Tuesday, February 09, 2010

A little research

Read Write Poem has an interesting exercise up this week. Here are the essentials:

Print off one copy of each of your newest poems. Make it a significant chunk of no fewer than eight, but perhaps no more than 20 poems.
1. Identify five words that you use often in your writing.
2. List the settings found in your poems, if place is an element of your work.
3. Note the point of view used most frequently in your writing.
4. Create a list of stylistic decisions — both good and questionable — that you make in many of your poems. (Use of the same stanza length or form, writing an unnecessary, throat-clearing first stanza, having a random, disconnected title, ending a poem too soon, and so on.)
5. Discern whether your poems have a primarily lyric sensibility, or a narrative approach, or a combination of both (and if so, measure the proportions).
Write a poem that uses:
None of the five words that most frequently appear in your work.
A setting that you have never used before, or that you haven’t used lately.
A point of view that departs from your usual tendencies.
None, or very few, of your usual stylistic decisions. (If you usually have a brief title, try a long one. If you always write in one long stanza, try dividing the poem into smaller groupings. If you often write lyric poems, try a stronger narrative, and vice versa.)
Bonus: Do something in the poem that “puts you outside your comfort zone.” Interpret that however you would like.

I haven't written a poem yet, but I've discovered some interesting things in answering the questions. I pulled the 16 most recent poems off this blog and worked with them.

#1 was unexpectedly difficult. The sample included two sestinas and a villanelle, which tend to skew word occurrences. A sestina end-word is required to appear at least 7 times in the course of the poem, and though I interpret the form loosely (eg. foot, feet, footing), there were still quite a few exact repeats.

Here are the 29 commonest words in these 16 poems:
the, of, and, I, a, to, in, from, my, that, you, like, on, with, at, not, this, for, is, we, all, it, or, by, he, up, be
(Note that there's a lot of slop in these numbers. Among other things, I counted "I'll" as a single occurrence of "I" rather than an "I" and a "will". That probably wasn't right. I also see that I wasn't careful about plurals; I have "bridge" and "bridges" in as separate entries, which should really have been two occurrences of "bridge".)

No nouns, no verbs except "is/be" (the occurrences of "like" are comparatives). Articles, conjunctions, prepositions and pronouns are generally the commonest words in English, and poetry is no exception to the rule. If anything, I think these words are slightly rarer in poetry compared to normal English: consider "Orchids":

frantically seeking
source of bogus sex odors
wasps lurch toward orchids

Proper grammar would require at least a couple of "the"s. Likewise the last line of Trellis should read "a rose to a trellis."

At 30-36, we have a cluster of words: could, foot, time, was, where, each with 6 occurrences. At least there are a couple of nouns in there. But, wait! Both "foot" and "time" were featured in repetition: "foot" was one of the end-words for Drowning Sestina and several repetitions of "time" occur in Wolf Time.

So, there are a couple of ways I could go with this. I could take the assignment literally, and ditch the top 5: the, of, and, I, a. That would lead to an interesting poem that might sound a little wonky (whole novels have been written without the use of "the", but they've been remembered as curiosities rather than for their literary merits). Or, I could dump the top 5 nouns and verbs, on the reasoning that the intention is to keep us from reusing themes, images, figures of speech etc. But if I used a word in a poem whose form demanded repetition, should that count as one use or several?

Here's a list of words culled from the 16 poems I'm working with, each of which occurs no less than 4 times in at least 2 poems, and which I think are characteristic of my poetry: city, sky, earth, seen, sound, thought. They're not at the top of the rankings, because of all the articles and particles and sestina end-words. But I think this list gets closer to the purpose of the assignment as I understand it.

One other interesting fact: out of about 800 distinct words in these poems, almost 600 were used only once. I have no idea how that compares with normal speech or normal writing.

On to #2. I have two poems that reference specific geographical features of N/NE Portland. That's actually fairly unusual for me. Canyon Blues is about north-central Oregon, specifically the Deschutes area, but you couldn't necessarily tell that from the poem. I think it's fair to say that place isn't a strong feature in most of my work.

#3. No strong preference here. I count 7 poems in first person singular, 6 in omniscient narrator voice, and 3 in mixed or indeterminate voices.

#4 was more fruitful. I've already alluded to the fact that I use a lot of repetition. I count 7 poems using repetition: 2 sestinas, a villanelle, a refrain (Canyon Blues), and two poems that repeat to no particular pattern (The Earth Still Rings and Like This Leaf).

Besides repetition, I note a preference for short stanzas. Leaving aside the poems whose formal requirements include stanza length, I find six out of seven poems have stanzas of 4 lines of fewer (the exception being Corned Beef, Cabbage, Free Wi-Fi).

I definitely prefer short titles, 10 out of 16 have a title of only 1-2 words: also, all of my titles refer to a thing or event in the poem and/or the form of the poem. (It's fairly rare for me to name a poem "Villanelle Such-and-Such" or "Something Sestina"-- odd that there are two such poems in this small sample. I do have a lot of poems named "Something Blues", though.) Titles, and this is definitely a weakness on my part, are something I tend not to pay a lot of attention to.

Of course, there's a lot of formal poetry in the sample. I count 6 free verse out of 16, although some of them display form-like characteristics. (A glance at my labels suggests roughly a third of my poems overall are free verse.) Of the 10 formal poems, three are sonnets.

#5. I've written before about the shifting definitions of "lyric" in the context of poetry. For the purpose of this assignment, I'm assuming the meaning is something like the following:

"Lyric Poetry consists of a poem, such as a sonnet or an ode, that expresses the thoughts and feelings of the poet. The term lyric is now commonly referred to as the words to a song. Lyric poetry does not tell a story which portrays characters and actions. The lyric poet addresses the reader directly, portraying his or her own feeling, state of mind, and perceptions."

If you read down that page, they give an example from the poetry of Emily Dickinson... that I would say is clearly a narrative. Obviously I'm having trouble telling the difference. Part of the problem is that the definition poses an arbitrary and, I think, counter-productive separation: in good writing, the story would support the expression of feeling and vice versa. I'd rather work toward that goal than stress the divide.

Anyway, by my count, 6 out of the 16 poems could be described as primarily lyric and 6 primarily narrative, with 4 that I can't really assign to one category or the other.

I don't know if I'll get around to writing a poem, but it's been a worthwhile exercise so far.

Update. I wrote a poem and posted it here. I avoided the words on my hit list and used a completely novel setting. The voice of the poem is pretty much omniscient narrator: that's a minus. But the poem is mostly phrased in questions rather than statements, which is a departure for me. The title is longer than usual, and really only tangentially connected to the poem. (Can't stand for it to be completely disconnected.)

Collection available! Knocking from Inside

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