November 11, 2014

Beyond all this fiddle, what’s useful

At the end of this month, on November 30th, I’m doing a reading here in Chicago. There’s more information on Facebook. I’d love to see you in this mysterious location. I’ll share the recording once it’s up, too. 

Thinking about what to read on the 30th, and about an online poetry class I recently took, I’m focused on revision. In poetry class, after a week of revising the same poem according to different rules every day, we read a series of poets' versions: two of the same poem, published separately, both considered complete. Most striking were the two versions of "Poetry" by Marianne Moore, a poem whose first words I own emblazoned in red on a yellow tote bag: "I, too, dislike it." Which is arch and at least partly untrue. (The Poetry Foundation sold me the dang tote bag.) I like the poem (and the tote bag) very much. I like poetry enough to labor over it on Saturday afternoons, among all the things I could be doing. And I like seeing Moore's revision made plain: it gives me hope for my own perpetually unfinished adjustments. 

The version of “Poetry” that I knew elaborates on "I, too, dislike it" with "there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle." This sounds like every objection to the poetry lifestyle I've ever heard: why spend your one life in powerless penury? Why spend hours moving and removing a comma, breaking and re-breaking a line, to make a thing that comparatively few people will ever read or think about? But the poem meets these objections with four stanzas telling what poetry can do in the face of “perfect contempt for it”.

The later version of “Poetry," published in 1967, cuts the earlier version down to just three lines: 

I, too, dislike it.
Reading, it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in 
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

Looking at these two versions like a (very easy) "spot the differences" picture puzzle, what I see is that "all this fiddle" has gone. The short version is a faster rhetorical move: the speaker is no longer dwelling in dislike for two lines. There's a new comma, a new line break. The overall effect is aphoristic clarity, as if "Poetry" had been handed down on a stone tablet from heaven rather than painstakingly edited over a lifetime. But I'm especially drawn to what happens in the long version's next line, immediately after the short version ends: there are hands. "Hands that can grasp".

Hands are public: they're for shaking, handling money, pointing. And yet they're intimate and loving: a helping hand, a hand to hold. There's immediacy and great potential in this image: the hands aren't grasping (and the grasping has no stated object in the poem), but they "can grasp". Hands like poems can hold many things: sometimes contradictory things all at once. (I'm picturing how magnets feel when they repel.) And poems like hands can be useful, can be tools.

Writing is thinking. I figured out this sense of warmth I felt about that Marianne Moore poem by writing about the hands in poetry class. And by putting drafts of poems in front of online strangers for a month for critique, I started noticing how many of my choices are inexplicable instincts, detached from their intended effects. I got a little better at moving away from the poem into someone else's mind, where whatever I'd first pictured in the poem-world probably doesn't make sense. I got inside my own reasons a little more. I'm still feeling my way in the dark whenever I write — but feeling.

Thank you for being here. Reply with anything, always.


(PS: That online poetry class I took was called “Writing Poems that Don’t Fit.” I’d recommend it highly if you’re looking for new angles on your poems.)