STARTING 6: USING DESCRIPTION

starting a poem 6Objective

Starting from nothing: building on simple description.

Starting

 

Suppose you're asked to write a poem on anything you please, but nothing comes: what then?

Here's a worked example that demonstrates that poetry can be written on the most ordinary objects without using words of literary connotation. It's a little deceptive, however, starting low key and aiming for the thoughtful, meditative sort of poem that many small presses now look for, but then opening into something different.

First we chose something off the usual track to escape hackneyed thoughts or outmoded rhythmic cadences. 'Turnips' should be safe.

Then we check what we remember about our subject. Answers.com has this entry:

'Turnip, garden vegetable of the same genus of the family Cruciferae (mustard family) as the cabbage; native to Europe, where it has been long cultivated. . . . The turnip is one of the root crops used as a stock feed as well as for human food. The green leaves (greens) are often cooked like spinach. The turnip is a biennial cool-weather crop, grown mostly in cool climates. . . The most common type of turnip marketed as a vegetable in Europe and North America is mostly white-skinned apart from the upper 1–3 centimeters, which protrude above the ground and are purple, red, or greenish wherever sunlight has fallen. This above-ground part develops from stem tissue, but is fused with the root. The interior flesh is entirely white. The entire root is roughly spherical, about 5–15 centimeters in diameter, and lacks side roots. The taproot (the normal root below the swollen storage root) is thin and 10 centimeters or more in length; it is trimmed off before marketing. The leaves grow directly from the aboveground shoulder of the root, with little or no visible crown or neck. Turnip greens are sometimes eaten, and resemble mustard greens, although they must be very fresh and so are normally removed before marketing.'

That done, we start with a prose lead-in:

Whatever you may do with them — boil
or chop them into pieces, the common
turnip is a root crop vegetable . . .

Nothing worth saying here, but now we add some adjectives:

The turnip is a root crop vegetable,
brutal and impertinent without its leaves

Do we believe them? Possibly brutal — turnips are graceless, lumpy things — but in what sense are they impertinent? Because they have a self-sufficient existence beyond the earth they come from, and because impertinent wakes us up a bit: we're going to look at them with fresh eyes. But perhaps brutal is too obvious: let's replace and add a few more descriptive phrases:

The turnip is a root crop vegetable,
imperial and impertinent without its leaves,
which are dark green and ragged as shrapnel.
You can picture them exploding into the ground
patiently, the long lines from the seed drill
opening their thick dugs into the wet clay
by degrees, through successions of days
where the frost doesn't hurt them, or the wind.

 

Two strategies, therefore: use adjectives a little off the expected, and pursue the trains of thought the adjectives suggest. Here we have impertinent > leaves > shrapnel > exploding > patiently > growth > grossly life-giving (dugs). Now where?

Read the lines again. The last two are beginning to drift off into the usual cadences of poetry: too eloquent, too much concerned with the cycle of the seasons, etc. Let's add the lines we discarded earlier, but now concentrate more the heavy nature of turnips:

Whatever you may do with them, cut
them up, boil them, feed them to cattle,
turnips have a rooted nucleus, thickly
imperial and competent without their leaves
even, which are dark green, ragged as shrapnel
that smokes on at intervals from the ground.

Look at them, at the lines from the seed drill
letting loose their thick dugs into the wet clay,
extending a network of wired roots so tough
that the harvester pulls them out as sleek
tangles, a shameless, rank lubricity
that multiplies at depth and can't be stopped.

And that is how you must picture them, clipped,
bruised green and purple, laid out in rows
inertly malignant as recovered armaments
from buried caches, still slimed with mud,
but hard and knotted about some inner
succulent explosion of vast vegetable white.

But something has clearly gone wrong. Our first three lines are flat, 'imperial and competent' doesn't work, and the last line seems only to be developing the armament conceit. Development is indeed the problem here: we are trying to make something beyond the bare facts or observations of the poem, perhaps to indulge in 'grand narratives' and speak to the universal human condition. Poetry today is more subtle, and we need to a. make some wild leaps of association, and b. develop intelligent linkages. The first:

Turnips

Here they're stacked: a heavy, awkward squad
of root crop offerings whose stolid domes
are smoothly white, a proletariat
of matted fibres swollen into earth.

Even the leaves, raggedly extravagant
as a shutter-frozen dark-green shrapnel
in life, are here lopped off, white stigmata
on a head that bruises slowly into purple.

Later will come the makers of dreams and scholars,
great magicians and the writers on liturgy,
but here it starts, in the shrouded and imponderable
dark centuries of suffering, brutal life.

The purple colour of turnips has (incredibly, it may seem) suggested Christ's passion and church liturgy. From this sketch, knowing the beginning and end of the poem, we must now rewrite everything, though employing phrases suggested by earlier drafts. First:

An awkward squad of them piled up at market
stalls: heavy as armaments and bluntly tapered
as though extracted from enormous depths
in skins of glaucous or a missy white.

Even these have had their heads lopped off
and sit there lawlessly and out of shape.
Truncated, pugnacious, their integrity
demands no label or a stated use.

How it all started differently in their seeding:
not then a shrapnel of exploding leaves,
but a tentative haze, in slow motion lifting
to patient lines of ragged
gunshot smoke.

Those dark green leaves are often eaten, but
it's what they spring from with their outlaw stems
you notice: the tonsured stigmata'd body crowned
with a head that slowly bruises into purple.

Later will come the makers of dreams and scholars,
great magicians and the writers on liturgy,
but here it starts, in the matter-of-factness earth
God took from stone to bid us eat as bread.

And then condensing, going back in part to the penultimate draft, which gave the turnips more physical presence:

Turnips

Here they're stacked: a heavy, awkward squad
of root crop offerings whose stolid domes
are smoothly white, a proletariat
of matted fibres swollen into earth.

Out of that earth they came, and in their seeding:
were not a shrapnel of exploding leaves,
but a tentative haze, in slow motion lifting
to patient lines of ragged
gunshot smoke.

With leaves lopped off, the stems lift up
a head that bruises slowly into purple:
and draw again as feedstock that dark earth
God made from stone to bid us eat as bread.

 

We have followed random associations suggested by unusual adjectives to create a novel way of looking at turnips, and then allowed those associations to fall into their own structure.

Published Examples

The poems may start as exercises, but should end by capturing our deeper concerns and enthusiasms. In practice, however, certain problems arise:

First, as we have seen above, and noted elsewhere, is pretentiousness, claiming a significance beyond what is reasonable in the circumstances.

Second is the arbitrary nature of the adjectives — which we can develop endlessly: I have sketched only a few possibilities in this example.

Third is the lack of deeper relevance: the poems tend to the over-clever, which then has to be 'corrected' with doses of unreason.

The approach is useful and popular, but even its better examples do not wholly escape the problems:

Ted Hughes: Pike. Lupercal Copyright © 1959 and 1960.

John Kinsella: Plumburst. Copyright © John Kinsella.

Jared Carter: Geodes. href=http://www.jaredcarter.com/poems/1/ NNA. Prairie Schooner. Copyright © 1978, 1981, 1995, and 2003.

 

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