On Failing a Poem and Writing Responsibly

November 29, 2011 § 2 Comments

Anna Vodicka discusses the art of economy and the genesis of her essay “Girl/Thing”  from Brevity 37:

When I wrote “Girl/Thing,” I was attempting to write my first real poem—not the quaint, rhyming lyrics I wrote as a kid that my parents framed on the wall, not the occasional St. Patrick’s day limerick fueled by bar talk and brews. A grown-up poem. A sober poem. Most of all, I wanted to capture on the page a specific moment of metamorphosis between girlhood and adulthood, that breath of a moment where you make the passage from one room to the next and a door clicks behind you. I wanted to put that on paper, to see the door, to sound the click.

“Awfully prosaic, don’t you think?” said my teacher, poet Robert Wrigley, when he read the pages I turned into him, which opened with a short section titled “Girl/Thing.” I was enrolled in his Contemporary Poetry class at the University of Idaho, where I taught and studied creative writing.

Wrigley was right. The poem bore the straightforward storytelling tendencies of prose, embellished with line breaks I happily executed from the keyboard: return, return, return, a revolving door of white space. Not the door I was after.

When I looked back at my attempt, I started to realize my own complicity in what one might think of as a literary iteration of the “diffusion of responsibility” phenomenon. Social psychology holds that the greater the number of people involved in a situation, the weaker the sense of individual responsibility to take action. If I’m alone in a building that sets on fire, I’ll call 911; if the place is crowded, I might figure someone else will do it.

Translate this to the writing craft, and notice how words crowd the space of twelve or twenty or two hundred pages. Our scenes can digress. Sentences can sprawl. They might all bear witness to the central idea and take action in supporting it…or they might get distracted and wander, or sit there lamely, uncertain about their exact role in this particular story, letting others carry the weight. They might even manage to get away with it.

But not in a poem. In a poem or piece of short prose, each paragraph/sentence/word becomes more apparent to us. An image cannot stand half-rendered, a sound ignored, a character left to flounder or die out completely, alone in the muddle. Every one shoulders a sense of duty to the whole.

When I wrote that first attempt at a poem, I had just read Galway Kinnell’s long-form poem The Book of Nightmares, a response to Vietnam that reads like a gorgeous and terrifying walk through the Valley of the Shadow. Reading it, for me, was an ecstatic immersion. His words acted out, took responsibility for their space and fired up the senses, page after page after page.

The poetry class did not make me a poet. I wrote a lot of bad poems. But it did turn my attention to the short form—the art of economy and responsibility. With Kinnell’s poem and Wrigley’s words in mind, I thought, “Yes. Prose, it is.”

I plucked a few lines from their stanzas, let them settle responsibly into the new space of a paragraph, and cautiously let prose in. That’s when I heard the sound. It went, “click.”

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