How to Write a Good Rape/ Suicide/ Break-Up/ Genocide Poem, or Lightness as the Necessary Companion to All That’s Sad and Disturbing
People have been asking me what I’ve been writing lately. That’s more or less like asking “What have you been thinking about lately,” to which I could reply “appropriating men’s fashion for the thoroughly feminine body” or “Please enjoy my twitter feed” or “Rape, suicide, old people dying unhappily after living unhappy lives, how a lot of powerful and protected people want wars to keep going…” I don’t want to read poems where the author is doing anything but writing about what is (at least in that moment) an urgent concern, and I sure don’t want to write poems without said urgency. That is, of course, not the same as saying that I want to write preachy poems that pound the reader over the head with pathos-laden images insisting “Care about this!!!” We could say that all that matters has weight; we could say that the image of a starving child is heavy. But my argument is that without a certain lightness to accompany and highlight a poem’s heaviness, the reader will simply resist the weight or, over the course of the poem, become numb to it. For example, have you seen Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark? He heaps awful thing upon awful situational thing on his female lead for what feels like four hours. The tragedy and injustice moved me at first, and then I thought the relentlessness/ eventual predictability of von Trier’s bad-things-happening-to-helpless- people game was a little funny, and then I was bored and was relieved when the character finally died because it meant I could go downstairs and put my clothes in the dryer.
In his collection of essays Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino writes, “whenever humanity seems condemned to heaviness, I think I should fly like Perseus into a different space. I don’t mean escaping into the irrational. I mean having to change my approach, look at the world from a different perspective, with a different logic and with fresh methods of cognition and verification.” Referencing the myth of Perseus (who, with the help of the god Hermes’s winged sandals, was able to fly despite the stony head of Medusa in his sack), Calvino discusses heaviness as (my words) “the inability to move around because of the great burden you carry.” Heavy topics, heavy thoughts, and heavy language restrict the poet’s movements within a poem and also restrict a reader’s movements as she attempts to engage with the poem. Lightness is what’s needed. Now, I’ll warn you: Calvino’s definition of lightness (which I hope you’ll become familiar with on your own terms after purchasing his collection of essays, cited above) is slippery and flexible; don’t try to grasp it too tightly. But let’s talk more about lightness so you can think about it and make it work for you.
According to Calvino, Hamlet’s melancholy is an example of lightness: it is sadness treated with some semblance of carelessness/ cleverness/ fancifulness (all of these being closely related to humor). Some of the funniest lines (from what is one of Shakespeare’s most tragic plays) come from the piece’s most tormented character. At one point Hamlet notes the sun’s ability to impregnate a horse carcass with maggots and then requests that Polonius keep his daughter out of the sun: “Conception is a blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive. Friend, look to’t.” This moment appeals to our comic sensibilities; we are pleased by Hamlet’s bizarre logic, and also by the fact that he is (for the moment) getting away with saying these things to a tightly-wound elder. In my opinion, though, the most forcefully comic portions of Hamlet’s speech are those which go beyond cleverness or impropriety; they are the lines which express a grievous reality in a casual or light-hearted way, such as when Hamlet refers to his “uncle-Father” and his “aunt-Mother.” These labels are first enjoyable because they are innovative. Next, we appreciate the concision (“insertion of a heated blade”) of the incest reference. Then we are impressed that Hamlet’s jokes have such insidious geneses (i.e. adultery, murder). This complicated (read: “ultimately satisfying”) experience would not be possible without lightness. I think of “purer” emotions like grief or hate as heavy: they are absolute, exclusive, final. If Hamlet were to confess to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “I am sad that my father is gone and I hate my uncle for killing him,” then the matter is settled.
It is difficult for me to believe that a piece of writing can be significant/ relevant/ consequential if it does not give the reader some (at least slightly) challenging experience in which to participate; a poem in which the poet presents a problem and then resolves that problem without the help of the reader is tidily finished to the point of being dismissible. How can poems matter to us if they don’t stay with us for some duration of time after we have finished reading them? And why would a poem stay with us if there was nothing in it to trouble or perplex us a little bit? Poems must haunt the reader. Let’s imagine the “emotionally pure,” heavy poem as an old man who dies having told all his children that he loves them, having paid off all of his debts, never having cheated on his wife, etc. While this poem may inspire respect, and we may enjoy the memory of reading such a responsible, honest, well-written poem, it is not that poem that will wake us up in the middle of the night; the poem that shakes us from pleasant dreams, shining in a white nightshirt above the bed, holding a knife in one hand and a potted jade plant in other, is the poem that was terminated before all questions were answered. The old woman who died of a heart attack when the grocer’s security guard caught her putting bags of wasabi peas into her purse, old man who died laughing at his cross-eyed granddaughter: These are the poems that appear in the corner of the room while we’re chopping onions, these are the poems that dig their fingers into our minds’ soft furniture. And, as most of us have suffered more loss than we’d like, we need them to.
Hannah Gamble is the author of Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast (2012), selected by Bernadette Mayer for the 2011 National Poetry Series. She has received fellowships from InPrint Inc, The Edward F. Albee Foundation, and the University of Houston, where she served as an editor for Gulf Coast: A...