December 2013 Discussion Guide

The Fine Art of Poetry

Taking a Good Look at the December 2013 Poetry

The Fine Art of Poetry

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In “Alfresco,” a special section of the December 2013 Poetry, rectangular strips of grocery-bag paper stretch across the pages, as long and low-lying as what they portray: flat, expansive tree lines, riverbanks, and hills. The artist, Merrill Gilfillan, labels these colored-pencil scenes with titles—“Mouth of the Frenchman Fork,” “The North Platte at Daybreak”—that run just below his horizons, almost as though they were part of these placid landscapes themselves.

Gilfillan’s use of paper bags—like Emily Dickinson’s use of envelopes, discussed in the last issue—raises a question: what’s the effect of creating art on such an ephemeral, everyday material? Does it make the views themselves seem ephemeral—glimpsed and then lost, as though from the window of a moving car? Perhaps it highlights the evanescence of the passing seasons, which yellow the fields in “Grand River near Mahto” and crown the trees with snow in “North Fork Republican River.” The ordinariness of paper bags might hint at the ordinariness of the view, which, unlike a panorama from the Grand Canyon or the Willis Tower, is available to anyone traveling by. Or maybe Gilfillan selected paper bags for their tone and texture: the rough, dusty brown that complements the landscapes’ colors and recalls the earth itself.

These visual concerns might seem far afield from literary analysis, but for Gilfillan, the fine arts have much in common with the fine art of poetry. In the series of observations that follows his artwork, he writes:

I remember standing in the poetry sections of Ann Arbor bookstores as a college boy — Bob Marshall’s, Slater’s, Centicore — taken in the abstract by the lines on the pages, the lines in formation, stanzaic or otherwise, remember holding the books at arm’s length, nearly beyond the focal point, to heighten that sense of orchestrated ink, of somehow avian arrangement seen as insinuative choreography: a scape with motion and skyline, with breath and skein of cranes or sea ducks.

When you look at a poem for the first time, what do you see? Do you notice the contours the text cuts across the page’s white background? Do you then associate those forms with mountainsides, waterfalls, birds, buttons? Or do you focus instead on the poem’s linguistic art, absorbing its shape only later, if at all?

Several poems in this issue seize our visual as well as our verbal attention. See Douglas Kearney’s “Every Hard Rapper’s Father Ever: Father of the Year,” and notice how hard it is, at first, to do anything but see it. The poem plays with sound and sense, but it also plays with space: Kearney repeats a quatrain multiple times, and partway down the page, he starts overlaying that same quatrain on top of his text. Lower still, he overlays atop his overlays, producing an illegible blur. The quatrain reads:

because we rhyme with bother
slant brother, mother, smother, other
can be slurred to farther, author
made of hate, far, after, fear

In the course of these lines, Kearney’s words wander farther and farther from “father”: first he provides a perfect rhyme, and then several slant rhymes. Slurring those produces non-rhymes, and deconstructing the non-rhymes yields “hate,” “far,” “after,” and “fear”—words fairly remote from “father” (and words that could allude to a father who is himself remote). The quatrain hints at emotional distancing while it enacts verbal distancing, and its blurred text corresponds to its slurred words.

The overlays have other effects as well: they give the impression of multiplicity, of many fathers speaking at once until it’s impossible to understand what any of them is saying. Faced with such an onslaught, we ourselves might feel “bothered,” “smothered,” and “othered”; we might even experience a tinge of “hate” and “fear.”

Then, out of the maelstrom, regularity and readability return. Kearney ends his poem by reiterating the line “and you can’t you won’t you don’t stop,” borrowed from the Beastie Boys—a phrase that might refer not only to the intractability of fathers and sons, but also to Kearney’s own repetitions.

A similar relentlessness marks Kearney’s poem “Noah/Ham: Fathers of the Year.” Like “Every Hard Rapper’s Father Ever,” it serves as both visual and literary art: lines of text splay every which way, each colliding with an iteration of the word “HEE!,” which appears in various jumbo sizes and tilts in various directions.

In the Biblical story of Noah and Ham, Ham responds poorly (though no one knows quite how) to seeing his father, Noah, drunk and naked; in response, Noah curses Ham’s son Canaan. Ubiquitous and visually violent, the “HEE!”s recall drunken laughter, and the poem, tumbling down the page with seeming haphazardness, mimics a drunken collapse—as well as the collapse of Noah’s relationship with his Ham, and Ham’s with his own son. In this poem about the disruption of relationships among males, “HEE!” may also function as a pun for “he.”

Much of the poem’s text seems to comment on its physicality; people are “prone,” “down,” “not coming up,” and “falling”; the women “throw their clean hands up, cast their dry eyes down.” Does every poem, in one sense or another, comment on its own physicality? In Rae Armantrout’s “Geography,” her petite stanzas complement the pointed pinpricks of her observations, and in Patricia Lockwood’s “The Hypno-Domme Speaks, and Speaks and Speaks,” the lines nearly overrun the page, matching the garrulous narrator.

At what point in your reading routine, if at all, do you notice such visual effects? How would it change your experience of poetry to take their landscaping into account even before you read them, as Gilfillan did in an Ann Arbor bookstore years ago?

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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