How to Ransack a Poem for Parts

How to Ransack a Poem for Parts

by Joe Weil on October 16, 2010

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in Poetry and Poetics

I was looking at an old copy of the Black Swan Review, which I founded and published many years ago (1989), and came across a poem by the Cuban American poet/novelist, Pablo Medina. It’s short, written a bit in one of the three types of lyricism that were prevalent back then (call it minimalist deep imagism). In deep imagism, you expect certain tag words such as wind, dark, bones, shadow, stones, sky, etc. This is also true of Spanish surrealism, a form of surrealism as influential on deep imagists (and later, Larry Levis) as French surrealism and dada are on the New York school.

At any rate, in this poem, we have wind, darkness, snow, bones, shadow…pretty much all the basic ingredients for minimalist deep imagism ( or Spanish surreal lyricism) with the exception of angels, ashes, and blood. Let’s have a look-see:

Cadwalader Park, Late Fall
Pablo Medina

The strollers hunch
against the wind, call to their children
from lengthening the shadows.

The parents turn to each other.
More lines in the face,
more of the tinge of age.

When the man wants a kiss
his eyes open to his mate’s bones,
slow of speech, eyebrows frail as horizons.

The harvest is done.
The year darkens into snow.

It’s sort of a moody haiku on steroids. It uses some of the mechanisms of haiku: reference to the seasons, above all, short, paratactic sentences. It is neatly packaged in a series of tercet, concluded with a couplet. The trajectory of the poem goes from a long shot of strollers in a park, to a close up of lined faces tinged with age, and then some odd tercet in which a man eye’s open to his mate’s bones, and someone (the mate, or the man, or the bones) is “slow of speech, with eyebrows frail as horizons. It is scene painting, and mood painting. Now here’s the sampling game. First, make a poem in which you use Medina’s three tercet and a concluding couplet structure, but mess with his words, and make the sentences a series of directives, with a concluding couplet of questions:

Hunch against the wind.
Call to the shadows
of lengthening children.

See how they grow
tinged with age in the
day’s last light.

Know they are the bones
of a kiss. Open them slowly,
weather them frail.

Are they the horizons of your eye brows?
Are they the year darkening into snow?

This ransacking is far more surreal. Instead of the shadows lengthening, the children lengthen. To call children the “bones of a kiss” is not so inaccurate if you reduce their life to bones, and the sex that leads to their life to a kiss. In point of fact, it’s far more original—kind of resembles Wordsworth’s contention that “the son is father to the man.” The poem is as gloomy as Medina’s, but it does not so much paint a scene as turn Cadwalader park, late fall into a strange sort of surrealist hymn to mortality, to transience, a theme latent in the initial poem. Here, the children become the main focus. The voice of the poem is issuing orders: Hunch, call, see, know.

I have not used a single line of Pablo’s poem. I have used words, images, re-constructed them. I could call the poem, “A Directive.” Medina never said the children were the bones of a kiss. He never said they were the year darkening into snow. We took the structure, and, in a sense, the mood painted by minimalist words. We took the parataxis, and made it more pronounced, but this is a wholly distinct poem. The lineation is far less regular, with the couplets being far longer lines.

Assignment: Find a poem and do the same. Cop its structure, and even some of its key words, but change the type of sentences, and fool with the images. Good luck.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001515972203 Stewart Kahn Lundy

    I like this and understand the “how” of it, though not its “why.” As a game it seems entertaining, though for authentic composition it seems like this method might obscure “original” poeisis.

    The most significant aspect of this ransacking is the laying-bare of the latent themes concealed in the declarative verbs of the original. In the second poem, the transformation into exclusively imperative (or interrogative) verbs reveals a raw potential of not-yet-being. The new modality of these verbs almost make the original poem seem like an answer to the second, an even more surreal situation.

    I may try this, if only to tease out the latent (and overlooked) possibilities which any declarative statement invariably fulfills, the previously-not-yet-being which is obscured in any casual reading of declarative sentences.

  • Pigsnout2

    I am determined to get my students to enter poems in multiple ways, and, by using Pablo’s poem, I was able to also give them a mini-lesson on certain aspects of deep imagism (so it had an historical agenda as well) . I later have them read some deep imagists and we have a great discussion of the differences (and interbreedings) of individual poems and schools of poetry. From doing this, they also learn they can do the same to their own poems which makes revision more of a creative task. I have them enter their work by what I call “arbitrary grids.” What are the poem’s latent variations? What if we decide to tweak it according to its sound, or sentence structure, or we find a pattern of nomenclature (in this case, very basic words) and see what happens if we introduce words foreign to that nomenclature? They are so accustomed to breaking a poem down for its meaning, or meanings that they find this refreshing. I published a poem in Maggy, “refusing The Sea” that was what I call a “syllaby” of Frank O’Harah’s “To The Harbor Master.” In that arbitrary grid,I took his line and syllable structure, but not his imagery or theme. You are not always taking the poet’s lines, and, in some cases, not even his words. What you take is something in the poem that even the author might not have been consciously aware of. I tell them it’s like being a virus looking for what can be replicated in a cell in order to enter it. They end up knowing the poems in far more ways, and they learn something about intention and aesthetic selection.

  • Pingback: How to Ransack a Poem for Parts, Part II

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