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Thursday, 18 June 2009

What does a poem do?


164-skeleton-with-skull-q90-315x500 If you'd like to take a moment to have a look over at Writers' Bloc you'll find a nice set of 5 poems that's I'd like you to have a look at and then I've a few words to say about them. The link will open in a new window.

For a very long time I have been preoccupied with what a poem is. I'm not talking about the multifarious and contrary opinions of what makes a poem a poem. I'm talking about fundamentals. All music is made up of rhythm and melody and usually harmony. Go back a step and you can reduce music to pure sound, sound organised in time if you want to be pedantic.

So, what happens when you apply that same kind of logic to poetry? When you peek behind the words, what do you see?


Something to Think About

Can a poem, for example, contain no poetry? That is the question I ask in 'Something to Think About'. What happens when you strip away all the rhymes (internal and external), the metaphors, the similes, the onomatopoeia, the alliteration and the everything-that-most-people-associate-with-poetry? What attracted me to Larkin's poem 'Mr. Bleaney' was the fact that it was just about the most barren thing I have ever read. Even its rhymes were arranged so that if you read the piece properly you missed out on most of them. And yet it was still a poem. Why? Why was it a poem?

The bottom line had to be that a poem was more than an amalgam of technique and form.

'Something to Think About' is a poem about thought. And poems are things to be thought about, not merely read. Every poem contains a poet's thoughts. That is all they contain. And what does the reader do? He thinks about them.

What I'm saying is that poetry at its core is a way of thinking. That's what I was on about in my poem 'Changeling':

Turning fourteen I started
thinking poetry.

At the time I never really considered what I meant by "thinking poetry". It was such a part of me that it was the expression made total sense and it still does. I had to lose that ability to appreciate it though. It's not as weird as it sounds. I simply find I can tune into the poetic possibilities of what's going on around. As the words pass through my head they sound like bits of poems, opening lines mainly, as if I'm testing out everything I experience to see if there's a poem in it. Most of the time there isn't.


A Thoughtful Poem

The idea of poetry as pure thought is developed further in 'A Thoughtful Poem' which states its purpose explicitly in its opening stanza:

The purpose
of this poem is to make you think.

It is completely up front with the reader. It is related to an earlier poem called 'Reader, Pleaser Supply Meaning' because I believe very strongly that meaning is the remit of the reader. A poet provides an environment, a framework of words, for the reader to use to hang a meaning on and that is it.

But where does the meaning come from? It comes from the only place it can come from, your life. If you have no knowledge of or experience with a subject then you will not be in a position to fully grasp what's going on. You need to go away and acquire the necessary knowledge before you proceed to the next level. The poem itself may provide that knowledge but you have to process it for it to work.

Do poems go off? People I find, and I include myself here, tend to go for new things. If I see a list of books by an author I'm always drawn to the most recent one. The same goes for a poetry magazine; I veer towards the wordsworth latest issue. Why? True some poems do date but it takes years; many years. Wordsworth's poetry hasn't gone bad but it has dated; it is no longer as accessible to an audience as it once was.

In this particular poem the point I'm making about additives and preservatives is that once you open up a poem it's no longer new; it affects you, it changes you. I'm talking about the immediacy of reading a poem for the first time. There's just you, alone with the poem. It's one of those moments that you can't get back. And so, I, the poet, leave the two of you together to take as long as you like. If you go back to it later it won't be the same. That's what I was on about in my poem 'Sons' where the poem says:

"What sex am I?"
the poem asked.

"You are a boy."

"Then there is life in me.
I shall go and sleep
with a virgin mind."

A poem is a catalyst, which, according to The American Heritage Dictionary is, "One that precipitates a process or event, especially without being involved in or changed by the consequences." – italics mine.

This is what I was getting at in 'Mirror, Mirror':

(Because poems are whores;
they become what you want,
but there's always a price.)

A poem never changes. The words remain the same. No matter how many people read it, no matter how many different meanings they impose on it, a poem never changes. You do. No one has no reaction to a poem. No matter what they think they will have been affected. Just like an infection though some will shrug its effect off. Others will find their lives changes forever.


The Skeleton of a Poem

Beckett worked with sounds before anything else. If something doesn't sound right then it probably isn't right. A poem needs to flow in a way that prose does not. 'The Skeleton of a Poem' reduces a poem to its most basic elements. There are no proper words asking that you ascribe them with meaning. There are just 'das' and 'DUMs' and that's about it. This is a real poem – I forget which one – stripped down so that all you have is the sound and the rhythm. It is not without meaning because now you'll look at every poem you read and realise that underneath all the cleverness there is a skeleton that is essential of the poem will have to shape and shape is fundamental if you are to attribute any meaning to it.

When you hold a poem in you hand the first thing to feel for is its skeleton, its bone structure. You look for iambs and trochees. In accentual-syllabic verse we could describe an iamb as a foot that goes like this: da DUM. There are others and you can see a whole list in this Wikipedia entry.

If we look at the first stanza of this poem:

da DUM

what we're presented with is a wee bit on the odd side. No nice iambic pentameters here, oh no. What we have is:

bacchius / spondee
spondee / iamb

in fact I toyed with the idea if a set of poems showing parts of speech and metrical feet but this one poem gets the basic idea over well enough. Visual poems aside you cannot have a poem without these. Indeed that could be an argument against visual poems being 'poems' but that's an issue for another time.


The Lowest Common Denominator

What does a poem do? What is the first thing it does? Take everything else away and what are you left with? It occupies time and space.

The function of
this poem is
to use up time.
There is no more.

This is the point to 'The Lowest Common Denominator'. The very least that anyone will do when reading a poem is use up time. Whether that 400px-P_fraction.svg becomes a waste of time depends on the individual. So I decided to write a poem that only set out to do that.

It admits up front what its function is. It does so mechanically, like a pre-recorded message. You could leave after the first stanza. You stay of your own free will. You have lost your time; the poem has it now and there are no refunds. You cannot appeal to a higher authority. You cannot ring me up and say, "Jim, could you change your poem so it does something else?" because that is all it was designed to do. Sorry.

The poem is a direct response to people who, after reading a poem or a story or interacting with any art form, come out with something like, "Well, that was a total waste of time." They annoy the hell out of me. Art requires time. Even more, it demands it. Before you get down to liking it or not liking it you have to be prepared to devote time to it. How much is up to you. As I walk around an art gallery I'll glance at every painting there but they do not all get the same amount of time. Some never get a second look. I make that call.

Think about that verb for a moment: devote. I chose it carefully. It has religious connotations, true, but the point I wanted to make was that poetry requires time specifically set aside for its appreciation. You can't have a poetry tape playing in the background while you work on your computer the way you can with music; there's no such a thing as background-poetry. Devotion also suggests zeal. You need to approach poetry with the right mindset. You need to be receptive, open.


Second Draft

The last poem, 'Second Draft', is related to 'A Thoughtful Poem' in that it is also concerned with the ageing process: how poems go off. This is more from a writer's perspective than a reader's I have to say. I look at some of my older poems and I want to take a hatchet to them. I don't of course. They were as good as I could do at the time and they also reflect my mindset when I wrote them. I would tackle the subjects in completely different ways now. It's also a comment on youthful poetry in general. When I see a lot of poems online I just know they're by newbies because they go on and on and on. Mine certainly did.

As I get older I find that I have less that really needs to be said and need less words to say it. I know what you're thinking: Christ, Jim, how can you say that when you look at the length of your posts? and you're quite churchill right. I offer in my defence Winston Churchill. An anecdote my dad was fond of telling concerned how much time Churchill needed before giving a speech:

Winston Churchill is said to have replied, "Two hours," when asked how long he needed to prepare a two-minute speech. When asked how long he needed to prepare a two-hour speech, he said, "I'm ready now." - The Confident Speaker by Harrison Monarth, Larina Kase, p 210

And I'm the same. I've set myself a goal of two posts a week and so I don't have the time to whittle them down to the bare essentials. My poems are a different matter entirely.

I had in mind Beckett's final poem, written on his deathbed, 'What is the Word?' when I wrote this poem. I find the image a very striking one, a dying man searching for that one last word that will give his life meaning. I suspect the word Beckett would have settled on actually would have been 'folly' because he was nothing less than disparaging of his own efforts.

But what are you really trying to say? I've had people ask that. Usually, being Scots, all I get is: Ah don get it. And that's when I know I've usually said too much. Basil Bunting, in his advice to young poets included this section:

Put your poem away till you forget it, then:

6. Cut out every word you dare.
7. Do it again a week later, and again.

It's good advice. I put it this way: Say what you have to say and get off the page.

I think I have done.

So, I'll go.



Marion McCready said...

What a fantastic post, Jim! I really enjoyed the poems, like holding a mirror up to the poetry-reader reflecting back on ourselves our thoughts and expectations.

Art Durkee said...

You never metapoetry you didn't like?

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Sorlil. I have to say when the five poems were accepted I did wonder how I was going to write a post tying them all together but I think it worked out quite well.

And, Art. One sentence and a bad pun? Are you poorly or something?

Anonymous said...

Jim - tying the five poems together (your needles always have thread!) worked out quite well indeed.

I read the poems and enjoyed every one. I think because they were dispassionate and fearless (I hope these words make you smile at least a little). A poem is a precious thing. I was reminded of the lyrics of ’must I paint you a picture’ by billy bragg

The temptation
To take the precious things we have apart
To see how they work
Must be resisted for they never fit together again

I’m glad you did not resist the temptation. I'm glad you were taking the poetry apart.


I love your phrase 'background poetry.' I think, I may be wrong, but I think it might be out there somewhere.

(I left a comment on Writer's Bloc too. . . I couldn't resist given the comment that Ani left.)


Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comment, Koe. One thing I have learned through the Wonderful Worldwide Web is that there are very few truly new ideas which is why Google just threw up 15 million entries for "background poetry".

I appreciate the Billy Bragg quote. It reminds me of a poem a friend of mine wrote about pulling a flower to pieces to wee how it worked. Thankfully one can deconstruct a poem and still have a copy there safe and sound.

Dick said...

You've outdone Stephen Fry here, Jim. An excellent post.

McGuire said...

Your poems are devastating. I really like them but they have a barren quality that is in stark contradiction to my 'over the top' poetic flare.

I enjoyed them however, the strip the poem bare, the beg the question why you are reading them at all, they demonstrate in some ways the 'meaninglessness' of reading a poem. A short waste of imaginative time.

Deconstructing poetry can be a sterile, cold room of a business, but in my view you succeeded, but you are a cold rationalist with your meta poetry. I'm always here to add a little fruit and spice.

Untenably metaphorical and imaginative and colourful. For many, this is the antithesis of what poetry should be.

Interesting as ever.

Nearly finished here in Italy, to be honest, I can'r wait to get home. Italy has been intriguing but also in many ways quite miserable. I will love to see Glasgow anew for the first few weeks.

I'll be reading.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that comment, Dick but I'd be grateful if you'd not let Mr Fry know about this otherwise his intellect might just come and eat mine for breakfast.

And, McGuire, devastating, eh? Not quite sure how to take that compliment either. I don't think that the poems are pointless though. If that's all I wrote then fair enough. One of the things I think is important for all writers but especially poets and that is to understand these "machine(s) made out of words", as William Carlos Williams called poems, work. Machines obey laws so why not poems too?

I studied Applied Mechanics at school but I had a great deal of difficulty equating the formulae I had memorised with, for example, driving a car. But driving a car depends on so many laws. There a beauty to a mathematical formula – all those Greek letters – mmmmm. You just need to open your eyes.

McGuire said...

Jim, I always thought algebra, was a country in eastern europe. Maths was never my strong point.

You can drive a car without having to know how to build one or how it works in mechanic detial.

I always like to build simple structures with large crayon strokes of colour.

My eyes are open perhaps I need to do a bit of woodwork mind you.

It was devastating in a way that wasn't altogether 'bad' you just deconstructed poetry down to its bare scaffolding. Which for a man like me, who likes broad strokes, was a rare and welcome challenege.

You sayin' a canny build a poem right? ;)

Curtis Faville said...


If you want to think about a poem which has none of the characteristics of poetry, try the work of Barrett Watten. Better, read my series of blog entries on his book-length poem, Progress; here's one



Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Curtis. I've had a wee search online to see if I could find more poetry by Barrett Watten. There's not a lot. I managed to find one site where he read a few poems. One about Tibet seemed okay but I would have liked to have seen the thing written down. Even on his website there were no examples which I thought was odd.

McGuire said...

I'm back in Glasgow. First morning here. Refreshing. I'll return to Italy in the future. I'm sure but for now it's nice to be back.

No response to my last comment, Jim. Perhaps I'm learning to be more precise. I really should. Moving from feral prose to a more considered and precise apprroach.

I really enjoyed your poems, Jim, don't get me wrong. Their sprase and precise nature at once devastating (for their cold articulation and clarity). It makes me realise how far I have to go in terms of precision.

I'm off to the post office and then to the shops to by some tetley tea. Shocking. 26 and fond of tetley more than beer. (Aye right....but I haven't had a cup since Feburary.)

Jim Murdoch said...

Sorry, McGuire, i wasn't being rude or anything. I just didn't think your comment needed a response. It's hard to know who should have the last say. Your point about the car is perfectly valid, however, an understanding of how that car works (and by that I mean beyond which pedals to push and that) can go a long way. I believe that a poem is a machine made out of words and what I've done with these poems is to strip away everything bar the mechanics. Every other poem I've written will have this stuff going on but you don't always see it. And some poets never do nor would they be benefitted by the knowledge. That's what I mean when I talk about my knowledge of Applied Mechanics and my ability to drive a car. The two were not connected in my head. I had drawn diagrams of the two-, three- and four-stroke engines but seeing one under my car bonnet was another thing entirely.

Glad you made it back to Scotland safe and sound. I don't drink much tea these days and when I do it's decaffeinated. I never knew there was caffeine in tea till Carrie showed me the box. So there you go. Needless to say my coffee is also decaffeinated and I'm on sweeteners and I have to take it black so you'll forgive me if I don't get excited about beverages. Oh, and when the messages came today there was a box of green tea in with them because apparently it's good for us. Yeuch.

Anonymous said...

As you know - I look to mine the old posts now and again - I like to see what was going on a year ago. I had remembered reading this one back when - but hadn't remembered the comment I'd left. I love your short, thoughtful poems. Sometimes it seems the shorter they are the more punch they have.

The link behind Beckett's "What is the Word?" seems to be broken - thought you might like to know.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for that, Koe. I've fixed that broken link now.

Bob Tanner said...


I wish that I could write like Horace;
But is America like Rome?
Both sets of leaders’ heads are porous.
It may be leadership syndrome
That sets in when a politician
Has risen to a high position:
They all forget what they were taught
In civics so they’re easy bought.
So politicians are generic.
But what of poets? Are they too?
Indeed. The difference is milieu.
The Romans, closer to barbaric
Ways of life, put them to death. Here?
You could be talking to your mirror.


Jim Murdoch said...

So politicians and poets are generic, the only difference being the environment? I suppose I can accept that. I’ve never been much of a nature poet. I’m just glad we live in more enlightened times when being a poet isn’t such a risky thing to be. Thanks for the comment, Bob.

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