I have been coming to this dinner for close to twenty years so it’s a treat for me to be able to share some of my thoughts on poetry today—specifically the idea of “Action.” I found the concept of “action” a timely and interesting topic to explore, especially in today’s current poetry environment. There are countless ways to examine the idea of action in poetry, but for a place to start, I’d like to suggest that even by coming here today, by attending this event, you have taken a step to put action into your poetic life. I see “poetry in action” taking place today in a myriad of ways. In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, on any given day you can attend dozens of readings. This is one of the most obvious ways to see our poems come alive. Reading our poetry in a public format is a way to make our poems rise up off the page and take motion via an oratory means.
When Dana Gioia gave his keynote address at the Pleasanton Poetry and Arts Festival last year, he spoke a great deal about his program “Poetry Out Loud.” This has been an inspiring and effective way for youth to get excited about poetry. It emphasizes the idea of recitation. Mr. Gioia spoke about the oratory roots of poetry as well. He was suggesting that when we give poems voice, it is a tangible way to make poetry come alive. Billy Collins has an entire Web site (www.bcactionpoet.org) in which he has several of his poems come alive through video. It is like watching MTV with poetry. As you know, MTV changed the music industry forever—as has the spoken word of poetry.
Of course now there is “YouTube.” “YouTube” has become a mainstay of poetry recitation. It gives us a chance to see a poet and a poem come alive on our screen. It gives us a chance to hear the poem in the poet’s voice. And of course, as we know, poetry of the “spoken word” in the last ten years has taken flight—as an activity for many poets or writers who would not have otherwise been excited or drawn to poetry.
But now I’d like to focus my discussion today on the nucleus of my presentation:
ACTION IN POETRY ON THE PAGE
I see this as a critical element in writing a great poem. I think this is the challenge for many poets today. I also believe that perfecting the balance of action in a poem can dramatically affect its success or failure as a written work.
I’d like to start with a quote by Robert Frost in which he states:
“The vital thing to consider in all composition, in prose or verse, is the Action of the voice: sound, posturing, gesture. Get the stuff of life into the technique of your writing. That’s the only escape from rhetoric.”
“The stuff of life”—whatever that is for you—whatever that means, make sure you blend that into your poetry whenever you can. Focus on sounds, gesture, and those elements Frost references in the above-stated quote. I believe that for a poem to be effective, it must stay in motion from start to finish.
The idea of action in poetry was explored even as early as in Aristotle’s “Poetics.”
In “Poetics” Aristotle refers to epic poetry in terms of tragedy and comedy. He states: “For tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.”
I think it is significant that Aristotle addresses the idea of action and how it consists in life—and I’d like to extend that thought to emphasize that it also must exist in the life of our poems.
I have read many poems that may do a good job of describing something, of saying something narrative, but leave the reader flat, because there is no motion in the poem.
The poet Stanley Kunitz, in his book The Wild Braid, says this about action in poetry:
“After a certain period, the poem seems to have no maker at all. Poems gather their own momentum and you feel they’re moving on their own. You are part of the world in which they are born and come to maturity, but they have an identity beyond the person to whom they are confiding because the poem doesn’t really belong to anyone, it belongs to a great tradition. The great tradition includes what I think of as the essential spirit of the poem, which belongs to centuries, and not to any single moment in time.”
I like how Kunitz suggests that the poem must gather its own momentum, like a good orchestra symphony, and it must move and breathe on its own. You are not swept away by one note, a series of notes, but by the combination of the music as a whole.
I also find interesting the concept that the poem is larger than ourselves and belongs to this universal space that transcends time and our own existence. That is achieved, I believe, by giving our poems momentum.
In an interview with Rita Dove from the Fall 2003 issue of American Poet Ms. Dove was asked by Robert McDowell:
“Can you talk a little about the movement of dance, and the movement (as in line to line, image to image, idea or thing to idea or thing) of poetry?”
Dove: “Poetry is a kind of dance already. Technically, there's the play of contemporary speech against the bass-line of the iambic, but there's also the expression of desire that is continually restrained by the limits of the page, the breath, the very architecture of the language—just as dance is limited by the capabilities of our physical bodies as well as by gravity. A dancer toils in order to skim the surface of the floor, she develops muscles most of us don't even know we have; but the goal is to appear weightless. A poet struggles to render into words that which is unsayable—the ineffable, that which is deeper than language—in the hopes that whatever words make the final cut will, in turn, strike the reader speechless.”
In the same interview, she also says: “At times, too much self-involvement can degrade a poem.”
As a side note, I took up Dance at a studio in college in San Luis Obispo. I was writing some poems then, and doing some dancing, but I think you can see by my standing here that I did not end up at the San Francisco Ballet, but I did continue my poetic life!
In the context of poetry being a dance, I think Rita Dove is saying that we can indeed work effectively within the limits of the page. To extend the idea of dance to the poem—if a person off the street came into a dance studio and raised her leg over her head and tried to do a complex dance combination, she would most likely fall and end up with injuries. The muscles must be trained and toned; they must know and study good dance. One can’t expect to pick up a pen and write a perfect poem without having studied poetry. There is also a concept in dance called “muscle memory,” and let me suggest to you that our poems must have their own “muscle memory”—they must retain the knowledge of how to move with us, across a page. The longer the person dances, the deeper is their muscle memory! To know how to move in a dance is to know how to select the right words, to move to the next dance sequence (or the next stanza). The transitions from one phase of either the dance or the poem must seem effortless, yet still move fluidly.
Further in the same interview, Dove states:
“In ‘Bolero,’ for example, the rhythm of the dance is duplicated visually on the page, with one extremely long line followed by two short lines in an approximation of the ‘slow / quick-quick’ of this very slow and sensuous dance. I wanted the reader to be stretched out to the limit of the page, and only then snapping back to the left margin—to reality? back to earth?—where he is allowed to take a breath (i.e., the stanza break) before returning to the fray.”
When you start a poem, think of yourself as stepping into the studio, and believe that the poem waits for you. All of the long extensions, the delicate turns, the balance needed must take you places you never expected. In order to make our poems strong, we must do the hard calisthenics of writing. We must know where to place our nouns, verbs, and line breaks. We must know how to weave them so that the poem will not fall flat.
A dance does not merely end by the body stopping movement. The lines continue beyond the dance. This poem I will read, written by Ellen Bass, was in response to a comment Billy Collins made in regard to one of her poetry books:
Mighty Strong Poems
for Billy Collins
"What mighty strong poems," he said.
And I repeat it all day, staggering
under sheaves of rejections.
But my poems, oh yes, they are brawny.
Even now I can see them working out at the gym
in their tiny leopard leotards, their muscly words
glazed with sweat. They are bench pressing
heavy symbolism. Heaving stacks of similes,
wide-stanced and grimacing. Some try so hard,
though it's a lost cause. Their wrinkled syntax,
no matter how many reps they do, will sag.
But doggedly, they jog in iambic pentameter,
walkmans bouncing. Some glisten with clever
enjambments, end rhymes tight as green plums.
Others practice caesuras in old sweats.
But they're all there, huffing and puffing,
trying their best. Even the babies, the tender
first-drafts, struggling just to turn over, whimpering
in frustration. None of them give up.
Not the short squat little haikus
or the alexandrines trailing their long, graceful
Isadora Duncan lines. While I fidget
by the mailbox, they sail off in paper airplanes,
brave as kindergartners boarding the school bus.
They're undaunted in their innocent conviction,
their heartbreaking hope. They want to lift cars
off pinned children, rescue lost and frozen
wanderers—they'd bound out,
little whiskey barrels strapped to their necks.
They dream of shrugging off their satin
warm-up robes and wrestling with evil.
They'd hoist the sack of ordinary days
and bear it aloft like a crown. They believe
they're needed. Even at night when I sleep
and it looks like they're sleeping, they're still
at it, lying silently on the white page,
doing isometrics in the dark.
This poem does a beautiful job of describing the intricate work poets must do in order to strengthen their poetry. When thinking about giving our poems a good workout, think about a weight lifter who is at the gym too often and takes too many steroids. There are so many muscles that you can’t even see the body. The true lines of the body are lost in the muscle mass (too many words, too much description, too much narrative). In contrast, think of someone who never works out, who is thin, bony and who has no body definition. You need more than the bone structure of a poem to make it work! You need the bones, the well-defined muscle about the bone. You need it to look good with or without clothing. In addition, you must continue the practice of writing.
the athletes of language. If you work out at the gym and do great isometrics for years and suddenly stop, all those well-developed muscles will begin to sag. We must remember how important it is to keep our poems in motion....
In her book Nine Gates (a collection of essays on poetry) Jane Hirshfield states that “every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections—language that hears itself and what is around it, sees itself and what is around it, looks back at those who look into its gaze and knows more perhaps even than we do about who and what we are. It begins, that is, in the body and mind of concentration.”
A poem in motion must also have connection and raise our knowledge to a higher level, without overtelling the reader where we are or what to believe. In 2004 I went to a panel presentation about poetry with Robert Hass and Jane Hirshfield at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. I remember in that discussion Jane Hirshfield said that every poem must start with a slight disturbance. A slight something that puts the reader into a state of uncertainty. With that, it’s the poet’s job to take the reader to another level of meaning and awareness.
To build on the previous ideas of Kunitz on “what is too much and what is not enough,” in his book, The Wild Braid, Kunitz says:
“In so many instances the poem is muddied by too much explanation, too much exposure. What one is aiming for is the indication of an energy or a spirit, below the surface, in the secret vaults of the self, that somehow withers under too much exposure or explanation. That’s why I’ve always believed that so much of the energy of the poem comes from the secrets it folds what we would call, the flower, its crown.”
Kunitz draws many parallels between writing poems and gardening. When gardening, and also when creating a poem, he says:
“… so much of the effort is to get rid of all the excess, and at the same time be certain you are not ridding the poem of its essence. A certain degree of sprawl is necessary, it should feel as if there is room to maneuver, that you’re not trapped in a cell. You must be very careful not to deprive the poem of its wild origin.”
I believe that the “wild origin” is key here. We must think of letting the “wild things” in to our work. Things that sometimes don’t make immediate sense, but will make the poem take unexpected turns and twists. I think in order to have a poem with balanced action, we have to be willing to take risks.
I’d like now to read a Kuntiz poem that I think captures the essence of allowing action to seep into your poem.
The Snakes of September
All summer I heard them
rustling in the shrubbery,
outracing me from tier
to tier in my garden,
a whisper among the viburnums,
a signal flashed from the hedgerow,
a shadow pulsing
in the barberry thicket.
Now that the nights are chill
and the annuals spent,
I should have thought them gone,
in a torpor of blood
slipped to the nether world
before the sickle frost.
Not so. In the deceptive balm
of noon, as if defiant of the curse
that spoiled another garden,
these two appear on show
through a narrow slit
in the dense green brocade
of a north-country spruce,
dangling head-down, entwined
in a brazen love-knot.
I put out my hand and stroke
the fine, dry grit of their skins.
we are partners in this land,
co-signers of a covenant.
At my touch the wild
So the next time you sit down, with a blank sheet of paper (or in front of a blank screen) try to remember, if you are in the room dancing with your poem, kick your poetic legs, spin your stanzas to a pirouette. Use the rhythm of the dance to elevate the choreography to something no one has ever seen. If you are lifting weights (in the poetic sense) make the poem strong by knowing where to place the heaviest words, when to rest the muscle, and how to find definition in the body of the poem. If you are the wild braid in the garden, find the delicate balance of trimming and growth, of water and fertilizer. Tend to your poems, and don’t forget those snakes, sleek and long and wild—let them glide over your language, let them in … simply, let them in.
1. Robert Frost, Robert Frost on Writing
Elaine Barry, editor
Rutgers University Press 1973
1. Ellen Bass, “Mighty Strong Poems”
Mules of Love, BOA Editions 2002
2. The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden
Stanley Kunitz and Genine Lentine
W. W. Norton and Company 2005
3. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry
Jane Hirshfield, Harper Collins 1998
4. American Poet, Fall 2003, “Poets of the Dance”
an interview with Rita Dove by Robert McDowell