Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Building a Mystery: Blueprints from Norman

Norman takes me up on my "assignment," in the last post, to outline "the rhetorical tricks, the gestures of language" that make a poem seem mysterious. (This as an alternative, you may recall, to getting woozy on incense and / or treating the poem as a puzzle to be solved.) He uses the Howe I posted as his test case, and comes up with this partial list:

1. Subject matter: a significant moment in the Western mythos, with tremendous historical and cultural influence. So, in effect, mystery is hardwired in the poem.

2. Parataxis: the use of a paratactic, relatively fragmented and disjunctive mode of writing suggests a secretive code or whispered truth.

3. Repetition & variation: this creates a litany-like effect or the sense of a magic spell.

4. Stanza structure: the use of the couplet and then single lines provides a sense of order and contributes to the music, the rhythm of thought. In this case, I get a feeling of measured calm.

5. Mixed discourse: Immediate and expressive discourse juxtaposed with a more "analytic" or even "scholarly" type of language. This results in a high degree of...

6. Self-consciousness: an overriding sense of awareness in and of the poem; i.e. this is mystery and simultaneously an investigation or demystifying of mystery.

"Howe is a master of all this," he adds; "one sees it used to great effect in Palmer's poetry too. Of course, I would never think of trying it in my poems."

(Gosh, kids? Do you think we should take a look at one of Norman's next? Check out these passages from his long poem, Track, for a sneak preview. They're pretty darned masterful, too.)

Needless to say, I like Norman's list, not least because it is a list, a heuristic, which you could teach to students and then have them use to read other "mysterious" poems, with an eye to which techniques they deploy, and when, and what additional techniques come into play. Heck, if you had a creative writing class, you could give them this list of techniques as part of an assignment. They're somewhat more open-ended than a "write a sestina" assignment, but I've had a belly-full of sestinas (hasn't everyone?), and there are plenty of significant moments in the Western mythos yet to be mined for ore.

One afterthought: notice how the first move Norman lists--the turn to "significant" subject matter--lets your paratactic, even disjunctive poem ride piggyback on a much more familiar and comfortable mode of transport: narrative. Better: story.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the mind craves stories, and if God B didn't want us to select data from the buzzing, blooming chaos around us and shape them into complexly coherent narratives, we wouldn't have evolved to do it so endlessly and effortlessly. "Mysterious" poems that play off existing stories--whether myth, history, or the autobiographical introduction to a collection, as Howe often does--always seem to me far more effective than "mysterious" poems that don't. And when you get a "mysterious" poem that plays off of several stories at once, as Ronald Johnson's ARK does with Orpheus and Eurydice, the Wizard of Oz, Genesis chapters 1 and 2, and a variety of other twice-told tales, you get that much more mental engagement, that much more pleasure and play.

(Speaking of which, although I've linked to Mark Scroggins' blog so often here--do any of you know his poems? His first book, Anarchy, has a series of poems that play off two powerful stories, at least for me--the rise and fall of punk rock, in my own youth, and the English Civil War, which last brings elements of the Western mythos from dueling Christianities to debates over freedom and authority into the mix. He gets the conjunction from Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces, one of the best books in any genre in the last twenty-five years, but Marcus gives you narrative, and Scroggins, shattered lyric. Great stuff, and students into rock music would love it.)

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