I’ve written of failure in a poem as rubble, mess I could mess with. Of how I thought that syntactic ruin was a byproduct of revision—mistakes and accidents to delete. And of how I came to recognize that a finished poem could document and display the act of working something from the wreckage.
In effect, the poem may perform an attempt to master amassed mess.
Contrast this with the observation that some poems document and display an incident of private or public ruin only after the poet has worked it.
The mess, in this case, is messed with off the page. This poem may signify mastery over the mess, the effect being that the struggle appears to happen before the poet came to the poem. The poem records the outcome of the struggle.
For me, a poem of the former order performs a way of dealing with mess as opposed to the latter’s consideration of mess that’s been dealt with before the poem’s production.
This is an oversimplification, another one of those lies. The poem of the former order may be completely choreographed in earlier drafts, the finished poem a show on the page, an illusion of a struggle happening in the reader’s “now.” The latter order’s sense of reflection may have nothing to do with being settled, and may be a performative distance we assume belongs to the poet’s “then.”
I’m not much for manifestoes but I love taxonomies. Taxonomies are useful to me because they make transgression possible. Such transgression reveals that taxonomic system’s limits. Seems to me that manifestoes are transgressions that make their limits plain but fail to see them as limits. The joke’s already on them. Hah.
I mention manifestoes and taxonomies in proximity to the former and latter orders because I think approaches to poetry are useful only so far as they help me approach a poem. There are effects different approaches make possible. If I am writing a poem in which I want the reader to ask “how is ______ love?” a sonnet may signify “love” for some readers with a particular education. This could cut the amount of explanation the poem needs. Perhaps whatever populates the sonnet is so colored by the reader’s expectation of “love” that I never need to write love.
I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what a poem doesn’t have to say.
Still, because I tend to favor repetition and revision as a compositional strategy, I need to amass bits of language with a capacity to say more. Put simply:
When you plan to use as few words as possible as many times as possible, those words better be ready to work their asses off.
In his song, “HA,” New Orleans rapper Juvenile acts as whatsayer to an invisible wardy, asking the homeboy a series of questions. At times ribbing, at other times commiserating and often interrogating. Always signifyin. The rhyme pattern is built of couplets with an adjunct—“ha”—at once a questioning like “huh?”; a conspiratorial “eh”; and a deadpanned laugh: “hah.” “HA’s” built on this tricky foundation, ha? This mass of love/hate exhalation, ha?
A part of “HA’s” chorus goes “know what it is, to make nothing out of something.” I wonder whether it’s an accidental inversion of the old mascon (mass concentration) meme, “make something out of nothing.” Or maybe it’s play and a critique about squandering resources.*
The mass amassed in the song is messy. Yet it beze messy. It persists. The “ha’s” multiply like rabbits in briar. The chorus repeats and repeats. The beat sputters and stutters before lurching back in on itself. Reliably. Just as reliably as Juvie’s going to say “ha.” Just as reliably as we can’t rely on knowing precisely how he feels about the wardy from one couplet to the next.
Maybe you’ve written a sestina. And if so, perhaps you’ve considered whether to adhere to the letter of the form regarding the teleutons. Thus, in your sestina: “Laundromat” will appear seven times. Perhaps you decide sound trumps the visual constraint of word repetition. You dive into homophonics. “…laundry. Matt/” or “…lawn. Dream at/.” Or you figure meaning beats direct repetition and/or sound. You select a synonym, “washateria,” “lavenderia,” “fluff ‘n’ fold.”
Forms and approaches with repetition-driven progressions bring these possibilities out for me. How much weight can the words I’ve amassed for repetition bear? A sestina made of seven laundromats. “Pellucid” tolls every couplet in a ghazaal. And a pantoum? Why should any line come back and how does it change?
These forms make their structures from accumulations of repetition. Buildings stripped of gypsum board read wood air wood air wood air.
Some buildings are homes. Some are prisons. Some may be both.
2004: the Callaloo Writers Workshop at Texas A&M. I was doing research on James Byrd, Jr., a black man dragged to death behind a pick-up truck in Jasper, Texas. He knew two of the three white men responsible. Testimony suggests it was the third man's ribbing that turned a ride home into a murder. 1998.
Byrd was walking home, drunk after a party. The white men had also been drinking and they were fixing to find something else to get into. They offered Byrd a ride home. Instead, they took him into the woods and beat him. Then, they chained him by his ankles to the back of the pick-up and dragged him down Huff Creek Road along the Big Thicket, a dense gnarl of woods. The fishtailing truck swung Byrd into a culvert, cutting off his arm and head.
I wanted to layer this murder with Set’s dismembering of Osiris and Orpheus’ dismemberment at the hands of the Maenads. There was also an undercooked bit about radio technology. I thought it would make a compelling set of poems I could later adapt for opera. Dust Radio. I wrote about 25 poems—one of which, “Radio,” I cannibalized for The Black Automaton.**
But I’m not going to talk about “Radio.”
I wanted to write a poem that would perform an attempt to escape. Byrd struggled with his murderers before they got fed up with beating him. They wrestled him. They hemmed him up in the truck cab. The poem would have to suggest constricted space but also Byrd’s desperation and his ultimate failure to escape.
To do this, I set about using a relatively limited mass of words—75 (including plurals, gerunds, changes of tense, homophones and stunt breaks). I repeat these words in different configurations, working instances of narrative, dialogue and chorus from them. The current draft is 377 words long. It’s called “Big Thicket: Pastoral.”
Compositionally, I wanted to see if I could escape the poem—yet, the final phrase, “It go it go on,” suggests there is, at present no escape. The poem ends, sure. What catalyzed it does not. It is happening now.
As the words reappear in new sequences, their possible meanings expand; at the same time, I hope the reader’s awareness of the poem’s limited lexicon (what I’ve begun to call a word-bank) and its attempts to work the mess read as “making a way out of no way.” Making something out of nothing.
Which brings us back to “HA” and oral performance.
“Ha” anchors “HA.” Similarly, “Big Thicket” uses an anchoring repetition. The onomatopoeic “KRAK” splinters lines but unlike Juvenile’s “ha” which is slippery in sense, but reliable in rhythm. “KRAK” has much less complexity in meaning—it is a twig snapping, a gunshot, a jaw striking pavement. But it interrupts the flow, rather than locks it. This had long been more effective in performance, I think, than in text.
For several years, I have been dissatisfied with the visual representation of the poem. A friend, the poet Jen Hofer, remarked that the short lines of earlier drafts worked against the way I read it.
I chose the right-justified formatting as a kind of abrupt end, as though the poem were colliding with something. Even so, the poem’s length is meant to suggest a longer ordeal, the drawn out execution, the bits of Byrd police found scattered over Huff Creek Road’s miles. Not the sudden end.
The lines stretch the width of the page; yet every time “KRAK” appears, the line drops a point down the baseline—these are less line breaks than line fractures. Hard line breaks exist, but do not send the following line back to the left margin. Instead, the following line simply drops down. This more accurately reflects the cadence the poem has developed over several years of performance. The text also looks more like a mass stained by scattered “KRAKs.”
If repetition, like “KRAK,” “ha” or “laundromat,” can be an anchor, I try to remember that anchors sink as well as moor ships. The amassed mass of repeated language is sometimes a weight, a physicalizing presence in a poem. I hope a poem struggling with that weight shows us something of struggles beyond the poem, that if readers’ interaction with the poem allows them to experience the poem’s tensions at a bone-deep level, they might have a more visceral response to the ruin that sparked the poem. This would be making something out of something.
*: There are of course other readings of this. For example: the nihilistic notion of violence as nothing might be the suggestion. This has traction with the remainder of the chorus which goes: “You handle your biz./And don’t be crying and suffering.” In context, however, this last bit may be an observation or a command. Ah, tricky Juvie.
**: Callaloo published a poem I think successfully conflates the three figures (“Big Thicket: Pastoral” is strictly about Byrd). It’s called “Book of the Dead: Immortality.”
Juvenile, “HA” 400 Degreez 1998
Poet, performer, and librettist Douglas Kearney grew up in Altadena, California. He received his BA from Howard University and his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and is also a graduate and fellow of Cave Canem. In the Los Angeles Times, poet David St. John observed, “What...