On Assignments

On Assignments

by Emily Vogel on January 11, 2011

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in Poetry and Poetics,Writing

This morning, after waking up earlier than usual and drinking the gas station coffee that my husband bought for me (I love gas station coffee), I settled into the enormous chair at my desk in front of my computer.  Suddenly, I had no idea what I meant to do.  It occurred to me that if a poet or writer is to develop discipline, he or she must have some sense of assignment.  And so bereft of direction or purpose, I called downstairs to my husband and asked him to provide me with an assignment.  He said, “Write an essay on Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight,’ and enter the poem in a new way.”  It sounded interesting to me, but ultimately too huge of a project to suddenly launch into at 6:30 in the morning.

The truth is that as writers and poets, we all discover what it is that we want to write about by what presents itself to us as a deviation from an assignment, or a method of getting around an assignment in order to actually fulfill the assignment.  I needed my husband to provide me with an assignment, not because I wanted the confinement of specificity or structure, but because I needed the inspiration to begin from somewhere, even if where I began was completely unrelated to the assignment.  From where does a poem arise?  I think for each of us, our poems are born by way of our own mysterious processes.  And yet when we attempt to intentionally enter into mystery, we often don’t know where to begin, nor do we even understand the mystery.

When I am without a formal assignment or prompt, it’s like attempting to trespass on something where there is no territory to trespass.  I’ll stare out the window at the evergreen tree in our backyard and hope that the first line will somehow be infiltrated into my consciousness simply by sitting still.  This is a peculiar device which is contingent upon the premise of “waiting for something to happen.”  I’ll watch the sun spread itself on the snow, and then slip again into the shadows.  Once in awhile, our neighbor will wander through the backyard with her dog.  Yesterday, I heard two rifle shots.  And then sometimes there are divine moments when a flock of geese will fly over the river and honk out a cacophonous sound.

But sometimes, nothing happens.  I bite at my cuticles and wallow about being blocked for the rest of my life.  So here’s a trick: I’ll pick up somebody’s book of poems and read something they’ve written.  I’ll find two compelling words, or perhaps just one.  And then I’ll begin the poem with those one or two words and see if it inspires me.  After all, words implicate ideas, and if you begin sorting through all the words that pass through your mind, you’re bound to eventually come up with a phrase.  Once you have a phrase, the trick is in contextualizing it into story, concept and form.  But the other trick is, it’s probably not a good idea to write poems deliberately.  Some of the best lines and images are often not deliberate.  We arrive at them completely by accident, and that it what makes them resonant, entertaining, and unique.

Even mechanisms like enjambment and rhyme are better when they aren’t deliberate.  Once I wrote a poem all in slant rhyme and wasn’t even conscious that I was doing it.  The fantastic thing about having a husband who is both a poet and a critic is that after he reads a poem that I wrote, he exposes it as conceptually complex, as if I had determined the concept before I began to write it.  He has an uncanny knack for seeing the poet’s intentions even as the poet is unaware of them.  He sees the consciousness of the poem. I am never conscious of the poem’s concept until someone has the insight to see it as a whole and complete entity, operating in terms of oppositions, disparities, and reconciliations.  This is why I think it is the poet’s advantage not to outline or premeditate a concept before the poem actually conceptualizes itself.

So what is my assignment this morning? Oh, right “Frost at Midnight.”  So the first line (which is one of my favorites in the annals of all poetry) “The frost performs its secret ministry,/Unhelped by any wind” is Coleridge’s very perspicacious manner of identifying something in nature and personifying it so that it retains its ethereality. The irony is that the very idea of something “performing” almost implies that there would be something auditory involved—something perhaps loud and showy, and yet the frost performs in silence.  In fact, as the whole poem is somewhat of a performance of nature, all of this is performed without sound, except in two places.  First, “the film that fluttered on the grate,” (“the sole unquiet thing”).  What Coleridge achieves by emphasizing the only thing in this performance which makes any sound is the reinforcing of just how quiet everything else is.  The second place in the poem which references noise is only in the memory of the church tower, “Whose bells [are] the poor man’s only music.”  What this does is juxtapose the quiet of the present with the memory of a great influx of music, thus also reinforcing the calm and soundless moments of the poem.  The last line of the poem, “Quietly shining to the quiet moon” allows us to actually “hear” the quiet moon shining, along with contrast of the fading echo of those church bells and the almost indecipherable fluttering of film on the grate.

So, was Coleridge thinking consciously that he would juxtapose quiet with sound in order to reinforce these mysterious performances of nature?  I doubt it.  A poet never writes a poem with the intention of predetermining how any given reader will interpret it.  A poet should never say, “this is how my poem should be interpreted.”  The poem is simply an extension of the poet’s arbitrariness, and often, if the poem is good, it doesn’t even make sense to the poet.  After that, it is up for grabs and out of the poet’s hands.  No one will ever know what the poet was thinking.  But, they can conjecture and twist it into the meaning which suits the poem as a whole, whether by imposition or simply innocuous speculation.

The way I would harness this poem as inspiration for my own poem would not be to say, “I think I’ll write a poem about the way nature performs,” or “I want to juxtapose quietness and sound.”

I would take the word “ministry” and the idea of the slumbering infant, ascribe it to a present situation and begin like this:

For the time being, we will exist in separate rooms
lest we should be inattentive to the literature.
The hidden ministries of our holy languages
spin their separate webs–
allow our imaginary child to sleep without babble or fuss–
allow the morning to call itself into its order.

There is no trumpeting or wail–
no storm or fallen branch–
no love that desires itself more
than the awareness
that I can hear you drop a coin by accident
in the other room.

So for now, I think I have more or less completed a part of my husband’s assignment, and that assignment has provided me with a sense of orientation. And it was exactly that orientation I needed in order to disorient myself.  And yet, by way of that disorientation, I still managed to address the Coleridge poem.

Since I began writing this, not a thing has occurred in the backyard, except that the sun slipped into a winter shadow.  But I did hear my husband’s coin drop.  I don’t know what that really means in the context of the poem, and yet I have a vague idea that it means I can be assured with the certainty that he is there.  I didn’t say that explicitly in the poem because I was hoping that this might be implied.  But the poem is out of my hands now.  It spoke for an occasion, and the occasion has been documented.  So now I must wait for the next occasion.  After I make my husband breakfast.  :-)

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  • Yoli W

    Loved this recognition of needing an assignment or prompt. The fact that we don’t use an assignment to focus our writing, but to inspire and unleash ideas that form into a complete work is so true. Thanks for sharing.

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