Tension and Transparency: Mostly Poetry

Posted on:February 24, 2019

Hello. In my last blog, I talked about the importance of place as it shapes our identity. For a long time, my muse was place, my home town of Croghan, New York. Northern New York–I mean NORTH–to be exact. And it was a small enough town that every kid was known, and related by blood or marriage, by everybody, so you couldn’t get away with anything. Life was transparent. And sometimes tense.

When I think about transparency and tension in writing, they often coexist in prose, whether in a prose poem or a piece of fiction. And maybe nonfiction essays, although I don’t know, because I haven’t thought about those much. But I picked up a couple of books, The Art of the Personal Essay, and a collection of Emerson’s essays (and some poems), that I want to look at. And of course, there are nonfiction essays in a lot of literary journals, too, which I faithfully read. I love literary journals: they’re a great way to see what people are writing about, and how they’re doing it. Some of my favorites are TIN HOUSE, PLOUGHSHARES, POETRY (although I don’t understand all of it, and I’ll probably never get published there; what I do is different from their aesthetics. It’s just like trying to get published in THE NEW YORKER), PRAIRIE SCHOONER and so on. I learn a lot.

Anyway, I know fiction is supposed to have tension from the outset. It needs a conflict that generates a plot and establishes, creates characters. And as we’ve all heard a thousand times, it needs a middle and end, that provides some kind of resolution. That resolution may be happy, may be obvious (we hope not; it takes the life away from the experience of reading the story), may be sad, or may leave us hanging. It’s like life: not everything gets resolved, no matter who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve done. As somebody said somewhere (I can’t remember who, where or when), it’s not the job of the writer to make you happy. (Not that you should look a gift horse in the mouth. [What a weird expression, although I understand what it means.])

As for poetry, in a good poem there’s a tension operating. What is it you’re trying to say, and how do you say it without coming out and just telling (remember “show, don’t tell”?) it. I myself have been guilty on occasion of getting caught up in some issue, like the unexpected death of my friend. It was terrible: she was dead for hours before I found the body, and I was so stricken I wanted to write about it right away. So I started from the beginning with every detail about everything and before I knew it, I’d written the most boring piece of journalism. (Yes, I know there’s an art to good journalism. This wasn’t.) So after a few days, I scrapped it, and found a way to show what I felt at the moment I realized she was dead, didn’t kill the reader too with too much detail, but what’s best in a poem I relied on images and cadences and form, etc. It came out much better, but I can’t show it to you right now because of publication issues.

In fact, this brings me to my second point: transparency. I don’t know how transparency applies to fiction, although I love short fiction. One of my favorite monthly treats is the arrival of ONE STORY. They do some great stories, and even though you might not know where you’re going or how the author is going to get you there, he/she does. It’s very tasty. (When I finish reading one while waiting for someone, I pass it on to a reader friend of mine. She loves them, and has quite a collection in her car’s glove box, for those many moments she’s waiting for her grandchildren to finish therapy, or swimming lessons, or soccer practice.)

Back to transparency in poetry. In one way, a poem can seem very simple. Think of Dickinson. Stafford. Bly. The late Mary Oliver. Jane Kenyon. John Guzlowski. And a ton of other writers. You read them and you think, well, that seems easy, clear enough. But then you realize, honey, it may seem easy, being apparently no more than what’s on the page or in the ear, but then you realize this is not some “spring is coming/and the flowers are so pretty. The end. Rather, what you’ve really got–and this is what I like so much about the writers I mentioned, as well as other writers–you have a crafted moment: the writer has given you a moment you live. To borrow a Christian phrase, there is a sense in which the poem is “begotten, not made” (I’m not a Christian, but I think that’s from the Nicene Creed, just in case you’re interested). The poem is, and has always been waiting to be plucked out of time, to create a new life. Yet it is ultimately beyond time.

And sometimes on first encounter, a poem will seem anything but clear, transparent. You have to read it, on the page or read aloud (which I’m a great believer in) many times. It seems dense, difficult to speak (I always think of the tongue twisters of G. M. Hopkins, whom I love), hard to get your head around. There are so many levels to work through. Yet, once, like the snap of a bone, suddenly you KNOW, and a new kind of transparency emerges. As the early Church Father, St. Hilary of Poitiers said, in speaking of the Trinity’s mystery, which we humans can never fully grasp, precisely because we’re human, “we will venture, we will seek, we will speak.”

And every poet, in a sense, is doing precisely that: venturing, seeking, speaking the mystery of being human in this world, so much greater than we can possibly understand. There’s a kind of paradox between tension and transparency. And every time we return to a poem, it’s like starting anew. It’s the mystery of life. Who can understand it? Yet we all must, as poets we are compelled, to try as long as we live and breathe.

Thank G-d for poetry. And poets.


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