We can enter a poem in an almost limitless number of ways–through its imagery, its social underpinnings, its meaning, its rhythms, its sentence structure, its line breaks, etc, etc. An arbitrary grid works like this: given these different ways of entering a poem, we can choose what we might want to steal from a poem: its line breaks, syllable structure, sentence structure, and use it to our own ends. This isn’t so much plagiarism as reclamation. We ransack the poem. We see it as a thing that has crashed down into our lives, as a whale washed up along our shore. We may as well use it since it is there.
Basically, an arbitrary grid is a way of using our reading for the purposes of writing.
Let’s take a poem from one of my former students: Brian Trimboli. One of the first things you might notice about Brian’s poetry is the kid likes metaphors. He also loves to personify abstractions and have them doing things. Hence the opening of his poem, “Apology”:
Dear reader, this poem has not yet been written.
I have been caught on the sticky tip
of amnesia’s swelled tongue.
I loaded my thoughts like shot gun shells
and fired them up at the sky.
Young poets tend to like being virtuosos. They have just developed their wings and want to do tricks. And Brian is doing a lot of good tricks here. The grid we might impose on the opening: direct address to the reader, followed by blunt statement of obvious lie (“this poem has not yet been written”). Followed by the personification of amnesia (giving it a sticky tongue–which is the ghost of oxymoron since amnesia is usually about things that don’t stick) followed by an abstraction (thoughts) being loaded into a gun and fired at the sky: To whit: Salutation, blunt statement (Seemingly impossible) personification, simile/personification:
Dear Lucy, I am having fun living without you.
I have been cradled in the
arms of somnambulance.
I have kneaded the bread of bitterness,
until it rises with the leaven of my spite.
Basically, I am copping Brian’s chord changes, but playing my own tune (A far more inferior tune, but I’m just doing this as an example). My “poem” is more about personal invective. It will focus not on a general reader, but on Lucy.
It may be more or less absurd. I might even send up one of the literary devices so that I am mocking the device even as I employ it. This is the strategy of imposing an arbitrary grid: in this case I will slavishly imitate whatever literary devices Brian is employing, maybe even his sentence structure, but the poem will be utterly different. After I’ve written it, I will decide which parts of the schema don’t work and edit them or change them accordingly.
This is one, utterly different way of getting your reading of poetry to function in your writing of it. You could take one poem and get twenty poems out of it, all depending on how you enter the text. My favorite arbitrary grid is the syllaby. Here, in a syllaby, you don’t imitate anything except the exact syllable and line structure of another poem. I did this with Frank O’Hara’s to “The Harbor Master”, Stevens’ “Large Red Man Reading”, and Williams’ “Franklin Street”. I published two of the poems. Try it. Enter a poem through its vowels, its consonants, its syllables, its line breaks, its stanzas, etc. Have fun.