Discussion Guide

Getting in Shape

Form and Function in the November 2011 Poetry.

The tradition of concrete poetry provides sturdy foundations for several pieces in the November 2011 Poetry. A concrete poem physically resembles its topic: see, for instance, George Herbert’s classic “Easter Wings” (which Michael Robbins mentions in this issue’s review of Geoffrey Hill). See also T. Zachary Cotler’s sloping poem “Clover”:

On a brain-gray day,
                                      he lay on the hill-slanted solar
array with a southern exposure,
toes in the clover
                                 mixed in with what are these
pentagrammatic sprays
of pinnate leaves.
                                 No clover
here has four leaves:
to each one he says
I have seen you before
                                           in the nuclear hazard
symbol and then again (as
again slants backward)
before that, as nothing but clover
                                                             when childhood was not yet over
and everything was symbol therefore
nothing was.

This poem’s bluffs and cliffs recall the hill where its speaker lounges. Like the “pentagrammatic sprays” of clover, it features five protrusions, which also match the speaker’s five “toes in the clover.” How does the layout of the poem affect your reading experience? Do you merely chuckle at Cotler’s cleverness, or does the poem’s design enable you to engage more of your functions as you read, thereby understanding the poem in a deeper way?

Todd Boss’s slender poem about penciling runs down the side of the page, tapering off at the bottom like a lead point:

The World Is in Pencil

— not pen. It’s got

that same silken
dust about it, doesn’t it,

that same sense of
having been roughed

onto paper even 
as it was planned.

It had to be a labor
of love. It must’ve

taken its author some
time, some shove.

I’ll bet it felt good
in the hand — the o

of the ocean, and
the and and the and

of the land.

This poem doesn’t just mimic the form of a pencil: it emphasizes the shape of its own words. By mentioning “the ‘o’ of ‘ocean,’” Boss prompts us to notice the appearance of that term. He also calls to mind the look of the ocean itself—how it encircles the globe in a great “o,” and each of its curling waves constitutes another, lower-case “o.”

And “and” draws our attention not only to the expansiveness of terrain, but also to the geography of the word “land”: the precipices of “l” and “d,” the valley of “an.” In Boss’s hands, poems and words become visual objects, halfway to artwork.

His speaker asserts that the world was “roughed onto paper even as it was planned”—as though the world is a working draft. What do you make of that gesture toward the “roughness” of the world? Is Boss describing the imperfections of our artworks, or of us, or both? Does that roughness “feel good,” or is it something we constantly strive to correct? Can you spot any roughness in this poem, and if so, does it seem a strength or weakness?

If Boss’s and Cotler’s poems lean toward visual art, David Shapiro provides artwork proper in a series of “altered photographs.” He has bedecked old photos with stickers of ballet shoes, stars, giraffes, butterflies, candy canes, and more. He has also written anecdotes that complement the images: they are recollections filled with quotations, statements in collage.

The “roughness” of his artistic practice is evident to a friend who asks repeatedly, “Oh, why are you destroying those pretty pictures?” Shapiro then asserts: “Collage is not destructive.” Examining Shapiro’s images, do you feel he has destroyed anything? Or has he created something new through his unorthodox combinations?

Let’s take a look at Shapiro’s “Mouvements perpetuels” (“perpetual motions”). He mounts transparent images atop sheet music: a young female gymnast in various phases of a flip, and duplicate pictures of a woman’s face, one right-side-up and one upside-down. The musical notes climbing up and spilling down the staff harmonize visually with the gymnast’s tumbles through space, and with the contours of the faces, which trace an infinity sign — a hint at the “perpetual.” That infinity sign itself hints at the form of a violin, the instrument for which this music was written.

Shapiro’s “rough” experiment transforms “mouvements” into a triple-pun: it refers at once to a musical movement, to physical motion, and to emotion (“mouvement” also means “impulse” or “reaction,” and the woman’s face is captured in a moment of intense feeling). This fusion of music, art, and literature makes us aware of the contours of musical and visual lines, just as “Clover” and “The World Is In Pencil” emphasize the form of poetic lines.

Notice that the violin music is no longer playable — it’s partly obscured by the superimposed images — and the woman’s face is slightly hard to make out. Do you think “Mouvements perpetuels” is a work of destruction, creation, or both? 

Originally Published: November 1st, 2011
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In