Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Visual Structure of Poems

If you've been reading my blog for any amount of time, you've probably noticed that poetry is a hobby of mine. Like many hobbyists, I take mine quite seriously (and I think I do well at it, thank you very much).

I am fortunate that I have a set of friends who are willing to not only indulge my desire to share my poems but who are also willing to critique them. I was recently discussing a batch of poems with my friend Rob when mentioned that the shape of a poem -- which is to say the layout of the words on the page -- is an important part of a poem.

Rob replied that he really didn't see that and that, for him, the only thing that really mattered was the way that a poem sounded when he read it. A composed a response to him that is, with some modifications, today's essay.

For this essay I'll be using three of my own poems: "Cheops", "Fragments", and "Origami Redux". I want to state up front that I don't consider any of these to be particularly excellent poems (all of them are very early works of mine); however, they do have the advantage of being illustrative of my points.

Let us start with "Cheops". I wrote this poem in imitation of a 19th century fad where poets laid out their poems in the form of pictures (the most impressive one was of a swan). "Cheops" is a fairly simple example of the style.

He will
not steal
These loves
The Nile that
moves slowly or
the feel of blood
I am Pharaoh I will
rise above the wretch
for I am a god and time
will bow to my holy whims
Now let us contrast this with a version laid out in a more conventional format:

I see Death

He will not steal these loves:
The Nile that moves slowly
Or the feel of blood

I am Pharaoh

I will rise
Above the wretch

For I am a god

And time will bow
To my holy whims

In both cases we have the same words, but notice how the layout impacts how the poem is read and interpreted.

You might suppose that I'm going to suggest that the triangular layout is superior but, in fact, I think that it ends up detracting from the poem by distracting us away from the words and lending a perception that the entire poem is really just a gimmick (which is precisely what it was when I originally wrote it). The second layout, on the other hand expresses the core ideas of the poem while also giving us a number of subconscious cues.

Note how the first, third and fifth stanzas are single lines and note the content of those lines. On the one hand it sets up a sort of mental cadence (short, long, short, long, short, long) that impacts how we read the poem (which, in turn, impacts the sound of the poem). Even more subtly, stanza one introduces the person of death, stanza three introduces the person of the Pharaoh, and stanza five expresses the relation of Pharaoh to Death (he's a god and thus above Death). Stanzas two, four and six, by contrast, are narrative stanzas that tell a miniature story about Pharaoh's love of life, his self-perception, and his desire to defeat death.

The second version of the poem, which only differs in shape from the first, has layers of nuance that the first completely lacks. Although the triangular form has a sort of rude cleverness, it actually ends up subverting poem, turning it into a cheap trick. The very same words, in a different form, give us something that is, I think, much better than the original.

The next example is a poem called Fragments. It's a fairly maudlin poem, but it has a very unusual sort of structure.


holding him


doesn't care

(i do)

you and him
him and you





Once again, we can write this in a more conventional style:

You holding him
He doesn't care

I do

You and him
Touching him and you

I'm alone

Overlooking the fact that the poem is hopelessly self-pitying, I don't think that the second version is all that bad in terms of the structure conveying the message of the poem. However, it lacks the vigorous sense of emotional fragmentation that the first version conveys.

The scattered words give the indication that the author has been struck a shattering blow. The words are blown apart with the single exception being the triplet of "you and him / touching / him and you", offering a stark contrast of stability and unity that the rest of the words, especially the isolated and parenthesized "i do", lack.

Finally, note that the final word, "untouchable" is, itself, broken, which simultaneously expresses the brokenness of the author's heart while, at the same time, suggesting the potential for healing (since the last word is actually "touchable").

Although the more conventional layout does a decent job of conveying the core idea of the poem, I think that the first version adds a dimension of expression that the first simply does not reach.

My final example is a poem called "Origami Redux". The poem, itself, is fairly angst-ridden, but it provides a good example of how subtle structural changes can alter the way we read a poem. We'll start with the original:

I fold myself away
In silent shame
And shameless pity.
I cry,
And no one sees me;
Invisible tears
Gain no sympathy.
I long for the painlessness of sleep
And the sleepfulness of death.
And all the anger
and misery
Make me fold again
Note the linear distribution of emotions from lines 10 thru 14 in the first version. Each emotion has a crisp, visual impact that hits your eyes -- bam, bam, bam!

Now let's compare that to this version:

I fold myself away
In silent shame
And shameless pity.
I cry,
And no one sees me;
Invisible tears
Gain no sympathy.
I long for the painlessness of sleep
And the sleepfulness of death.
And all the anger
Fear, hatred
Embarrassment and misery
Make me fold again

See how the list of emotions -- the core feelings that explain the rest of the poem -- simply get lost in the body of the poem? Note also that the first rendering makes the last line stand out (which is a rather critical line, given the title of the poem) while the last rendering fails to distinguish it.

Now let's do a third rendering that's somewhere in the middle, by breaking the poem into stanzas:

I fold myself away
In silent shame
And shameless pity.

I cry,
And no one sees me;

Invisible tears
Gain no sympathy.

I long for the painlessness of sleep
And the sleepfulness of death.

And all the anger
Fear, hatred
Embarrassment and misery

Make me fold again

In this example, the divisions of the stanzas create logical partitions of the feelings that the poem is expressing.

Stanza one expresses a metaphorical action: folding away.
Stanza two expresses an action: silently crying.
Stanza three is an introspection about that action: the world doesn't care.
Stanza four expresses a desire: I want to die.
Stanza five is a litany of feelings: anger, fear, hatred, embarrassment and misery.
Stanza six recapitulates stanza one: folding away.

All of these exist in the previous versions but separating then into distinct verses helps them to stand out and gives the reader a sense of narrative motion that the first two versions don't convey as strongly.

It should go without saying that the structural impact of the majority of poems is much more subtle but I would contend that it's always there. I believe that even the way that the ragged right edge of a poem lines up can leave a subconscious impression on the reader.

I don't think that it's the reader's job to look for hidden cues in the layout. A good poem doesn't demand itself to be read in a particular way or with a particular understanding, but it should lay out a path for the reader.

A good poet should be able to subtly influence the way that his poems are read without beating the reader over the head. I believe that the shape -- the visual "feel" of a poem -- does matter and that it does require attention when composing a poem, even if the reader never notices it on a conscious level because, even if that reader doesn't realize it, he's going to be influenced just the same.

Friday, November 10, 2006

An Open Letter to the Democratic Party

Hi guys. First of all, let me say congratulations. You've been out of power for a very long time and I know you've been waiting for the pendulum to swing. So, kudos and all that.

I'd also like to say that I'm, personally, happy that you took back Congress. Even if I didn't already have deep misgivings about Bush, I don't believe that it's healthy for a single party to control all three branches of government. I'm a big fan of checks and balances and I think that having one party in control erodes them.

I'll also be upfront and state that I am a liberal. I should caution you that being a liberal does not mean that I'm a Democrat. In point of fact, I think that the mapping of Democratic principles and Liberal ideals is inexact and that the contention that Democrats are a liberal party is misleading. That said, I recognize that you are the more liberal of the two parties and that having you in office does a better (albeit far from perfect) job of representing my interests and values.

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, please don't blow it.

You have a long, long history of sabotaging yourselves and I'll be frank: I think a big part of that is that I don't really think that your leadership has either a strong sense of commitment to your own purported values or the skill to pragmatically pursue your agenda items. Way too often you come across as a The Three Stooges by way of Machiavelli, which is a big part of the reason that people just don't trust you.

That said, let's talk about some specific issues.

The War

This is the big one. This election was, in fact, a major referendum on the war and I think that everyone appreciates that, including the president (why else would Rumsfeld "resign" the very next day). I think that you may not understand what, precisely, it is that people want, though.

The public has decided that the war has gone on for too long. They want it to end, and the sooner the better. However, there's two ways that it can end: victory or withdrawal.

Americans like to win. We hate losing at anything, especially wars. The reason Vietnam worked so hard against Kerry was because Americans still have a bitter taste in their mouths over the fact that we "lost" and Kerry's enemies were able to successfully associate him with the side that promoted defeat.

Given an alternative, Americans would like for us to be able to declare some sort of victory. You need to work with the president (yeah, I know -- a bitter thing to do but, unfortunately, he's still the Commander in Chief) to define a victory condition and to do what it takes to achieve it. That may well mean putting a whole lot more troops on the ground. Obviously you'll need to avoid a draft (again, that would bring up too many associations with Vietnam, to say nothing of making your base go ape shit) but do everything you can to get the job done.

I am going to strongly warn you against pushing for immediate withdrawal. I think that it would work against your interests and I also think that it would be wrong in terms of our national security (leaving behind an anti-American Islamic theocracy would be bad, m'kay?) as well as morally wrong. I think that the war was a mistake but that doesn't negate the fact that we brought about the environment for the current chaos.

If you, never the less, do make this your goal, you are going to need to figure out a way that we can do so honorably. Figure out a way that we can leave without giving every American the feeling that we have egg on our face. If you can't do that you will lose in 2008 everything that you've gained in 2006.


This is another hot-button issue which ended up costing the Republicans a lot of votes. The problem is that they correctly gauged that this is something that Americans care about and are upset about, but they misjudged how we want to deal with it.

Let's be very clear: the thought that illegal immigrants are coming to America and enjoying legal benefits pisses people off. I'll grant that a lot of the anger is over exaggerations but that doesn't alter the fact that people hate the idea of illegals enjoying a better life by violating the law.

I know that you're afraid of losing the support of the Hispanic community. You need to be aware, though, that what lost the Republicans the support of that community wasn't that they were in favor of curtailing illegal immigration. What lost them support was the over xenophobia and racism that pervaded their message.

Someone who has gone to the trouble of obtaining citizenship isn't going to be opposed to the idea that illegal aliens need to be discouraged, as long as they don't feel like they're being attacked as well.

I hate to say it but the Presidents plan actually has quite a bit of merit. Make it easy for foreign laborers to get work permits and streamline the process for obtaining legal citizenship while you're at it. Go ahead and offer amnesties to the illegals who are already here but then get serious about punishing and evicting the ones that don't follow legal routs afterwards.


This is a tough one. You and I both know that the tax rate has been kept artificially low at the expense of a rising debt. The Republicans are sincerely hoping that you will be the ones to raise taxes because they know that one of the biggest things to influence voters is their pocketbooks.

This is one case where I'm going to say that you need to be ruthless. You and the Republicans are in a game of chicken. You can not be the party to raise taxes, especially not in the first two years. Beat them at their own game. Slash spending. You can get some happiness out of this by going after their own pet programs. You might also be able to get away with letting certain tax cuts expire. If you do, only do the ones that directly benefit the wealthy (and make it loud and clear that you are). You can also score a whole lot of points by aggressively going after pork. That damned Bridge to Nowhere got you more traction than you realize. Resist the urge to gorge on your own pork and publicly criticize Republicans who pork their own districts and you can, once and for all, demolish the perception that the Republicans are the party of fiscal responsibility.


The big T. The threat of terrorism is exaggerated but the people's fear of terrorism is sincere. You can not afford to be soft on this subject. You need to aggressively promote efficient programs to combat terrorism. At the same time, though, you need to start standing up for the Constitution. I don't think that Americans are really comfortable with secret prisons and torture. Push to have terrorists brought out in the light, tried in public, and put away permanently (and yes, that means executions). You need to prove that we can fight the enemy without becoming the enemy. This is the single most important task you have before you, so don't fuck it up. If you can't make that case then I fear that the end result will be a police state. This is a matter that genuinely transcends politics, so don't be afraid to reach across the aisle. There are plenty of Republicans who don't like Bush and Company's Stasi tactics. Find them and work with them.


One word: don't. I know that the Republicans have been bashing you down unscrupulously and I know that the temptation for payback must be immense but now is not the time for it. Fortunately, you've already taken impeachment off of the table. That was a very smart thing to do. I'm worried, however, that you're still planning investigations.

Heaven knows that we need some investigations (especially if we're going to solve anything), but I know how you guys can get carried away by this.

In particular, you can not give the people the impression that you're just going to spend the next two years getting even. That's not why you were elected and that's not what America wants. If you do give in to this temptation I will guarantee that the Republicans will do a better job than you did of making it look mean and spiteful. They're just more competent when it comes to that kind of thing.

Keep your focus on what matters.

Other Issues

You need to reconnect with your core values. You are supposed to be the party of the little people. The party that stands up to big business. The party that opposes authoritarianism. You've lost that vision over the years. What crumbs you've retained are just stale relics. Rediscover yourselves and return to that which gave you meaning. That means that you need to take a hard look in the mirror.

I think a good place to start would be to take a hard, objective look at what things are important to the youth of the nation. Right now they are a very cynical bunch, which is rather strange given that youth is usually the font of idealism. Try to figure out why they are so cynical. I think you'll discover that a big part of it is that they feel that no one represents them and that no one, even more fundamentally, cares. They see you are being just another branch of the Republican party. That is a bad thing. Worse: they have a point. You can't ignore the middle but there is a point where you need to draw a line and say, "We believe this to be true!"

One of the reasons that the Republicans have been so successful is that they genuinely believe their message (they don't always practice it, but that's another story). They have a set of values that they want to promote. They have an honest to God mission. You did too, once, but you seem to have lost that. If you don't have something that you believe in, no one is going to believe in you.


These are not happy times. Humanity needs a better world than this, and America has more influence than any other country in determining whether or not that will happen. This is an historical time. Such times call for people to do better and to be better. You have an opportunity to do just that. You have the chance to help make the world a better place. It is an awesome responsibility and history will judge you by how well you handle it.

One more time: don't blow it.

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