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Tuesday, 25 November 2008

The Land of High Metaphor

Plain-language poems are easiest. Say it honestly, say it in verse, say it without obvious contrivances of rhyme or style and you've done well. But once you enter metaphor-land, well, it's a bit like pulp science fiction. Anything is possible, but not everything is advisable. "You have eyes like vampire fangs," I once wrote of a man. It was true, but a bit lurid, and the poem it was part of had every pitfall of free verse, from ramblingness to, yes, metaphors shoved in purely for the purpose of reminding you that this is a poem rather than just some stuff I felt like getting off my chest.

In improv there's this idea known as the absurdity curve. Those new to improv -- the brave sort, rather than the ones who start off hiding in a corner -- occasionally enter a scene and jump straight off the wall:

"Hello, Jess."

"Hello, Joe. Here, help me move this crate."


"Oh, no! An octopus just fell on my head!"

Now don't get me wrong, this can be a great way to approach improv when you're new to it. Just jump out there and say whatever and don't be afraid to look silly. However, as you get slightly better at it, it's as well to develop a little more finesse. The idea of a 'rising absurdity curve' is that you start a scene with the small and ordinary. If you do introduce anything remarkable at the beginning, you take the time to establish it. But sudden dramatic events do not happen until later in the scene, as you reach the climax, at which point elements of the story that seemed normal earlier can and do blossom into full-blown absurdities.

Poetry doesn't have a set 'curve' of the sort that improvisers are taught to consider. Nonetheless, the effectiveness of a vivid metaphor really does depend on context. A poem might go with the improv curve, starting with the ordinary and deepening into metaphor as it draws you in. If you do start with a strong metaphor, you might need to broaden and establish it to make it seem at home. And, as I said at the beginning, sometimes you'd do just as well to leave the metaphors out altogether.

So anyway, I'm fiddling with a memory that I'd love to put into poetry. I write

I never saw a man so golden
as you were, lying by my side.

It's a shoddy approximation of what I felt, but the tone is right. I can't really go anywhere with it, though. I'm writing about something I don't understand. I don't have enough angles. Reluctantly, I give up on describing the exact feeling and decide perhaps I'll just put a little of that in a poem that includes some other stuff.

Late one night, when I'm supposed to be going to sleep, I hammer out a couple of lines that capture so much more of it.

The dawn that rose when I awoke tonight
was only in the halo of your hair.

I can't abandon those lines. They work. It's just that they set a level of metaphor that's going to be jolly hard to keep up with sensibly. This isn't going to be a plain-language poem. Look out, darlin', you're in the Land of High Metaphor. Whatcha gonna do to continue that? Bring out the octopi?

I've started in High Metaphor and now I need substance. Lots and lots of substance, because metaphor, if done well, can eat up substance like nothing else. It's a powerful and dense way of expressing things. One of the reasons I'm finding this so hard to write is that I'm expressing something remarkable that I haven't felt before. It's in the 'Whisky Tango Foxtrot' subgenre of love poetry. However, there have been several times in my life when I've felt something remarkable that I haven't felt before, so I have a better handle on that part of it than on the feeling itself. That helps. I might be able to use that in the poem, but, of course, this now means I'm negotiating two dangers. On the one hand we have Scylla the octopus. On the other hand we have Charybdis, the never ending whirlpool which consists of saying things in a poem like "I don't know how to say it" or "words cannot express this". If words can't express it, why are you trying, dude? Give up and start writing drippy pop songs instead.

It's been a few months, now, but so far I've been able to build this:

The dawn was rising when I woke, tonight,
but only in the halo of your hair,
and I, bemused, perceiving by its light
a whole horizon waiting for me there,
say nothing. I am waiting for a phrase
to catch some faithful gleam inside the haze.

If I could always have a minute more
to stay within the compass of your hand,
then by your touch and mine I could explore
the whole of you and I, and understand
the half-remembered dreams that shimmer through
this little world that takes its light from you.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Jumping the Broom

In marriage, let communion of the mind
meet with your bodies on the earthy ground,
and as the ordinary days unwind,
embrace the roses where they may be found.
Together, let your understanding grow.
Have patience when you think you've grown apart.
I revel in the joy and love you show,
and give you my support with all my heart.
By lies and lucre, in a narrow race,
today we lost a battle in this land,
and you may think your love must hide its face.
Well, let me speak for those who understand.
For better, for worse, whatever may arise,
have hope. Lovers, be married in our eyes.

Grad Student Election Night

Slightly altered excerpt from my most recent email home:

There were two tubes of paint: one red, one blue. The rule was, generally, that you couldn't paint the state on the map until CNN had called it. Occasionally, polls would close all at once and CNN would call several as soon as they closed -- I guess when their exit polling made them sure. Illinois, for instance, turned blue immediately. By contrast, North Carolina stayed yellow on the screen and white on our map for as long as I was there.

The plan was that we would start watching Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart on Comedy Central at 7pm. Perhaps that might have worked in previous years, when the outcome took forever, but I left to go make myself some dinner before it started, and when I got back the room was full of people and the grudging consensus seemed to be that it was better to be watching CNN. If nothing else, the information on CNN was visible despite the noise in there, but the election jokes on Comedy Central weren't. Besides, things were moving fast. Obama had more than two hundred electoral college votes. People were sharing their voting stories: when they voted, how long the lines were. The polls in California closed at 8pm, our time. CNN was counting down, and we counted down with it: "Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven! Six! Five! Four! Three! . . ." CNN's screen suddenly whirled away from the countdown ". . . Two! One!" we shouted, and the room bubbled with applause and cheers, as CNN, having called California immediately, called the race for Obama, and someone stepped up to the map to paint California blue.

It was about then that the pizza arrived. Nobody was leaving yet. You could see a slight smugness on people's faces whenever we switched over to Fox News while CNN had advertisements.

We had a respectful silence for McCain's concession speech. There were nods and occasional slight applause. The only flicker of tension was after he had finished, as Sarah Palin walked past the microphone. "Don't let her speak!" someone yelled. She didn't.

Then we waited. The crowds in Chicago were going wild for I don't know how long as we chatted and wondered how Obama's speech would go. What's he like, now that he's won? We had silence again for the President Elect, but it wasn't the same silence. There was an edge of resistance. This speaker had newfound authority. We listened critically. We had a few smiles and applause through the thanks, especially as Obama's campaign manager was mentioned, and patient silence as Obama said that those who thought real change could never come were now proved wrong.

Then Obama's speech got Presidential, honest about the challenges as he asked for the support of the whole nation and pulled his central campaign message of hope into a faith that America would get through the financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He stepped boldly into the leadership vacuum and we listened. We listened without noticing or caring how we were listening until Obama got into the recitation of what one century-old woman had seen through her life, and the challenges she and the country had faced in that time. By the third 'Yes we can", some guy over to the right was repeating it back with a parodic edge: "yes-we-CAN!" Obama was losing us; we were still mostly quiet, but we shifted a bit, until Obama mentioned how science had connected the whole world, and someone at the back yelled "Science!" and we all grinned.

Yeah, we'll be there, Mr. President Elect. Just don't ask us to recite slogans.

Over and out.