the lion dictates how wide the spaces between the bars or how near we might approach, so too the ferocity of the lion-poem dictates how wide the spaces, how near we might approach.
One lion can have many moods. Hence, not all of my poems move across the page. To say “stalk it” would be easy now, so let’s not. Controlling metaphors start to get on my nerves.
Naturally, I’m on to motion now and the Red Gate Park of my childhood—so named because in addition to the usual array of swings and slides, there was one red gate, creaky on its hinges. And a little shelf to stand on, catch a ride. Was this fun? Yes, it was.
Among the things I did not wonder: Where did the gate come from? Had it been useful, once? The gate was not a narrative, though, yes, my mother took my hand.
Instead the gate was a motion, and emotion (happiness). It was mostly out of context, both its original and perhaps useful one and the context of my day with my mother, which of course I don’t recall. This is the lyric moment pared nearly all the way down.
I consider the gate not only as a topic but (and more important) as a formal suggestion, a compositional strategy.
Remove the trappings (fence), leave it a little squeaky, paint it red.
This is a kind of assignment.
There is, of course, only one assignment (says Brenda Hillman and I believe her): write the poem that scares you. I think we know we’ve made progress as poets when we tell it to ourselves straight: just write the next poem. No more projects or assignments, no more hijinks, just a willingness to keep at it, to go ahead.
Usually my poems begin with the slightest edge of the thing. A fluttering. These are not ideas. They are instead pieces of language that take a certain length of time, shape of space. Form = time. The line. Structure = space. The page.
I generally begin with a title and a first line. Not a first idea. Not a first sentence though the line may in fact be a sentence.
White space is otherwise occupied. I can’t just move it around. Neither can I “cut up” lines.
For me, an accurate line is accurate not only in what it says but in how it says. Music. Duration. There’s a little click.
This all sounds mysterious, I know. But it does not feel that way. In fact, it feels quite straightforward.
“Boot” is a good word, and I just remembered it, and it will help us now. Consider it for a moment: deep in the middle with a sturdy consonant at each side to tug on. Boot boot boot. Very pleasing.
And what do we do in boots? Well, first we put them on and then we walk about. Snow or rain or high fashion: nothing can stop us in boots. One booted step at a time and we’re where we want to be, quick as that.
A poem is the very same way.
A title is a first step. A first line is another. An idea or “point” is much too much. You’ll never even get to the corner that way.
Think of how nice your bootprints look spread out behind you in snow. Now imagine that each print is a line in a poem. Wouldn’t it be sad to rush through? It’s very satisfying to put one’s boot into snow. Especially snow with a bit of crust on top. And I say this as someone who isn’t even particularly fond of winter. Even I can appreciate the satisfying crunch of a boot packing down snow.
Next time you write, imagine you are wearing boots. What kind will you wear? Funny, fringy, animal-looking boots? Big, serious military boots? Impractical boots with a dangerous heel? Magic boots with jet packs attached? Lots of boots are possible. When you’re writing, even impossible boots become possible.
But you are not writing about boots. You are writing like boots. Step step step. A nice crunch of snow. An icy spot. Yikes!
Think about this. I am not being silly. If you think I am, then you are not being serious.
The best work often comes when we distract ourselves long enough for bravery to happen. I jump up a lot when I am writing. Oh!, I think, is that the UPS truck? A package for me? Or, Here is a cat to hold. Or, Some soapy dishwater just might accomplish the task. These are not postponements. They are the work of getting to the work. Perfectly acceptable. I agree with Heather Sellers: sometimes a nap is what comes next. Jumping up, for me, is not distraction, or not only. It is, rather, invitation. I work by letting more in and by maintaining emotional awareness. To look for the UPS truck is to hope. Has someone sent me a little urgency? To be aware of hoping is the start of writing. Very often my poems feel like the moment + the moment + the moment, etc. I record the little shifts. Bravery means I’m still willing.
I’m writing this essay in bits and pieces. I’m learning as I go; is there a better way? Today’s bravery lesson came via the work of one of my MFA students. What is it, I asked myself, that makes me read her poems and say, This is poetry. Truly marked. And I return to the idea of authority. And to something I’m coming to understand as an individualized clarity.
In his essay “Strangely Abstracted Images,” David Porter identifies Emily Dickinson’s poetic power with her ability to use images that are “so abstract they have given up their sensuous immediacy to pure meaning.” “These peculiar figures with light-catching body perform,” at least some of the time, in Dickinson’s poems in a way they would surely refuse to do for lesser talents.2 And what accounts for her success? Porter cites Archibald MacLeish, who asserts that it is Dickinson’s “extraordinary mastery of tone” that allows her to make generalizations and abstractions seem, in her particular voice, particular.3
What I have been suggesting in this essay is similar: one must find one’s particularity. The boot that fits, as it were. The clarity communicates, yet is yours alone.
My student, the one with the remarkable poems, has just that sort of talent. Her strength is not abstractions made strangely tangible but juxtapositions keyed just so. This is sensibility. Just as it is challenging to teach someone to have a “good ear,” my focus on honing sensibility—Mary Ann-ness—is not easily taught: step one, step two, step three. You don’t want to end up with Mary Ann-ness. It can, however, be modeled. Or, as with the boots, metaphor can indicate a way.
Isn’t it Gaston Bachelard who reminds us that we are the curators of our own images? He does not mean self-image, though that might be relevant, but something more like Stanley Kunitz’s “key images.” I’d suggest key metaphors might be worth considering, too.
And not only the metaphors that happen within poems but, more important, the ones that occur prior to, or alongside, or beneath poem-writing. The metaphors that help us gain access to the work and to the process of work.
For instance, I’m getting ready to be done with smallness. So if you’re looking for a crawl space, I’ll be carting my metaphors to the curb. You can go through them, if you want.
What I’d recommend, though, is this: look about you.
My home state, my favorite state, Michigan, has a nice motto, which, when translated, means roughly “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” I’ve always liked that. Very no-nonsense. Very get-over-it. Stop your whining and pay attention.
As I said, everything you need, etc. etc.
But didn’t I also say that I dislike a controlling metaphor?
This is my life lesson, in case you haven’t noticed.
But even my controlling metaphors, thank goodness, work metaphorically like three-dimensional Venn diagrams: lassoing me and each other momentarily, then looping high in the air, a funny oblong shape like the “oh” of your open-mouthed amazement.
It is difficult to isolate the writing of one poem and prove everything to you. I would like to, of course. But the poems I’ve already written seem so far past their process of becoming, while the poems I’ve yet to write seem so far from it. I will say, though, that the poems of my own that I continue to feel close to are the ones that have an accuracy, a clarity that I cannot translate or paraphrase, that I hear, when I read them aloud even now, as a little click. Line by line. They ring true.
Often people want me to say that I was trying to make a certain point or explore a particular poetic element when I was writing. Um, no. That’s just not how it works. Not for me. Whenever I’ve written, especially a successful poem, what I’ve done is paid attention: very close attention for a limited amount of time. This is how I understand the lyric poem: bring yourself along.
When in doubt, turn to the dictionary, that’s what I always say. So, “authority,” which of course has an author in it and thus is, no surprise, something writers are after.
My preferred definition is #7 in my trusty American Heritage: “Grounds for a particular course of action.”4 I like thinking of a poem in these terms, which seem to get at the notion of writing as a process, a series of decisions made by a particular sensibility, a physical undertaking unique to its moment. A poem itself as grounds, which appeals to my longstanding feeling/belief that a poem is a space where an event made of language happens.
Which brings us back to the “Puppet Party” we were planning to have. Will you use a paper plate to make a singing frog or a bag to make an owl? “Bird and his friends are made from Folded Paper.” Can you count yourself among his company? Use what you have; “there is nothing to buy.” Therein lies the secret, and the ongoing assignment: tend to your metaphors, name your lion, construct a little something, love the sound a word makes, bring yourself along, be as brave and clear as you can.
A Girl Can Imagine, Can’t She, a Girl Can Dream
Now then. This won’t hurt a bit. Boys & Girls. Yes, I promise. Verbs explain how to do it.
This page is full of words in much the same way I can’t sleep some nights between two and four.
If you think you know, then you probably don’t, thank goodness, or we couldn’t be friends.
He developed special instruments to probe and extract the bullet, after which he applied a styptic . . .
For information about this account, press 1; for a little push (“Go away.” “Submit.”), hold the line.
Look at yourself in the mirror. Pin the parts together to look like a body. Make your final pattern.
Eyes far apart mean younger; eyes close together mean shrewder; children need only a small stitch.
O Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit, O Sister Rose of God, am I not His Little Question-Mark?
Lively does it, fish line or strong linen thread, a large-eyed needle, and you measure and you measure.
The wonder of it is how and why if you really want to have fun with electricity as famously illustrated.
Some dolls walk and talk. I knew one who blew bubbles. One with stiff limbs and a soft cloth body.
I practice being serious. I practice love of knowledge. I practice busyness. I practice the braver way.
O honeybee, what sweet results are wrought by industry. If you doubt that I am happy, listen to me hum!
In the background, velvet. A small table for my stage. Flood lights, silence, your attentive gaze.
The hand here depicted contains a great deal of information. I don’t sit still and hope and wonder.
The cupboard as it should look. Nouns in a row. I’m just as surprised as you are. Action = Reaction.
Try these activities. Don’t worry. Follow directions and diagrams. You will have a great deal of fun.
Some dolls tear up. Also, the Virgin Mary. The pull of a string. A garden or alcove. Oh my.
So daily I aimed for something practical, something personal, something charitable, something spiritual.
Consider Ben and the Green Corduroy Angel. Consider this a little page of no thanks to you.
Electricity doesn’t just happen. Oh no? This story was not made up. My town stood still for eight hours.
“Your whole life would be different if you had a chart with feet on it.” Well, I guess that’s right.
For assessment purposes, please list three visions worth working toward and three dumb questions.
The first step in the writing process is “romancing.” The third is “writing.” The last is “showing off.”
Some dolls prefer a more pragmatic, reality-oriented practice. Some surgeons admire their own work.
Who will read my work and what is special about my writing that will make my readers glad?
If you are experiencing an emergency, by all means, proceed to your local emergency room.
If you would like to make up jump-rope rhymes using the multiplication facts, please go elsewhere.
O Sister Miriam, O Sister Rose, how great the lions and tigers are, filling the air with sound!
Arrows mean movement. Numbers mean help is on the way. When you press the button, it lights up.
Imagine this poem sequenced movie-style. Frame by frame by frame. Which scenes are you missing?
Make a list of eight ways to cook without electricity, nine ways to tell time, a dozen uses for eggshells.
He was dexterous. She was lovely. He was brusque. She was fervent. He was gentle. She was stormy.
Gather together, give entertainments, illustrate interesting points in history, practice, practice, practice.
Sometimes a question mark is also used inside parentheses after a date or statement to show doubt.
The answer is transfigure. List as many questions as you can think of for which that is the answer.5
- Just a Box and Puppet Party have no pagination.
- David Porter, “Strangely Abstracted Images,” in Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Judith Farr (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1996), 141.
- Ibid., 143.
- Second college edition.
- Mary Ann Samyn, “A Girl Can Imagine, Can’t She, A Girl Can Dream.” Zone 3 49.1 (Spring 2009): 24.
Mary Ann Samyn’s essay first appeared in the original print edition of Mentor & Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets.
Mary Ann Samyn
Mary Ann Samyn is the author of six collections—most recently, Air, Light, Dust, Shadow, Distance, winner of the 2017 42 Miles Press Award, and My Life in Heaven, winner of the 2012 Field Prize. She teaches in the MFA program at West Virginia University.