Getting to Depth With Poetry (03.21.11)

Writers are measured by how deep they are when they’re not measured by book sales, which means that most writers are measured by depth. But it’s maddening to be asked to go deeper when you already feel like you’re a long way from the surface and you’re not sure if you can breathe down there anyway. I devoted a chapter of MFA in a Box to writing depth because it’s something that writers grapple with every time they face a blank screen, no matter how successful or smart they are.

When my first paragraph of a new piece turns out to be about Paris Hilton or zombies or an investment banker buying a new Porsche with his end-of-year bonus, I know that I’m going to have to make an effort to end the piece at a deeper place than I began it. When my second paragraph turns out to be about zombie paparazzi in Porsches chasing Paris Hilton down the street on club night to see if she’s wearing any underwear, I know that I’ve got a serious problem with shallow water and I’m going to have to read some poetry.

That’s right. My name is John and I read poetry. I don’t write poetry, and in fact I’m more or less certain that poets and prose writers are wired differently, and that when a poet writes prose a different process is going on than when a fiction writer writes prose. That’s not to say that poets can’t write prose. They can. It’s weird prose, but it’s prose. Based solely on my own experience, I have my doubts that fiction writers can write poetry at all.

However, the people who have taught me more about writing than anyone else have been poets. One of those poets is Peter Sears, an Oregon poet who is a good friend and a great poet of voice. He taught me more about discovering character than Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, and Dickens and Twain taught me a lot.

Another thing Peter Sears brilliantly evokes is depth. Peter’s poems are a bright layer of light hovering over darkness, a bit like the band of sunlit water that exists in the ocean above the Marianas Trench. By the end of a Peter Sears poem you have enjoyed the sunlight but you’ve been made completely aware of what gropes in the darkness beneath it.

Here’s a Peter Sears poem that he sent me last summer. Even if you don’t like poetry you’ll like this poem. It does all the things you should want your writing to do every time you sit down to write. It shows how the last few lines of something can and should take a dive into meaning. Write a story that does what this poem does and you’ll have written a kick-ass story.

I asked Peter if I could put the poem on this blog. He was gracious enough to say yes. As far as I know, he hasn’t published it anywhere else, so you saw it here first.


I want you to boycott my funeral and tell anyone

you know who is planning on coming not to come.

Tell them it’s a big mistake. Why, only a few weeks ago

you saw me. I didn’t look great, there in Borneo,

but who does in the jungle? And no, I didn’t say

where I was going, I was in a hurry and I’d meet you

later, at the hotel, remember?… in the lobby, in those

big hard-cushion chairs. I know, they don’t call it

Borneo any more. So what. You get the idea, right?

The point is you saw me, so needle them:

say, so what’s with the funeral? Sounds like a hoax —

they could be in big trouble. They should appreciate

that you, you of all people, cannot be bamboozled.

Keep at it. Ask them: so who’s in the coffin?

Maybe just rocks, rocks and bugs. They better check

or start backpeddling because you know the guy is fine.

Yeah. Loud and clear: you just saw me in the jungle.

You’ve got to be in good shape; tell them

you’ve got to be in good shape to be in the jungle,

moving fast, and be so on top of it as to offer

to meet at the hotel that evening. That’s what you

thought to yourself standing there, watching the light

come down in the jungle when I said, look for me later

at the hotel. And now that you are thinking about it,

you recall me adding, sure, we might all stroll out

from the lobby on to the veranda and have a round

of those spiked iced teas to toast the moon

dripping up over the bamboo and wonder if the world

really is at war. Yeah, that was just last week.

You’ve got all that. Good. It would be great,

wouldn’t it, if we could beat this thing.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Theresa March 23, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Re: “… in fact I’m more or less certain that poets and prose writers are wired differently …”

I have to admit. I like the word “wired.” I’m currently engaged in a wiring project. Get the circuits correct and it’s lights on. Get them wrong, well, worst-case scenario, I burn everything up. Which can be pretty dramatic. But the thrill (for me, at least) is in getting it right. The alternative is a mess. I hate cleaning up messes.

Which is why I’ve never understood poetry. (No reflection on Peter Sears … or any other poet.)

I hated English back in my school days.

Not the language itself. When used as structurally and mechanically designed, it makes perfect sense. I love other languages for the same reason. Put the parts together correctly and bingo, a coherent picture emerges.

But poetry is largely a structural and mechanical shuffle. All I ever saw was a mess. It defeated me back then, and my grades reflected it.

Which was horrible for someone desperate to move beyond what I’d been born into. To get out, I needed to write scholarships. Perfect scores in Chemistry, Mathematics, Biology and Physics meant nothing if I couldn’t pass the English Lit exam.

In a last ditch effort to survive, I made stuff up on my poetry assignments, something I’d have never gotten away with in my math or pure science classes. Much to my surprise, it worked. Overnight, my Ds turned into As. I‘d also generally receive some comment along the lines of “I never noticed the poem suggested that before”, “most perceptive,” or “unusual analysis, but it works.”

I’ve often wondered how many other desperate students employ the same tactic. My guess is its root cause is a wiring issue.

So, (double sigh), in reading Peter Sears’ poem, “Boycott,” I’m once again defeated and once again see an incongruent mess.

Broken lines.

Jumbled text.

What does “rocks, rocks, and bugs” mean? If it were “rocks, rocks, and more rocks” I’d understand. That’s just a whole bunch of rocks. But “rocks, rocks, and bugs” … why double up “rocks”? … is there a typo? … is a word missing?

And the two lines, “You’ve got to be in good shape; tell them you’ve got to be in good shape to be in the jungle.” Why the redundancy?

If the poem were on an exam, I’d be forced to make up something. Perhaps: an urbanized idiot hiking through the pristine organic charm of the tropical hinterland meets up with the serpent of the Garden of Eden and is feasted upon. (Hence the rocks, rocks, and bugs). Okay, I wouldn’t use the word “idiot.” But, English lit instructors—at least the ones I had—loved the words “serpent” and “Eden.”

Of course, I’m well aware the poem probably implies something different. And if I remove the blank lines and breaks, and tie what remains into complete sentences, and add a beginning and an ending quotation mark, I see what structurally resembles a monologue.

Perhaps that’s the answer. It’s a paragraph of dialogue in a mystery conversation. And (knowing Peter), it probably has something to do with war.

So, all these years later, I remain miss-wired.

Alternatively, I could always argue it’s the poet with the faulty circuitry.

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