Breaking Back into Poetry

by Chris Robinson on March 16, 2010

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in The Other

Micah asked me to guest-blog for a day and I said yes. It was a foolish mistake, but here I am. The format of the blog is somewhat antithetical to my natural predilection for complex and rigorous argument, for graphs and citations and all the byzantine wonder that is a well written (and mostly unpublishable) literary essay (or is that different? Do I mean an essay about literature?)—I’m rambling here, and you’re welcome. I’m doing my best to adjust to the conventions of the medium. Please forgive this paragraph break.

This is a poetry blog, and I’m a poet, and I’ve written many poems and essays about poetry, so you’d think I’d be a natural choice. But the thing is, I haven’t read or written a poem in some while. And it all has to do with investment capital. Several months ago, I finished a poetry manuscript and sent it out to world of contests. It’s currently awaiting judgment at the Yale, the Whitman, the Bakeless, and a dozen others. And since sending it out, I’ve found that I’m not really able to focus on poetry. The only explanation I’ve been able to come up with is the following: producing a manuscript, for me, is like starting a business. I’ve tied up my poetic capital in this venture. And until it’s either successful, or bankrupt, my poetic assets are not liquid.

This manuscript was roughly 2.5 years of my poetic life, an additional year’s worth of poems (none of which made it in) were the down payment on the loan I took out to build this book. That says nothing of the years of minimum wage back in undergrad, slaving away at poems that were spent over the weekend on a few beers and a bag of cocaine.

What I’m trying to say is: I’ve invested a lot in this project. And it’s been difficult for me to think about poetry at all while this manuscript rests under a dozen different Damoclean swords. For some, this would be a big downer. For me, it’s been productive. I’ve been writing fiction. I just surfaced from three months of novel-revision (crammed into a single month) and now my agent is getting ready to shop it. I’ve also started writing stories—and experiencing the joys and sorrows of beginning an art form anew. I’m really no good at stories yet—I’ve had a few successful pieces, but I haven’t figured out how to knock them out consistently (as much as that can be figured out for anything).

So, when my girlfriend asked me to participate in a local writing circle the other day, and to speak about a poem, I blanked. She would be talking about Junot Diaz’s “Ysrael,” and discussing “scene” and the transitions and ratio between summarized and habitual action and in-scene action. I looked through my immense wall of poetry books, nixing one poet after another. Pound, no, too stuffy, too abstract (except “Cathay,” but I always talk about Cathay); Williams, no, to voicey—we want scene here, to fit with the Junot Diaz piece. Edward Thomas? Cavafy? Dickinson?

I ended up turning to Elizabeth Bishop, as I often do. Later than night, I gave an informal talk about “The Bight.” I won’t go into the details here. If you’re curious about the use of scene in relation to a psychic state, just go read the poem, and think about this sentence I just now finished typing.

I bring it up though, because when Micah asked me to write this blog, I blanked again. My poetic consciousness still tied up in my manuscript investment. What the hell would I write about? While eating dinner (a delicious Cajun catfish fillet) I pondered this problem. And again, I turned to Bishop.

I realized that Bishop has so many poems that involve the ocean, fishing or fish. “The Bight,” “At the Fishhouses,” and of course, “The Fish.” There are others. But it got me thinking about fish, and fishing, and the ocean and the nature of metaphor.

And eating that catfish fillet, breaking up the soft flesh with my fork (did I mention it was delicious), I thought: some images, some actions, some situations are more naturally suited for metaphor. I believe that fishing is one of these.

Why? First off, there is a plane (the surface of the water) separating the fisherman from his potential prize. The line is cast into an area uninhabitable by the caster. You can’t stay there, you can’t breathe—you might get eaten! And then, a fish is drawn out, out of its element, where it can’t survive.

Now, you can make “hunting” or “skiing” or “crows lifting off from a tree” into metaphors, but these activities or situations don’t have this inherent barrier between the known and the unknown, the comprehendible (read survivable), and the mysterious (read: hel-gg-p me-gg-eee I-bl-m- drow-blr-in-br-g).
I think Bishop grasps this inherent separation between the two worlds at the end of “At the Fishhouses.”

“If you should dip your hand in,

your wrist would ache immediately,

your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn…

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:”

The fascination with the crossing of this barrier comes up as well in “The Bight.”

“Click. Click. Goes the dredge,

and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.”

And when the passage has been accomplished, as in “The Fish,” it cannot last—the speaker’s focus on the strangeness of this thing, the foreignness of it—only delays the fish’s eventual return. Such is the nature of the metaphor. It is a reaching in (that burns) to another world, and when you pull something out for good, it’s never a clean swipe—there are parts that don’t cohere—it’s a dripping jawful—or if it is intact, it must return.

I feel that this same sort of barrier has developed between my poetic consciousness and the rest of my writing life. And Bishop has been helpful to me: delineating the rules of this barrier, when and how to cross it, and what psychic damage to expect in the crossing. Perhaps this can be helpful to some of you, should you ever face this barrier to poetry. Or maybe it’ll just make the next fish fillet you fry up that much more delicious.

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