by Harmony Button
Instructions: Read the things in an order which is pleasing to you. Accept invitations. Come to play.
* * *
Poems, like playgrounds, provide generative space, but rely upon the participation, invention, and creation of the person who comes to play. The first thing you must do when you approach a poem – whether it is one you are reading or one you are writing – is to accept the invitation to play. When you acknowledge that your engagement in the poem is critical to the life of the poetry, then it will be no surprise to you that the poem is not locked into the words on the page, any more than the play of children is locked into the plastic seats and chain links of the swing set. Poetry is about the play, not the equipment.
* * *
Invitation #1: A poem as body
“I cannot close my ears, I have no earlids.”
— Lyn Hejinian, from My Life
What other body parts fail to translate? Describe your body in terms of its failures to close, beat, breathe or grasp.
(I cannot speak my mind, I have no mind-mouth. My heart only exhales, there is no in. My feet cannot taste earth, but they have good teeth; a walk digests in blisters, over time.)
* * *
When I am introducing students to poetry, I often feel as if I spend as much time deprogramming what they think poetry should be as I do guiding them towards alternative definitions of what it could be. I start with Naomi Shihab Nye’s found poem, “One Boy Told Me,” which is made up of quotations from her toddler son, including “Can noodles swim?” and “Just think — no one has ever seen inside this peanut, before!” — and I point to this poem as a poem that wasn’t a poem until someone called it one: a poem is an arrangement and an intention, rather than an identity. A poem is a subversive re-purposing of things you thought you understood, just like trashcan drums or up-cycled furniture. And who better to be subversive than a toddler, who has yet to acquire all the baggage of expectation that the world will soon place upon his shoulders?
* * *
Growing up, there was an old jungle gym in my parents’ backyard — one of those standard looking ones with the monkey bars, a fireman’s pole, a swing, a little trapeze bar, and a suspended wooden seesaw thing we called the “bucking bronco.” When I was six months old, sitting in my mother’s lap as she gently rocked me on the bronco, I pitched myself forward in a fit of glee and knocked the only teeth I had right out of my head — the front ones. The dentist could do nothing. I learned to speak through absences; I learned that joy is always something that can give and take away. My first poem: a tongue against the gums, a hole with a story.
* * *
In a live reading on Poetry Everywhere, Shihab Nye frames her reading of “One Boy” with a quotation from William Stafford. She tells the story: whenever anyone would ask William Stafford “when did you become a poet,” he would respond that that wasn’t the right question – the real question was, “when did you stop?” Stafford suggests that an awareness of poetry isn’t something that you learn as you get older, but an ability that you can lose, if you aren’t careful. The minute you forget to wonder “what if the clock said 6:92 instead of 6:30? Would you be scared?” is the moment that you limit your language and you lock down the world as a pathway, not a playground. You step onto the conveyor belt of adulthood and spend your days confirming what you expect to see from all that is around you.
But the alternative is also true: you should be scared. Playfulness is a kind of radicalism, a state in which intentions may be unclear, yet stakes can be quite high. To be playful is to question your assumptions, to accept a certain degree of danger; all good play carries risk of some kind, be it lost teeth or hurt feelings or the radical breakdown of the digital clock. To engage in playfulness is to quicken the blood, to awaken something primal: the desire to grow, to learn, to win — to thrive. Play takes place inside the moment; by its very nature, we are drawn into a mindful practice. There may be strategy and preparation and practice and cunning inside of play, but these are all things that move us beyond mere survival. Our playfulness asks us: would you rather continue your vigil on normality, keeping watch over the predictable and bland, or would you like to engage in something potentially fruitless, dangerous, and fun?
* * *
Toward the jungle gym, I harbored no resentment — in fact, I loved that thing, even though its rickety old wood attracted hornets and the monkey bars would always give me splinters. Once, I monkey-ed myself just a little too wildly and fell, crotch-first into the saddle of the swing. Inside, pale-faced, I fumbled to explain the situation to my mother, who helped me to the shower, turned the shower head on cold. Once, when winter had drifted into feet on feet of snow, I carefully climbed up and stood on top of the monkey bars, high above the world, and then I dove — a front flip, perfectly — to land in a pillow of snow, the air knocked tight in my gut and my glee knocked speechless, a rattle-bag of joy inside of me. It was so cold, so perfectly cold.
* * *
Self-identification is always a little scary: to say, I am like this, I can do that, is to knock on the husk of your own Trojan horse, to listen to the hollow and silence of the army inside. Knock: hear that? That’s your own heart holding its breath, hoping you might go away. Knock again: feel that? That’s the thrill of being in a moment when you simultaneously hope to be and not to be discovered. You are a creature of wooden language, a craft built to be definitive, but poetry lives in the cracks, the accidental ventilation which reminds you of the world outside, of how stale and dank it has become inside the belly of your own self-beast. Do you feel that tinge of giddiness, of glee that has mixed itself inside of fear? To accept poetry is to bring the horse inside the city gates. The question is: what city are you infiltrating, in that body? What is the life you are afraid to lead?
* * *
Invitation #2: An Introduction: (fill in the blank)
If I were a _________________
I would be ____________________ – (explain).
If I were a city, I would be on a hillside, rich with juniper and blue. Below me in the valley my friends will plant their marigolds – the odor tends to keep away the deer. But me, I am too much a root myself to believe in architecture. I build houses in the timeline, watch them slide to mud.
* * *
To suggest that all small children are poets is not to imply that poetry is easy, or that it does not take any effort to create — but it does re-frame poetry as an engagement, an activity, rather than an end product. Critic Helen Vendler takes this perspective when she defines poetry as a process through which “people construct an intelligibility out of the randomness they experience; how people choose what they love; how people integrate loss and gain; how they distort experience by wish and dream; how they perceive and consolidate flashes of harmony.” I have long kept a list of various poets’ definitions of poetry, and many come down to this idea of poetry as a kind of compass inside a world that presents itself as certain but is far from it. While language offers up set points on the map, poetry reminds us that we’re reading by the stars — this practice of meaning-making is not an exact science. It is half astrophysics & geometry, half Orion’s belt. Or instead of stars, perhaps poetry is language under water: a way of tracking unseen forces by listening to the “ping” of meaning that bounces off of them.
A dialectic is a form of discussion that works its way toward meaning through a cycle of questions, most without complete answers — it is a ping-pong process of understanding. Poetry embodies the dialectic inherent in language: it is, according to Yeats, “a tangle of opposites working towards unity” at the same time as it is (as Frost writes) “a momentary stay against confusion.” In this dialectic, a poem is always in motion; whether you are reading it or writing it, the poetry will shift under your feet. It can be held accountable only when you preserve it with distance, so that, (enter W.H. Auden), “a poem is never finished, only abandoned.”
* * *
This winter, I have been learning to play the ukulele, using only my ear and the Internet. It is going slowly, but I take great pleasure in the process. I take my verbs seriously: I play at playing. The only song I know by heart is the one I wrote for myself, while I was camping in the redwoods, when I didn’t have a site to show me chord structures to Somewhere Over The Rainbow or Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, the two beginner songs I’ve been practicing.
I have a theory about music: new songs live in trees. Sometimes, a song comes down, demands to be written right now and if you’re not ready, if you move away from it, it has to wait for the next songwriter to come get it out. The redwoods are very old; I thought they might be out of songs to give, and that we’d all sit around in resonant silence, which only increased my surprise when I stumbled across my own song there. It was a very simple song — two heart beats away from silence, perhaps. The chords are easy and there’s not much to the tune. But as long as we are choosing to believe, I don’t think that I wrote it. It was a song from the forest; I picked it up like a stick for the fire. Just like Winnie the Pooh said: “Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. All you can do is go where they can find you.”
* * *
In make-believe, you are all things, and in these things, you are also your self. What better way to defy limitation than with imagination? Do you feel the belly of your self-beast breathing? My favorite games were always ones that seemed outside of me: I was a participant, a player, not the god-figure, the ring-master, the one who makes the rules. Rules were something to be felt out — I would perceive their inevitable existence; I was never totally in charge, even in my own, make-believe, single player games.
At one point, I had nineteen imaginary friends. Perhaps not friends — more, characters. When I played, I was rarely myself — I would take turns feeling what it would like to be any of these other people. I knew their names, their temperaments, their skills and interests and friends and crushes and insecurities and failures and hopes. It was a story I played when I was outside, by myself, mumbling lines of good dialogue and gesturing to — nobody, and the whole world. It was a boarding school story — a community of young people thrown together from various backgrounds and experiences, and then… life commenced. Classes. Friendships. Growing up stuff. What does it mean to be a story? The plot line wasn’t linear: most of my stories were more sensed than told. The heart of a good story is an emotional prism: we want to feel things from different angles, then step back and look at the array of light.
At some point, after college, I was cleaning out my childhood desk, and came across a list of names. It was neatly printed in my kindergarten handwriting. I remembered those names — those people — far better than most of the flesh and bone children I had known at that point in my life. Which is to say, what does it mean to be real? Where do characters go when you no longer play with them when you are small and lost and need to feel the world out from inside the glove of someone else’s skin?
* * *
I pick up the ukulele not to work my way through a song, but to tinker — is this a chord? Is this a chord? I am rarely concerned about what it is called, or if it is “real.” I practice jumping my fingers from one chord to another, back and forth, like a game of finger-Hopscotch meets Twister. There is something, deep in my brain, that quiets and takes comfort in these moments of play. I am soothed by the sound and the spontaneity. I love the feeling of my fingers learning how to move in ways they didn’t used to be able to move. I love my own awareness of how the playing changes me: how I feel, how I hear, how I move. To the outside observer, I am not very good: the sounds I make are repetitive at best, and occasionally discordant. But I am soothed by the kind of play that has flubs and gems, and doesn’t seem to have a real place to end. I think of the word “soothe” and I am pleased at its closeness to “sooth,” — this ease that I feel in the instrument is the closest to validity, to realness and honesty that I might feel in a given day. For sooth, it soothes me.
* * *
Invitation #3: The Poetic Mundane
Write a sentence to describe a mundane activity.
I brush my teeth because I can’t stand the smell of people who don’t.
Delete the activity and insert something to do with writing:
I read books because I can’t stand the smell of people who don’t.
* * *
To simplify things further: I suggest that in order to write poetry, you simply need to remember how to play – really play: aimlessly, joyfully, genuinely play. De-prioritize the pressure of purpose and re-prioritize your sense of process. To read a poem is to accept an invitation. And so, before we can understand what a poem is, we need to be able to recognize what a poem does: it opens, it invites, it inspires.
A poem is a playground: alone, only a series of structures and forms that have been designed with an intended usage in mind – swings are for swinging, slides for sliding, monkey bars for climbing, etc. But all good playground-goers know that the best playgrounds are the ones that leave space for invention, and for games – the play surpasses the individual functions of each intended piece of equipment.
* * *
My father got a new computer when I was eight or nine years old, and I was delighted — it came packed in this dense, futuristic Styrofoam with all kinds of specialty spaces and shapes carved into it to custom fit all the technological bits and pieces. While my father took his new toy to the office to set it up, I settled in with the Styrofoam. Very quickly, it became a space station, populated by marble-people who traversed its halls and corridors, rolling smoothly through the slick white space. A few choice selections from the kitchen gadget drawer (a metal ladle, a rocking nut-chopper) completed the extraterrestrial landscape. I can’t remember clearly the exact plot lines of the dramas that played out in this space, but I do remember that it was strangely charged with a kind of heightened sensuality that comes from white space and imagination. Who would think that marbles could be sexy? Of course, of course, they always are: their glassy coolness, their embedded designs, their untouchable insides that distinguish one from the other.
* * *
The world has this image of poets as these crazy, socially liberated artist people with unconventional clothing and promiscuous mating habits. The poets I know are more likely to be slightly awkward introverts who are good at making soup and bad at casual chit chat. They are promiscuous only in their reading habits (two or three books at once! At once!), and they tend to look upon happiness with pre-nostalgia: all joy carries sadness; how else would you know that it is joy? No, most poets are just people who get lost in the glitter-and-repeat sunlight that strobes through the guard-rail on a highway, or who have memories of a bicycle being a bicycle and also a moment, which is to say, a sense of self — which was held, and felt, and lost. I suspect that many poets are people who blur sensuality with sexuality, a tendency which leads them to have a more fluid sense of self than most people, even if it often results in physical inhibition, emotional repression and widely generalized guilt. This is the problem with ecstasy: it flashes upon us, unexpectedly, it lives in playfulness and grief. Is there are word for this? Of course not. But even very small children know it to be true: one boy told me, “I do and don’t love you. Isn’t that happiness?”
* * *
That people are lovable is a strange discovery
And there are many conflicting allegiances;
The pedals of a chance bicycle
Make a gold shower in the sun,
Trains leave in all directions on wild rails
And for every act determined on and won
There is a possible world denied and lost.
– Louis MacNeice
from, “Autumn Journal”
* * *
Every child knows that playground equipment can surpasses its function: when the child comes to play, the swings are no longer swings, but surf boards, the floating wreckage of a ship at sea, or the teleportation deck in a world of time travel. At some point in our lives, the newness of things is practiced out of us, and we lose this malleable relationship with the things of the world – including language. We become locked into the denotative definitions of words, and forget that they are also inventions, representations, and moments of imaginative belief.
“After crossing the boundary which distinguishes the work from the rest of the universe, the reader is expected to re-cross the boundary with something in mind.”
— Lyn Hejinian
It takes a great leap of faith to cross the divide between the thing in the world, and the squiggles of ink that are intended to represent it on the page. We forget the distance between these two things, overlooking the space for play within the system. Sometimes, this gap between word and world (signifier and signified) can be depressing: my students often ask what the point is, if we can’t ever unite the two in order to speak the truth about something. But I see this distance as an invitation to reconnect to the playful nature of language. Sometimes, words do need to be re-invented, built back up from their gut-level connection to the world.
[Note: take a moment to acknowledge the existential difference between inviting someone to “play” and asking them if they would like to “hang out.” Do not hang out with your poems. Never hang out with poems. They will tire of your company and leave you lonely after eating all your best snack foods.]
“If words matched their things, we’d be imprisoned within walls of symmetry.”
– Lyn Hejinian, from My Life
* * *
The first toys I remember, growing up, were always vehicles of transformation: a sack of marbles, a refrigerator box, a stuffed unicorn. To have a toy is not, de facto, to play with it. Some toys are for comfort or bragging rights. The ones that invite play are ones with whom you have a relationship: they are either characters or tools. The unicorn was a character I believed in so intently, I cut off his mane to prove it would grow back. A demonstration of faith: six months later, the rules had changed. I had learned my lesson: unicorn hair re-grows very, very slowly. Also, it is often invisible. That was the only explanation that could justify my buzz-cut steed.
The refrigerator box, however, was a tool — the game went thus: one person stood with the box over their head, unable to see anything outside. The other person (usually my brother) would run around tapping and thumping on various sides of the box before finally pushing it over in a direction that the person inside did not expect. Again and again, we took turns falling over inside a cardboard box. Our mother told us that we got more use out of that box than we did the refrigerator. It was dangerous and surprising and fun. It was the best game.
Built into play is a sense of risk. What is gambled? What do you hold dearer, knowing that it might be lost?
* * *
Invitation #4: Verb Your Funnies
Make a list of words that make you giggle. Choose them by the way they sound or look or feel in your mouth.
Use each of your words in a way that breaks expectation of grammar or usage:
Nugget — She bit her lip and nuggeted her face to squelch her laughter.
Pants — Time to pants up and make some tough choices.
Smock — I smocked my way through the interview, fudging dates and telling not-quite lies.
Frugal — She had a frugal face, sparse of eyebrow and expression.
Face — My second grade teacher used to give us scary face if we whispered during quiet reading time.
* * *
Play is about boundaries — how to find them, how to test them, how to recover from the risks inherent in that process. Play is about upsetting the physical norm, re-calibrating the body’s sense of normal — sledding the laundry basket down the stairs; leaping from the swing at the height of its pendulum. At slumber parties, while other girls were painting their toenails and watching The Little Mermaid (a movie which, even as a child, I knew was pretty much brain-poison), I was more likely to recruit one or two adventurous friends to put their sleeping bags over their heads and slide, accordion-worm-like, down the basement stairs. What else is the little girl’s obsession with gymnastics about than a desire to test the constraints of gravity? When little girls are not encouraged to run and jump and kick like little boys, their energies implode: into cartwheels, into back-bends and round-off back-handsprings. How can I expend as much energy as possible in this contained space? Front flips, aerials, pikes and twists.
* * *
My imaginary school was called something earthy, like Everwood, or Rowanoak, or something else that could have come out of a Brian Jacques novel, which I read by the dozen at that point in my life. The aesthetic of this imaginary world was like My Side of the Mountain meets Babysitters Club: it was vaguely feudal, often focused on subsistence farming, but all the students took math and gymnastics. I would stand in my parents’ front yard, performing cartwheels as various characters — the girl who was talented but mean, the boy who was kind but unappreciated. There was Skye, the beautiful, popular girl who longed for her life to have more meaning. There was Anne, the smart but simple girl from a wholesome family. But my favorite character was Tori. She was me, and not me. She knew she was different, but she didn’t worry about that. She told the other girls that once, when she was alone in the woods, she felt the hair stand up on her legs, and she turned around and there was a bear, but she was able to run away before he noticed her. Her leg hair saved her life, and so she never shaved, even though the other girls teased her about it. She was friends with Dan, the soulful boy who would grow up to be a confident and gorgeous man, but for whom adolescence was awkward and uncomfortable. They never dated, because they knew it would somehow mar the purity of the bond they felt with each other.
All my characters were two or three years older than me. There were equal numbers of boys and girls. They were all built around stereotypes, but implied heartfelt complexities of character. They came from various socio-economic backgrounds, but they were all white. Later on, I was horrified by my lack of racial diversity. How had I missed that?
By the time I was in third grade, I rarely visited my imaginary school any longer. I was too busy. I felt the tug of reality. I felt myself growing old.
* * *
Invitation #5: Reinvent the insult.
Single syllables work best:
Don’t be such a tube sock.
Well, she’s a hot mess of potatoes.
* * *
My earliest memory of a school playground was of clearing the garbage out of the empty lot my small, alternative school had repossessed to function as our recess area. Our teachers did not shield us from the ugly rubbers, the worn magazines, the odd stash of women’s underwear we found in a ramshackle fort built of broken doors. Our teachers knew these things spoke of the scariness of the world, but they did not let them scare us. They gave us really large, thick dish-washing gloves, and sent us out in pairs with garbage bags, and made sure everybody stepped five steps back and let an adult pick up the used syringe we found.
This was our first playground. We cleared it, planted the grass, and set about the business of playing there. This is where I engaged such fantastic make-believe as “underwater pirate kittens,” and later, a version of football that did not distinguish between boys and girls. There were no games that I shouldn’t play because I was a girl. Our playground had no supposed to in its usage – and so I always loved it best, more than the jungle gym the teachers built in later years, more than the elaborate castle structure at the bigger, more wealthy school in my neighborhood.
I loved it because I knew that playgrounds are only playgrounds if there is play – an engagement between the grounds, and the participants. The same is true, I believe, of poetry: it exists inside the space between the reader and the page. Poetry exists in a willingness to be present, and to be aware.
* * *
“Only fragments are accurate. Break it up into single words, charge them to combination.”
— Lyn Hejinian, from My Life
* * *
Even now, I am struck by how much of composition is a matter of patchwork and chance: I am writing an essay about playfulness, but I am not writing it, because the dog wants to play. I buy him second-hand stuffed animals from the local thrift shop and the ones that escape disembowelment in the first fifteen seconds of shaking and gnawing become his beloved companions — he brings them to me as if for the first time, delighted with his find. See? A ladybug! See? See? He noses the toy onto my keyboard so that I can no longer see the screen. I feign surprise: a ladybug! Where did you find this? I pick it up, lift it to my mouth. The dog knows I am faking, but he shuffles all his legs. He is frustrated that I am not playing the game he wants to play. I toss the toy over the couch, and he goes scrambling across the wooden floors to go fetch and thrash his favorite thing. If the ladybug had had a neck, it would be thoroughly snapped. I praise the dog, and he jumps into a chair, dragging the dead ladybug along as a pillow. He settles in to dream his leg-twitching, animal dreams. He is wild and adorable; he is playful and fierce. A note to self: I want all my poems to be dog-poems, moving on instinct, moving for pleasure, making the reader feel simple and huge, tapped into a world that is unbearably trapped in a now and now and now.
* * *
What is a poem? A poem is anything you call a poem: if a poem is a way of engaging with a text, then how could anyone else tell you what is or is not poetry? It is your reading, not the text, that defines the poetic condition. This does not mean, however, that you have free reign to mis-read a poem; it means that the act of reading is one of active listening, of allowing the poem to speak to the gut, as well as the mind, and of sometimes biting the tongue of the mind, which will want to rush in and fill the conversation with either tangential comments about yourself and your experience (thus crushing the communication by making it all about you) or, by over-psychologizing the poet in an attempt to make “sense” of the poem in biographical or psychological terms.
Do some poems benefit from knowledge of biographical information? Of course. The teacher closest to my heart (my mother) will not read a poem without some kind of historical and biographical context surrounding the poet. Her desire for context, however, is not an imposition upon the poem (which so often manifests in the form of wondering whether something is “true” or not) but rather an opening of the heart to a possible heart-place of another. After all, poets are people who have chosen to listen; their lives so often reflect the beauty and sadness of the mapmaker, the songwriter, the sailor at sea.
* * *
At its best, context is an expansion of an understanding of mood; at its worst, it is used as a tool for delineating “truth,” as if there were ever such a thing. The poetry guru Don Revell taught me that there was no such word as “or” or “but” in a poem: there is only and, and and, and and…
A poem should be equal to
– Archibald MacLeash
from, “Ars Poetica”
Along with acknowledging that poems can be abused and misread, we should also address the myth that you can’t ever critique poetry because it is the “voice” of a poet. Looking to reader participation in a poem to define the poetic experience does not mean that there is no such thing as a “bad” poem. This is like telling someone that there is no such thing as “bad” date. Of course there is. Bad poems, like bad dates, usually don’t come from bad intentions, or bad hearts. They often turn bad out of fear, or insecurity, or posturing. They lay open to inspection all the bad habits of the participants (both reader and author).
Invitation #6: Courting Punctuation
Take your favorite piece of punctuation out on a date. Buy her a coffee. Get to know her laugh.
I am infatuated with punctuation,
especially this: a teeter-totter to say
equal and not equal to.
* * *
Bad poems usually attempt to open the heart, but end up closing it down, either by being proscriptive or by falling into tired language. They forget that the most important feeling is one of connection, of something true and ineffable happening in that moment, some zing in the air that goes above and beyond the actual subject or words exchanged. Bad poems forget that the greatest act of courage is one of vulnerability, and that in order to be truly vulnerable, you can’t look anything head on. To look head-on is to define, and to define is to undermine. Truth lives in the range of probability, in the electron-cloud of reality. It is the hazy ghost at the periphery of our vision. To be vulnerable, then, requires an act of looking askance. Vulnerability is the looseness of the weave, the open space in the fabric. This is also why “No Fear Shakespeare” is a dangerous tool, and bowdlerizing Huck Finn is a terrible mistake.
* * *
The Hermann Grid is an optical illusion in which the viewer perceives the ghosts of black dots at the intersections of the white grid. This is a poem: what you perceive as real will disappear when you focus on it.
Poem : black squares
Phantom dots : meaning, truth, definition
* * *
As I grew up, I cut my playground teeth in creek beds, making forts from the caves made by trees torn down by ice storms, their perfect crystalline root balls encased in ice over head. My brother and I would explore for hours, finding the branches on fallen trees that still had some bounce in them. I longed for a trampoline — I had a friend who had one and she never wanted to play on it, but I could imagine nothing better than to have a place where I could feel the energy gather underfoot, then fling me upwards, against gravity. Tree limbs, then, made do. I would walk them, like a plank, imagining the sea churning beneath me. I would pump them with my knees, feeling the jiggle and shove of tree-flesh. When I finally read A Separate Peace, I knew, viscerally, the kind of bounce that Gene gave Finny to knock him out of the tree. I knew the urge, and the motion. I knew the look of surprise in Finny’s face, and I knew the horror of Gene’s guilt. I knew, because I grew up without trampolines. I knew because of my imaginary characters, and trees. I knew because it was like reading a story I’d already heard, but in new form. Sometimes, the things you know the best live in the periphery — they are emotional shadows at the intersections of black grids of your experience.
* * *
What is a poem? A poem is what is left on the page after the poetry has passed through it: it is an exchange of energy, a moment of soul rawness that leaves a footprint in language. How do you know if your poem is good? Setting aside all intention and ego, you get out of the way of your poem. The best play takes on an energy of its own, and all children know that it does not take much (one small bullying moment, a break in the suspension of disbelief) to spoil a good game. Good poems, and good games, are like water – they always flow downhill and they look for the easiest channels. Good poems allow the water to run unimpeded by obstacles of language. I have heard Don Revell say, many times, that the perfect poem would be a moment of silence, but that he’s not a good enough man to write that poem, yet. I, too, hope one day to write the poem which can be read in silence.
* * *
Above me, wind does its best
to blow the leaves off
the aspen tree a month too soon.
No use, wind. All you succeed
in doing is making music, the noise
of failure growing beautiful.
– Bill Holm
from, “August in Waterton, Alberta”
* * *
Often, when you are writing one, any problems you are having in your poem can be fixed by getting rid of anything that does not belong there, in the pursuit of achieving the potent silence. The best poems are the ones where the space feels full, where the silence hollows and aches, like the silence the hangs in the air after a bell has stopped ringing. You can’t quite name it, but it is there. You can’t see it, but it is there. You look at the poem: a Trojan horse. You call it pretty. You feel the war about to come.
* * *
Invitation #7: Abstract / Concrete
Make a list of abstract nouns. Pick one and describe it using only concrete language. You may try the same exercise with colors. Stay in the senses. Remember that nothing makes sense until it says so.
feels like the first time
you jump on a trampoline.
— Amy S. Age 11
* * *
How is poetry different from prose? Poetry celebrates the beautiful failure of language. Prose is more likely to trust in the possibility of narrative and direct communication. Poetry assumes that all narrative is a fallacy. Poetry consciously takes on the task of haunting the periphery, hinting the unspeakable, and touching to the heart the qualities of human nature that are so deep-seated that they can only be expressed in what is left out. Poetry will always fail, and in this failure, it succeeds.
* * *
“I trust all joy.”
– Theodore Roethke
All poems are joyful, especially the ones that hurt your heart. The best poems should crack open something inside you that you didn’t know was incomplete until it is held in front of you, a dream of wholeness that you desperately desire, even as you know it is impossible. Along with the human heart, this is the condition of language: a dream of unity, of completion. The beauty and impossibility of this should break your heart open to new depths of compassion, allowing you to be even more present in the world.
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Eventually, even the top of the jungle gym seemed too small for me, and I took to the trees to find taller and taller places from which to leap into the snow. Jumping made me powerful and helpless, at all once — I knew that if I did it right, if I landed in a great, snowy belly-flop, I could distribute my weight in the snow, and I would not be hurt. If I landed poorly, I could break my neck. To my parents: I am sorry. I made sure you were not looking. I was a good kid: I didn’t smoke or do drugs or engage in dangerous behaviors other than occasionally leaping out of trees into snowbanks, or sneaking out of the house during thunderstorms to spin in circles in the grass until my bare feet slipped out from under me and I fell, dizzy and immortal, to the ground. And because I did these things, when grief eventually found me, as it always does, instead of acting out, instead of breaking things or running with bad crowds, I took it to the trees, to poetries, to leaps of faith and measured falls. This is how I learned poetic feet: the sound of knuckles on the deck, the ability to dive in the shallow section, the predictable convulsion of my chest when I fought to hold my breath past when my body would say breathe, now, breathe.
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Invitation #8: Sudoku Poetry
Fill a 3 x 3 block chart below with near or slant rhymes. Each word must rhyme with all words touching.
Compose a poem, moving only between touching boxes. Check your math. Revise and cheat.
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There are certain games I do not play: any ones with shooting, or chasing, or holding people down. They are too dangerous; too quick to trigger something fragile in my heart. Once, when I very young, I was over playing horses at a friend’s house. Horses was a simple game: we pretended to be horses. We cantered around the living room, shaking our manes and jumping things. Eventually, the lack of plot-line stalled the game, so we turned to established story structures and decided to be play Black Stallion, acting out the various characters ourselves. The Black Stallion is the story of the wild horse who is traumatized by cruel capture and restraint, but then transformed into the world’s fastest race horse through the love and friendship of an unlikely hero, a young shipwrecked boy. Anyway, it was my turn to be the stallion while the evil horse traders tried to get a bridle over my head, to pull me into a stall. It was a game, but I felt something flip, in my heart: I would not be caught. I would fight for my freedom, to the very end. I bucked, I kicked, I whinnied and bit. My friends became upset: this was not the game. The stallion needed to be captured, in order to be put on the ship that would sink and deposit him on the desert island with the boy, etc. I was messing up the story line by refusing to be captured.
I felt their hands gripping the back of my shirt, their thighs around my torso like a rider on a horse, and I knew what it was to need to resist, and to be unable to. I felt my wild heart break; I felt the irrationality of animal fear. To play is to look into the heart of darkness. Playing is one of the darkest things a child can do. When did you stop being a poet? The moment you forgot how dangerous it is to commit, to feel, to play.
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Reading poetry is the opposite of complacency: you are reminded that you are mortal, that the world is changing around you in increasingly rapid and unpredictable ways, that you are in control of very little in your life, that you have and will experience great loss – and that you are suspended in perpetually renewing moments of such excruciating beauty, you have to inure yourself to it in order not to go blind, or mad, or both. Joy always exists at the brink of grief, because true joy is a celebration of life, despite hardship and loss and failure. Joy is not the absence of pain, but a crack in the wall of fear that we build to protect ourselves from pain. This is why the best poetry is so often discovered not by adding, but by taking away the bits that get in the way.
Deleting words isn’t always the answer, but it is a good place to start. Luckily, words are cheap: you can always come up with more of them. It’s not like we’re working with expensive canvases, high quality paints. The stakes are fairly low, so you shouldn’t worry about wasting words by erasing them. De-cluttering your poem allows it space to breathe, and to live.
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“My head is hands and feet” (Thoreau).
Make a list of half truths and/or true lies. Invent a game and play to play, not win.
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Poetry is always aware of the thingness of the thing. Poetry lives in the world of the mud-pie, the icicle, the sharp taste of cranberries. In Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland, there is a delightful line in which the Mad Hatter accuses Alice of losing her “much-ness.” This is the stuff of poetry: it defies the grammar of the thing and says, “ah yes, the muchness. Of course. That makes perfect sense.” And it does.
Poetry will always be grounded in the stuff of the world because it is a thing of the world, itself: a language-thing. Poetry will always be, first and foremost, a series of inky marks on paper, or a string of sounds in the air. These things (oh miracle upon miracles) somehow hold meaning to us, but we cannot forget that this fact (that I make sounds, you make meaning of them) is truly weird and wonderful. This is what I mean by the thingness of the thing. The fastest way to empty a symbol of all power is to forget the ground from which it was formed.
After it demands recognition for its thingness, poetry asks you to connect directly to the gut. This often happens on the level of the senses: look! See here. Taste this. Feel that. In the words of one of my youngest students, it needs to have a shazam in it. I think this means it needs to kidnap you in some way. Intellectualism does not kidnap in the same way the gut can: poetry, for as intellectual as it can be, relies first and foremost upon the tangibility of things. It sometimes uses these things to create a whole that suggests a haunting more-ness (a “muchness,” perhaps) than the sum of its parts, but it also always acknowledges that to be real and to speak true (a truth that taps directly into the heart of the world, not necessarily to the individual biographical experience of the poet) it must speak first to the ground, to the earth, to the joy and terror of the ever changing now.
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I laugh as though my pots were clean.
– Lyn Hejinian
How else do you laugh?
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Of course, the moment that you think you’ve figured it out, that you know what poetry is, it will defy you and your definitions. The best you can do is laugh as your expectations are thrown back in your face. A playground is for playing, not for things. A playground is a place of life and death, of worldliness and safety. Any thing can be a playground, especially if it can be played on dangerously. May you always accept invitations that will leave you happier and sore in areas of your body you didn’t know existed. May you always find new games and ways of being on your playgrounds. May you always see the poetry in poetry. May you always come to play.
Harmony Button is a contributing editor for Paper Tape. She has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web awards, and was awarded the Larry Levis Prize (Academy ofAmerican Poets). She attended Middlebury College and University of Utah (MFA). You can find her work in Colorado Review, Southwestern American Lit, Ithaca Lit, BlazeVOX, and other publications. She is currently English Department Chair of the Waterford School in Utah. More of her work can be found at harmonybutton.wordpress.com.
Image Credit: “Jungle Gym” by Chad Cooper (Flickr)