Sherraine Pate Williams
I suppose I should admit up front that I am a very sincere person. There have been many occasions in my life when I’ve failed to be smart and wary. Those closest to me have often labeled me earnest, naïve, and even gullible. And I frankly admit that the choices I’ve made tend to prove that these labels may be true, no matter how much I’d like to believe otherwise. Nobody, of course, wants to be the sucker.
But being a sucker has its upside, too. Especially in terms of generating material for poetry. I have often thought of writing poetry as the perfect medium to create beauty from chaos, to take the chewed-up ends of an experience, rearrange them, and make something whole from the pieces. The poet listens to the traditions of his or her own and other cultures, listens to the world through experience, tries to communicate—if not the experience itself, then its flavor—the essence of that experience. If the poem is well crafted, the audience will read or listen to a poem and feel something of the experience—his or her own take on the flavor—and then something of truth, something of meaning can be shared.
I’m not saying, however, that the poet, to gather his or her material of experience, must seek out only those extreme moments in which to fall upon the thorns of life and bleed. This type of emotionally overwrought poetry has been around forever and has probably led, by the reaction against it, to a wariness of sentiment by some. But when writers bleed all emotion from their work, literature suffers.
This too is not a new idea. The New Sincerity movement of the 1980s is well encapsulated in David Foster Wallace’s 1993 essay, “E Unibus Pluram”:
The next real literary “rebels”…might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching…Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions…Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue…The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal”. To risk accusations of …over credulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows. (151)
So, there must be some way to craft a poetry of emotion that doesn’t end in vapid melodrama, but instead infuses its emotion with enough of the world to reach out to its readers.
One way this can happen is through a contemporary practice of metaphysical poetry. Metaphysical poetry uses specific vocabulary and a system of physical imagery wholly outside of the abstract idea, emotion, or state of consciousness the poet wants to communicate and reveals that abstraction’s nature, conveying it immediately and viscerally by way of the surprising comparison which results. This type of poetry, rather than simply using language and imagery to liken an abstract idea to something concrete, develops a conceit (metaphysical poetry’s most common identifier) by equating the intangible to something actual. The reader then experiences the abstraction acutely and achieves an understanding that is not only conceptual or semantic, but also emotional, palpable.
Take Mary Jo Bang’s “Definitely,” for instance. I first encountered this poem outside of the context of Bang’s book Elegy. A stand-alone poem. Here it is:
What is desire
But the hardwire argument given
To the mind’s unstoppable mouth.
Inside the braincase, it’s I
Want that fills every blank. And then the hand
Reaches for the pleasure
The plastic snake offers. Someone says, Yes,
It will all be fine in some future soon.
Definitely. I’ve conjured a body
In the chair before me. Be yourself, I tell it.
Here memory makes you
Unchangeable: that shirt, those summer pants.
That beautiful face.
That tragic beautiful mind.
That mind’s ravenous mouth
That told you, This isn’t poison
At all but just what the machine needs. And then,
The mouth closes on its hunger.
The heart stops.
My own heart rolled over. I did not know the real story of loss behind the poem, nor did I even have the collection’s title to ground me. But I immediately felt the loss anyway. Even though desire is in the first line. Possibly because desire is in the first line. Later, when I learned that this loss was the poet’s loss of an adult child, knowing the biographical details which spawned the poem made perfect sense, but was not necessary to my connection to the poem, even though I have no frame of reference for that particular emotional situation.
How did Bang manage to impart this loss and invite her readers into her grief? I believe that she achieves this by crafting a contemporary poem out of the metaphysical tradition. Along these lines, the poem uses language constructs completely outside of the situation. “Hardwire,” “braincase,” and “machine” all give metaphysical correlatives to mechanistic processes. The phrases, “Unstoppable mouth” and later, “Ravenous mouth,” then transfer those mechanistic details to the body. From there it is “pleasure,” “plastic snakes,” and “poison.” These conjure all sorts of multiplicities: from desire, original sin, apples, innocence succumbing to temptation, fakery, shills, and on and on. The final line, “The heart stops,” is then monumental. We are caught up and stopped short. The poem leaves us with a sense of finality—both in the language of loss and in the immediate transferal of feeling. But in this finality, it paradoxically opens us up to our own multiplicities of emotional references and meanings.
One way I encourage myself to write poetry with metaphysical conceits is to jot down several abstractions or strong feeling on a notecard. My own sonnet, “Hardiness Zone,” began with just such a strong emotion. I’m still unsure I can put a name to it, but for the purposes of my writing, I wrote down “peace.”
It is not lethargy, this standing still.
Your face, among brothers the sunny way
of an upward communion, looks like day
itself in diurnal anthesis. Will,
your vegetable force, does not aggress
and yet attracts for its pap everything
clean like beads of water. Small finches cling
to your yielding kisses, yet the best
you offer is the way you sway
into the force that would break you, bending
your bloom only to follow light. You feel
warm to your taproots, the ample vastness
you’ve become shrugs off stunted undergrowth
and decay, an upright way which needs no path.
This feeling came to me after a period of emotional crisis, which I mediated through an extremely productive period of writing, exorcising my demons by way of this specific method. But toward the end of this exorcism, I realized two things: 1) I felt, very nearly, emotionally whole again (however briefly), and 2) I was at peace with the work I had done (of course, this is a very rare sensation and I’m not trying to imply that the use of this prompt will guarantee the feeling). So, I started by jotting down “peace” on a notecard, and on several other pieces of paper, I wrote down as many simple concrete nouns as I could think of and threw them into a bag. I randomly pulled out one of the concrete nouns from the bag—for this poem, it was “sunflower.” I then found out everything I could about sunflowers, both from researching them and through visiting a field of them during one of my daily walks. What resulted was an extremely vigilant study of the sunflower itself, and all the language used in the poem is meant to communicate that “sunflower” = the “peace” I felt at this particular moment.
For other poems, I consider the abstraction on the notecard through the lens of at least one of the nouns I pull from my bag. I usually do a quick bit of internet research, searching for how the concrete noun– its history, physical properties, associated language, and connotations–can inform the abstraction.
Sometimes something wonderful and serendipitous happens. Other times, I manage to get so involved with trying to find the perfect illumination that I forget to be self-conscious at all and something wholly unlooked-for occurs to me. Either way, it’s an exercise that seems to work. At least for me. Hopefully, it will for you too. But give it a try. The worst that will happen is you may feel a little too earnest, a bit naïve.
Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.”
Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 13, no. 2, 1993, pp. 151.
Mary Jo Bang, “Definitely” from Elegy. Copyright © 2007 by Mary Jo Bang. Used by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved.
“Hardiness Zone ” printed by permission of Sherraine Pate Williams.
Sherraine Pate Williams
Sherraine Pate Williams’s most recently published poems have appeared in Southern Poetry Review, The Los Angles Review, Mezzo Cammin, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in poetry from Murray State University’s creative writing program and teaches basic literacy skills to adults. She currently lives in Kentucky with her family.