To plaster over my bemoaning I thought I would post a positive note here on something very cool you can do with a line of poetry. Today, Zachary Schomburg posted this line from a Julie Doxsee poem:
I pretend your hands are the cleaved sunup this morning’s window hums toward the width of my animal syllable.
I can’t remember if this line came from “Undersleep” or one of Julie’s newer books, but it is fantastic, isn’t it? Check out the lack of punctuation. It’s as if you can read the line multiple ways; she is using a kind of internal enjambment to achieve ambiguity. For instance, you can read it as:
“I pretend your hands are the cleaved sunup. This morning’s window hums toward the width of my animal syllable.”
“I pretend you hands are the cleaved. Sunup, this morning’s window hums toward the width of my animal syllable.”
“I pretend your hands are the cleaved sunup this morning’s window hums toward… the width of my animal syllable.”
It’s very nice, imho, to have these as options, or take them as all part of the same line. The words aren’t just working overtime. They’re working non-stop. They don’t stop, but are kinetic because they are simultaneously offering different readings and different ways of reading (take them together, or choose one or any two) that make one line jump into three, then fold into two, then back to one—then over to another two.
It’s very cool, shifting meaning like that—as if Julie has taken her experience and walked it past some amorphous fun-house mirror. What’s more, this weirdness and de-centering of meaning removes the burden of conveyance from Julie’s words. Like Zach said in one of his poems, “Look through a complex eye and see 1,000 of everything.”
Julie is giving us that complex eye, and we are not just seeing 1,000 things but 1,000 ways of seeing things. And in this way, I feel, she’s elevating her volta (the weird moment in the poem that changes everything; See: Zach’s sudden jaguars in “Scary, No Scary,” or even that mental shift you experience between lines 12 and 13 in one of Shakespeare’s sonnets) from simple tactile phenomenon to noumenon (something you perceive with your mind, not your senses).
She is doing this (at least to me), and not only wiping the map clean of simple signposts; she is also making us wonder if the hidden treasure of meaning is found by putting the meanings together, combining the best two, or choosing the best one as if we are playing at the Monty Hall problem. Then, too, she is making us wonder if we’ve found all the doors and if there really is a prize meaning behind one of those doors at all.
If not, the prize is whatever we put there ourselves. And probably that is the healthiest thing. After all, contrary to what your high school English teacher might have told you, a poem is not a riddle. Otherwise, we would not have two separate words for these verbal arrangements. And paradoxically, by making her line more of a riddle, Julie is in fact making her poem less of a riddle because we can’t say if there is really anything to “figure out” or “understand.”
Julie’s line looks more like entertainment and experience—like film—once we see this, than it looks like a puzzle we have to figure out. And maybe that’s what poetry needs to do. It needs to not be a puzzle. It needs to be a living art form people access for pleasure. Poets need to be less involved with trying to “trick” people and more involved with making people think, “Hmm, I’d like to relax and read a poem.”
A great film does not bother its viewers with the trivialities of its inventiveness or its cliches. It simply conveys experience and emotion. Whether there is meaning behind that, or even if part of that experience is experiencing its inventiveness is neither here nor there.
“Casablanca,” for instance, has one of the most wobbly prologues you’ll ever see, and it pulls many things from the hardboiled genre that saturated the literary pulp market of the 1930s. But we barely notice this, and that can hardly be called an effect of time because the folks in our grandparents’ generation barely noticed it either. It’s just a captivating film. It makes us experience and feel something. And this is what the best poetry should do too. By that standard, Julie’s line is a “Casablanca”—but a helluva’lot more inventive.
Very, very, very cool….
And to think Julie does all this just by cutting a few select dashes and dots very precisely. In the words of Liz Lemon, “I want to go there.”
P.S.: You should probably buy these books by Julie: