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c k williams

Here’s a question: What to do with (how to view) a poem you can’t help but think of as perfect?

Here’s one that falls in that category for me, “The Doe” by C. K. Williams, a latter-day sonnet:

Near dusk, near a path, near a brook,
we stopped, I in disquiet and dismay
for the suffering of someone I loved,
the doe in her always incipient alarm.

All that moved was her pivoting ear
the reddening sun shining through
transformed to a color I’d only seen
in a photo of a child in a womb.

Nothing else stirred, not a leaf,
not the air, but she startled and bolted
away from me into the crackling brush.

The part of my pain which sometimes
releases me from it fled with her, the rest,
in the rake of the late light, stayed.

Now let me qualify “perfect.” I don’t ask perfection to include striking innovation or veining a mine with new nugget. Good thing, because this poem is drippingly conventional. It’s definitely not McHugh-tragicomic or Joron-machine-surreal. It’s no New Sentence or newer freedom. But it does exactly what I was raised to think a poem is supposed to do: make my mouth water discovering its words, make my mind water discovering their meaning, and hurt me. The hurt is key. As the Greeks said, learning is suffering. So here is pain’s perfect translation-as-projection-and-or-illustration, for any deciduous-woods walker process-walking through some anguish or melancholy. Who doesn’t see a deer in the right light and feel all failings come to the fore—yours, the world’s, someone’s in between—especially when something hard has happened? (Maybe hunters don’t, or maybe they do before they don’t.)

But the perfection goes deeper (gets worse) than that. Look at the craft of the thing. From the opening anaphora on, you get the sense that each word was considered on its merits in some plenary session. Each lifted like Larkin’s votive glass of water, to congregate the any-angled light, just so. The brush crackles, the afternoon-oblique sun rakes, the alarm is incipient. Brush echoes dusk’s muffle. “I in disquiet” loudly pleads. “The suffering of someone I loved” quietly rubs. Late, rake, and pain, assonant, hit the final plangent note. There’s also a smart pair of -ings: suffering and reddening, neither too close together to seem contrived, nor too far apart to seem unrelated. And the reddening begins, early in the second stanza, to give us plenty of time to redden further (past Life magazine’s, or 2001’s, baby photo), slowly toward that burgundy finish. Even the word, rest, comes just when a slight pause is needed, to dehisce pain from itself, into pain that pain releases and pain that recognition keeps.

But it’s not just the words that are choice, it’s the movements and symmetries that are seamless. “Near dusk, near a path, near a brook” is reflected (in cadence) at the end of the octave by “in a photo of a child in a womb.” Meanwhile “Near dusk, near a path, near a brook” zooms in; “Nothing else stirred, not a leaf, / not the air” zooms out. Back at the last two lines, if we separate “the rest” and “stayed” from the rest of the words, as syntax tempts us to, a question presents itself: Which stayed more, the rest or the unrest? Both about equally, the poem answers in its ultra-efficiency.

I feel almost cheated, hoodwinked, like a focus group conspired to write a poem I couldn’t find fault with. So let me return to the opening question: What to do with (how to view) a poem you can’t help but think of as perfect?

And what if your idea of perfection makes you worry that you might be pretty boring, at bottom? I could say, well, the innovation here is to need none—to out-Frost Frost, if you like. Yet there’s always something innovative, if you look hard enough. For example, the octave doesn’t hit the sestet with any tension, as it’s usually expected to, but rather with a mild (perhaps mildly tense) stillness. The real tension happens halfway through the sestet, which is visually broken into tercets—to mirror riven pain?

But here’s the thing: I’m bored by trying to convince you, if that’s what I’m doing, that “The Doe” isn’t boring. What have I said beyond that it’s well crafted, emotionally savvy, and (to boot, in the good sense) self-aware? “Boring” isn’t much of an objective criterion, of course. (Boring’s boring apology?) The truth—as it tends to reduce—is that this poem came along when I needed a poem like it, a few years ago, having walked in the woods feeling sorry for a friend, never having thought to imagine my pain as both divided against itself and capable of self-kindness.

Break up into groups, something they love to do now-a-days, and assign the following roles among yourselves: Line and space coach, image and word choice coach, rhythm and syntax coach, and meaning/subtext coach. This last coach will look at the poem in terms of its meaning, try to figure out what the poet’s intentions are for this and that, and edit wherever those intentions seem to be going off.

Now I will model how I might look at a poem when I first receive it and give a brief primer for each of my other coaches.

Line and Space Coach

1. Long Line Poems
Usually, these do not leave much white space, and are either narratives, contain catalogues, lists, enumerations, effect a voice of import (or mock import) and sometimes imitate the gravitas of scripture, but not always. C.K. Williams is known for long lines.

Suffice it to say, these are some of the reasons long lined poems are long lined poems. The free verse of long line poems is usually cadenced, rhapsodic, psalm-like, or prosaic-narrative or epic/mock epic. In free verse terms, its ancestor is the blank verse of Milton, or the rhapsodic, sacred text style of Whitman. Ginsberg’s Howl is written in long lines. Long line poems can be either breathless–a cascade of words and rhythms, or stately.

2. Short Line Poems (Skinny Poems)
In metered verse, these will be poems that employ no more than a couple metrical feet per line (see John Skelton), and in free verse, they usually focus on a single image, or incident, or action. Robert Creeley became famous for the skinny poem. Quickness is one of the purposes of short lines. Another is containment, as if the words–even “is” and “was”–were all precious pearls being squeezed out of a tube.

In a short line poem, each word gains an importance it may not have in longer lines. The poem may appear almost over whelmed by the white space. If the poem goes on too long, it may almost disappear into that white space. Imagine Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last By The Door Yard Bloomed” written out as a Creeley poem (Yikes). Short line poems draw more attention to everything: the line, the space around the line, the words, the syntactical strategy, and so forth. Here’s an example by William Carlos Williams. It is not as thin as his “Locust Tree In Flower,” but it will do for now:

To Waken An Old Lady

Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
bare trees
above a snow glaze.
Gaining and failing
they are buffeted
by a dark wind–
But what?
On harsh weed stalks
the flock has rested,
the snow
is covered with broken
and the wind tempered
by a shrill
piping of plenty.

This poem is little more than an extended metaphor, actually a Homeric metaphor on old age, but it is tricky: why is it called “To Waken an Old lady?” The birds get to function both as an extended metaphor for old age, and as an actual flock whose shrill piping wakes her up. No line is above five syllables. It does most of what skinny line poems do: draws attention to each word, focuses on a single action or incident, or unit of images. It does not go on for too long. This is a perfect use of the short line. The short line poem has its ancestry in epigrams, fragments, epitaphs, ancient forms of graffiti, and proverbs.

3. Medium Line Poems
Medium line poems are not common in early free verse, but gain in frequency once free verse becomes the normative form of writing poems. Why? We tend toward the happy medium in normative structures. The suburbs are neat, and clean, and sensible, and free verse has become neat and clean, and sensible. The language of such medial length free verse is usually measured, understated, nuanced. One of the best poets in this mode is Stephen Dunn. If you study Dunn’s line, you will find, especially in his middle career poems, that he seldom goes over eleven syllables, and that he is a poet of wit, of reason, of a measured and sometimes mildly ironic stance. In his best poems, you get the feeling this is a ruse so as not to ruin the expression of overwhelming feeling by letting it get, well, overwhelming. The medium line poem is saying: “I am measured, I am not flighty, I don’t want to draw the wrong sort of attention to myself.”

The Medium line poem is often a creature of both narrative (long lined) and wisdom (proverbial short line), and its direct ancestor is the sonnet. Dunn does not augment this measured line with false form (putting a poem in tercets, or sextets, or quatrains only because the boxes please someone’s sense of symmetry). You will find this sort of poem proliferating in certain highly thought of literary magazines, but not all.

4. Staggered Line Poems
Those poems that are in Fence or magazines more oriented toward language poetry will use staggered lines, lines that go with Olson’s “Projection By Field” theories. Jorie Graham uses this sort of lineation at times. It tends to announce itself as speculative, experimental, disjointed by desire, Poems that use a varied line–some long, some short, what I will call “undulating” lineation are of two orders: 1. A poet with purpose. 2. A new poet who doesn’t know why his or her lines are long, short, or medium.

So those are the basics. Line coaches, take all this into consideration when you venture towards a class mate’s work.

Image Coach

Imagist poems use image exclusively, or nearly exclusively to either render an object, or to imply a greater meaning (ontology) behind rendering that object, image, etc. You must ask if the poem before you has any images that may not serve the poem. Very often, poets fall in love with an image without considering how it will effect the rest of the poem. If an image sticks out in such a way that the rest of the poem is either dwarfed by it, or out of sync with it note this. We often refuse to kill an image even though it may be killing the poem. Also, be aware of imagery that, if thought about deeply enough, is not really an image:

Black tears of rage pour like rivers
down from her ice blue eyes.

Say these lines ended “To Wake An Old Lady.” It would throw the poem off. It would be out of place. Suddenly this old lady would be a bad actress in a third rate version of media.

Look for cliches. If a personification shows up, ask if it is functional to the poem. If hyperbole rears its head, and the rest of the poem is free of hyperbole, ask if it comes at a critical moment, or is just an alien force within the body of the poem. Word choice is also something to be thought of along these lines. Does the poem suddenly indulge in ten dollar, latinate words when the rest of it uses a simple vocabulary? Is it heavy on adjectives that, rather than modifying and enforcing the power of a noun, are being used as a crutch for nouns that don’t hold up. Think of the sounds of the words.

To that end, here’s a primer on vowel sounds. The highest sound in the English language is the double EE. This is why many depressed writers hate adverbs. Here are the sounds in order of pitch:
- Long E, as in wee
- Long A, as in glade
- Long I as in bide
- Long U as in pew or boo
- Long O as in bone
- Short i as in bit
- short e as in bet
- short A as in bad.

Sounds that are either dipthongs or close:
- oi in boing
- aw as in saw
- ow as in how
- short O as in ah/body
- Om, and short U as in of, butt, luck, mud, muck.

English is not tonal, but it is–just not enough for tones to change meanings (but moods? Definitely!). Here’s a way to see how high and low sounds might function at a primitive level. Baby talk is often more about the sound than the meaning. It is very tonal:

Wee! We say, Wee! yay!
Make fly, sweety pie!
oodles, ooh! my poodle
oh, so soothing!, sit, pet, laugh!
loins burn? Aww!
Ow! How odd!
Uh, Ugly ugums. What muck!

Low u sounds often go with the hardest consonant sounds such as muck. This is not accident. We are tonal creatures. Word coaches, if you see a couple high sounds in a row, or a series of low sounds, or if the uh sound is appearing in places it shouldn’t, or if too many high e sounds are making the poem sound like a ditzy and shallow-pep-rally, note it. If the word choices seem wrong or off, if a simpler word would do, note it.

Note too many passive verbs (is, was, are, were). Note too many verbs made into gerunds. If there is alliteration, is it excessive? If there is an unintentional rhyme, does it hurt the poem?

Syntax and Rhythm Coach

Grammar and syntax control the speed, pacing, and temper of utterance. Grammar, if used with mastery, can create rhythm and timing. So your job is to ask the following: does the poem use complete sentences, and does its punctuation or lack of punctuation add or distract from the poem? If it uses fragments, and run-ons, why? Is the flow confusing? Does the syntax support the rhythm, and is the rhythm organic to the writer’s intentions? If the sentences are paratactic, why? If they are long and go beyond the line, or, if they are full of subsidiary clauses, and added on phrases, does it work, or does it get in the way?

Finally, meaning, and ontology. Here, the coach will determine if the poem is going off its original intentions and why. What is the poet trying to say? This will be the last coach to weigh in, and from this, the discussion of the poem will branch out. I am hoping that the coaches learn something about their own line, word choices, imagery, syntax, rhythm, and meanings while acting as coaches. We shall see. This is division of labor.