On Tree Forts and Poetry, Structure and Support

https://pixabay.com/photos/tree-house-deteriorated-old-844712/

Not one of my tree forts. Source: Pixabay.

Earlier this summer when I was planning my MFA class on the relationship between form and content in poetry, somehow in the process of deciding what and how to approach this course I got to thinking about tree forts. Growing up near woods and with plenty of free time on my hands, I built a lot of tree forts when I was a kid. Sadly I don’t think that’s much of a thing anymore, but that’s a subject for another essay.

Anyway. Obviously my friends and I had no formal building or architectural training, yet we managed to build some large and complex forts high in the trees. It helped a bit that a friend’s father worked at a lumber yard, so we had access to lots of scrap wood. One of our forts included three stories, was more-or-less waterproofed, heated, and looked like something Frank Loyd Wright would design if he was a 13 year old making tree forts.

Somehow we had this gift, probably luck, for finding the right trees for the job. In our style of tree fort, you needed three or four trees. They were the main structural supports. They had to be close enough together that our frame boards could reach, reasonably straight and not too rotten. For our largest and most well-built tree fort we used four trees growing out of a hill so one side was closer to the ground than the other, which made it easier to build a ramp to get to it. I think about those support trees when thinking about poems. Their position determined a lot—the shape and size of the rooms especially—and I’ve asked myself what the equivalent would be in a poem. It varies of course, but having some secure starting place to hang your first board, or your first line, and build on that, can be the difference between a fort that leaks and gets overrun by raccoons and one that you can spend the night in without fearing collapse.

“You use what you have, you learn to work the structure to create what you need.” writes Julia Alvarez about writing sonnets in her essay Housekeeping Cages. This was our approach, my friends and I. We had plenty of woods with tall trees. We had access to limited building materials (from our parents or stolen from construction sites) and we had time on our hands. Our materials gave us a start, even gave us the ideas to work with, but they didn’t limit us. We took risks (like building a hibachi and old tin pipe into a fireplace 40 feet off the ground), and got creative (we sealed cracks with melted candle wax, which of course melted away in the summer.)

We also had a reasonable arsenal of tools for the job. Hammers and saws mostly, buckets of nails, because we were crude builders making up the rules as we went along. “One has to know the tools, so he doesn’t work against himself. Tools make the job easier.” writes Yusef Komunyakaa about a period in the ’80s when he discovered the voice and form for some of his poems. Our forts would probably have gone higher, lasted longer and looked less like trash heaps with better tools.

I try to impress upon newer writers the importance of acquiring as many tools as possible, of studying structures and approaches that have worked in the past, so they can use them, adapt them, expand on them for their own poems. And I continue to try to acquire new tools myself.  I’ll never build a tree fort again, but I remember the feeling of searching around our heap of crap wood looking for the perfect beam, the right plank of plywood, and the satisfaction of seeing how well it fit.

Here’s one of my tree fort poems, published by Foliate Oak.

By the way, we always called them forts, not houses. Maybe that’s a regional thing, or just a neighborhood thing, or maybe we thought we were defending something with these structures. That’s probably for a later poem.

 

 

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@uniambic

Is a Poem a Sandwich if you Cut It Into Triangles?

https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2017/05/19/great-sandwich-debate-rectangles-or-triangles

Form in poetry is more than just meter, stanza, and line break. It’s also a way of thinking. It’s the direction, pace and energy of the poem, and one of the main ways a writer can direct the reader’s experience. And, at least in my way of understanding, it’s also not something that’s simply visible on the page or scannable across a line. Shape and structure is metaphysical as much as it’s physical.

And this all is a way into my idea that all poems are triangles. Poems are kinds of vessels of energy. You cram a bunch of things in one end (images, concepts, sounds, ideas) and something else emerges from the other. Like a triangle, poems have a wide end and a narrow end. From a content point of view, a poem can start with a small point (a particular image, moment, or idea) and then expand, the way an ant hill expands as it gets to the base. Or the poem can start out large, with a wide idea that that covers everything, then narrows to make a particularly sharp point at the end. Think of that as a large funnel you dump the poem into, and it comes out a small opening at the bottom.

The most typical, at least in my experience (and in my own writing) is the poem/triangle that starts small and gets wider as it develops. Remember, I’m talking about the idea structure, not the line length or any other kind of structure. Often you’ll see a poem use some small moment or image as a trigger, which leads to another, and another, and as the images build, so does the idea and consequence of the poem. Take this William Stafford poem as an example:

At the Bomb Testing Site

By William E. Stafford

At noon in the desert a panting lizard

waited for history, its elbows tense,

watching the curve of a particular road

as if something might happen.

It was looking at something farther off

than people could see, an important scene

acted in stone for little selves

at the flute end of consequences.

There was just a continent without much on it

under a sky that never cared less.

Ready for a change, the elbows waited.

The hands gripped hard on the desert.

It starts with the lizard just sitting on a road panting, but almost immediately the poem starts to expand (“waited for history”) until at the end the poem seems to encompass the whole future in it.

This Jane Hirshfield poem does a very similar thing. It begin with on a small point, the young tree, and ends wide with “immensity taps at your life.”

Tree

By Jane Hirshfield

It is foolish

to let a young redwood

grow next to a house.

Even in this

one lifetime,

you will have to choose.

That great calm being,

this clutter of soup pots and books—

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.

Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

This poem by Natasha Trethewey, does the opposite. It starts with a large idea, almost the way an essay may start with a thesis statement, and then the poem progresses with details to support or explain the first idea, finally landing on a point, like a gymnast beginning with a large opening move then landing solidly on small, steady feet.

Theories of Time and Space

by Natasha Trethewey

You can get there from here, though

there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere

you’ve never been. Try this:

head south on Mississippi 49, one-

by-one mile markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this

to its natural conclusion—dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where

riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over

the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on the mangrove swamp—buried

terrain of the past. Bring only

what you must carry—tome of memory,

its random blank pages. On the dock

where you board the boat for Ship Island,

someone will take your picture:

the photograph—who you were—

will be waiting when you return.

Note that the wide parts of a poem tend to be statements or metaphors, while the narrow parts tend to be images. Metaphors, especially similes, are expansion devices. Look at what a simile does—it takes one thing, compares it to something else, and creates a third space.

First, of course this silly idea about triangles doesn’t always work. Some poems are straight columns. Some are so gerrymandered that you can’t even name their shape. So how do I use this concept anyway?

Thinking of the shape of a poem’s idea helps me visualize how its energy and pace work, how it tightens and speeds up, or comes to a pause. In composition this can help me overcome roadblocks. If a poem seems to be stalled at some point, not moving the way I want, I’ll overlay the triangle to it and test which direction the poem is pointing, what kind of base or point is has, and where the break in its energy is. This can sometimes help me solve problems I otherwise couldn’t see. Sometimes when I’m stuck on a poem but can’t seem to see the shape, I’ll try to carve a triangle out of it—the way a sculptor sees a shape inside a block of stone.

It also helps me when reading poems, especially when I want to analyze how a poem works. I’ll look at the opening and closing to figure out which is the wide end and which is the narrow end. Is the narrow end a landing or the tip of a funnel. Does the wide base allow the idea to keep growing beyond the poem?


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You can buy The Magician’s Handbook here.

@uniambic

Not Taking for Granted: Notes on Why Poetry

Yesterday at the Philadelphia Stories LitLife poetry festival, held at Rosemont College, where I teach occasional workshops, I heard the keynote poet M. Nzadi Keita make two statements that helped me verbalize a few things that have always been on my mind, and probably on the minds of most poets—why write poetry?

First, she said (paraphrasing Lucille Clifton, Keita explained) that poets exist to not take the world for granted. I would stretch that a little to say that poets write so as to not take their life for granted. In my non-poetry life I’m also a writer. I’ve been an editor and writer for magazines and website for more than 20 years, mostly covering technology and electronics. Once at a tech conference a person who’d heard about my poetry asked why I did that since it makes so little money. I replied with something about how I didn’t want my writing legacy to be product reviews and articles on how to program a security system. That I wanted to investigate things of more importance. Of course that shut down the conversation and we went on to look at whatever new gadget the person was trying to talk me into writing about.

litlife_people

Three people who don’t take life for granted: poet M. Nzadi Keita, poet and publisher Larry Robin, poet and editor Courtney Bambrick at the Philadelphia Stories LitLife festival.

Everything is bigger than it is, everything is more important than you think it is, or can be, and poetry is the best way to investigate that. To take something for granted is to fail to fully appreciate a thing in its wholeness, to fail to look beyond its surface texture, its first layer of function. Poetry does the opposite of that. Poetry looks at the life beyond the life of a thing or a story or a moment. It finds the metaphor in the most mundane of things—think of Pablo Neruda’s odes or Gary Snyder’s meditations on nature, or basically any poet writing about anything.

Poets don’t assume a thing is just a thing—they look beyond the obvious truths for the truths that require more digging. And that comes to the second thing Keita said that I wrote down in my notebook: “the impulse to research changes everything.” I underlined that three times, because that is such a powerful truth about poetry, writing poetry, and the urge to create. Creating isn’t so much about making something new as it is finding new ways to experience the old (or the things that already exist). Keita went on to talk about the world as multiple words, and the need to acknowledge and sort through the many layers of it. This, she said, is a de-centering experience, and poets thrive on that de-centering.

Yes, the searching does change everything. Not just in poetry, but in everything in life, but especially poetry. Or perhaps, poets have found the research method which best suits them. Other artists have their own ways of course. Words, images, metaphors, especially metaphors, are ways poets research the world, find the layers, de-center, not take life for granted. Each time we search for a new way to say love, or a new way to describe a familiar scene, or a simile to expand an experience, we’re looking at another layer and appreciating its newness, its complexity.

And, to circle back—that’s a large part of why I write poetry, and why it matters to me. Poets aren’t satisfied with simple answers. They’re not satisfied with the surface or the first impression. They do the work of peeling back the layers, looking at the world from different angles, not taking for granted.

 

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@uniambic

The Poem is the Question

thinker_skeleton

Could you please repeat the question?

I’ve got a lot of weird theories about poems, and mostly they’re just ways to help me think about poetry or help me work through poetry problems (such as my theory that all poems are triangles). One of these theories is that a question is an essential element in every poem. That doesn’t mean that every poem needs a sentence that ends in a question mark, or that the question or answer is even clear–it’s just there, doing it’s thing in the same way we don’t really notice our circulatory system unless something’s gone wrong.

As many teaches have repeated in many classrooms, there are no wrong questions, just wrong answers. (Maybe it was there are no wrong sandwiches, just wrong condiments.) When we’re talking about poetry, or about the making of it in particular, again there are no wrong questions, but there may also be no wrong answers. The question, however, is crucial the poem’s very existence. It’s the heart of each poem.

Here’s how it works. After I’ve gotten the bones of a poem down, maybe established the situation or narrative, the shape and the rhythm, but I’m failing to find a way to bring it all together, I go back to the idea of the question. I’ll scrounge around in the poem to try to find what it’s asking. If I figure out the question or the motivation in the poem, then I’m better equipped to solve its problems. My attempt to answer the question can sometimes help me through the poem’s speed bumps or can help me navigate safely through the poem’s turn. Sometimes it helps to actually put a question in the poem–either as a crutch that you’ll eventually remove–or as a permanent part of the poem. A question is a pretty interesting part of speech in that it’s one of the few that almost always demands a response from the reader. If you ask the reader a question, they feel compelled to answer–or look for the answer.

If you’re the type of writer who likes prompts, question can be great for jump-starting a poem. You can questions anywhere, about anything, and use them as starting points. I’ve recently been reading Ace Boggess wonderful book  I Have Lost the Art of Dreaming It So, which is an entire collection of question poems. Some are questions he’s been asked by other people. Some he heard in songs, overheard in public or found in other ways.

Thinking in terms of questions can also help with organizing a manuscript of poems. When putting together a collection I’ve asked myself what question the poems, as a whole, are attempting to answer. They could be big questions: what’s the meaning of my existence? how do I live this way? why are dogs better than cats?  Or they could be more specific or personal questions: how do I deal with this loss? how do I reconcile my past mistakes? why is my dog better than your dog? The poems in the collection may then be organized so that they raise the issue, present the evidence and then seek to answer. Of course, since we’re talking about poetry, the way they answer the question may not exactly seem like an answer, and may raise more questions… but that allows you to write more poems. (I have more thoughts on organizing a book here.)

Anyway, that’s what’s on my mind this afternoon. Feel free to post any questions below.

 

Here are some great question poems I like:

Three by Ace Boggess

Some Questions You Might Ask by Mary Oliver 

How You Know by Joe Mills

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Notes on Poetry Energy

archer

Harriet Case pulling back on a bow string (1907). From the Chicago History Museum. 

It’s January first, so a lot of people don’t have much energy right now, but poetry energy isn’t about getting up early after a night out, it’s about engagement and control—in your poems and over your reader. One of the elements that makes the best poems the best is their use and control of energy. I’ll try explaining what I mean and how it works below.

  1. Energy, tension and suspense can often be used interchangeably is this discussion, and I will use them that way because I’m kind of lazy. Energy is the push and pull you feel as a reader when you’re progressing through a poem. It’s the pull the poem exerts on you to keep reading, and the push it enacts on your response. Energy makes you want to finish the poem. It’s transferred from the page into the reader and changes your temperature—it’s the gasp or sigh or “oh wow” you exhale at the end.
  2. The strongest energy in poetry is emotion. All emotions are energy—some stronger than others. Some are more efficient (work better, faster, longer) than others. Most successful poems work by managing their emotional energy.
  3. The easiest way to add emotional energy to a poem is to put a person in it. Poems without any people (dogs count as people, but cats don’t) are at an energy disadvantage. Readers seek things in a poem to identify with, to connect to. Without a person as a subject in the poem the reader scrounges around for something to clutch onto. Often the person is the author/speaker—that’s fine. That doesn’t mean that an unpopulated lyric can’t be successful—its just means that it needs to find another way to rev up its energy.
  4. Great poems are often downers. That’s not because all poets are depressed. It’s because negative energy emotions are easier to do than positive energy emotions. It’s easier to trigger someone’s emotions with negative things because that connects with our senses of alarm, sympathy, fear and loathing, than with positive things—unless you’re talking about cute dog videos.
  5. So, to continue from point #4, if you want to add emotional energy, put a person in the poem. If you want to increase the emotional energy then make the person suffer—poems with people happily sitting around at dinner have more trouble raising emotional energy than poems about someone hit by a milk truck. This doesn’t make you a bad person. It just shows you’re sensitive to the suffering of others.
  6. Energy can be increased with rhetorical techniques as well. Anaphora (repetition) is a great way to increase energy because the repetition of a word or phrase triggers our need for recognition and confirmation. Questions increase energy because they trigger the reader’s need for answers. Turns (such as the volta in sonnets) are great ways to manipulate energy because by shifting direction, they add tension, surprise and maybe, resolution.
  7. Line breaks and enjambment can help manipulate the energy in a poem by affecting the pace of the image. Like the use of short lines or long lines, breaks are way to add and build tension.
  8. Like a spring or a bow and arrow, energy in a poem can be built up and released.
  9. All poems are triangles. They either start narrow (at the point) and expand as they progress, or they start wide and compress or shed excess to a fine point at the end.
  10. A simile is a micro example of the energy process. The first part of the simile (the description of the original thing, also called the tenor) is the pulling back of the bow to build energy, then the new thing it’s being compared to (the vehicle) is release. That’s why similes feel so good—they’re these little micro energy moments in a poem.
  11. I might be wrong about all this.

 

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