Monday, February 18, 2013

Surprise, or, What I Learned as an Editor

John Berryman singing hymns (or, frozen in the moment before a sneeze)

In my third semester of undergraduate study, I enrolled in a course called Syntax, Semantics, and Style. It was a required course, one of those over-regulated, over-evaluated staples of certain curricula that no student ever expects to like. I was lucky enough, however, to have been assigned an instructor who understood these things. On the first day of class, without speaking, she wrote two words on the whiteboard: “Good Writing.” She then asked each student to define the term in as few words as possible. 

I’ve tried over the years since to remember what I wrote, but I think memories have a way of prioritizing themselves; the simple two-word definition our instructor eventually revealed to us—after ten minutes or so of ripping through her students’ careful attempts—has stuck in my mind ever since. “Verbal surprise,” she said. “It’s that simple.”

Of course, nothing is that simple—not to say that little aphorism didn’t serve me well throughout the remainder of my undergraduate studies. I clung to it like a mantra. Each piece I read in workshop:
“Is this surprising?” Each passage I was instructed to analyze: “How does this surprise the reader?”  Simplicity certainly has its place.

That place, unfortunately, doesn’t extend far beyond the Bachelor of Arts degree, at least not in terms of literary criticism. Once I graduated, I began working as an editor for Artichoke Haircut. Finding myself increasingly in the company of better writers than I encountered in my undergraduate workshops, I quickly recognized the inherent fallacies of my beloved mantra.“This piece is/is not surprising,” may have worked for a few theses, but it didn’t exactly hold up to the scrutiny of an editorial staff hell-bent on putting together a quality collection of fiction and poetry, not only  to be read and enjoyed, but marketed as well.

What I have learned as an editor, and what has become apparent to me through my involvement in the elusive processes of selection and arrangement, is that surprise is an infinitely complex concept with highly subjective effects.  Poetry, like all writing, operates within a set of rhetorical confines. John Berryman’s use of convoluted syntax in “Dream Song 51,” for instance, is a welcome surprise for some:
…lessen so little that if here in his crude rimes
Henry them mentions, do not hold it, please
for a putting of man down.
The jarring effect this subversion of conventional grammar produces, though, might certainly put off a reader with more formal sensitivities. As much as the poet may feel it is his job to reject these confines—to fight the good fight—his writing nevertheless adheres to a vast matrix of tastes, theories, and criticisms the moment he sends it out into the world. 

An argument for objectivity in the evaluation of poetry, I admit, may prove ultimately futile. Nevertheless, I’ve noticed a few things in my time at Artichoke Haircut, a few elements of surprise that I can point to in works of poetry I consider to be successful.

The first, which I admit is virtually unavoidable in any use of language, is a certain sense of music. Even in writing as artless in its intent as what one might find in an instruction manual, the translation of thought into syllables, phrases, and sentences carries an imprint of rhythm and inflection, which, when spoken or read aloud, is remarkably similar to those elements of music produced by an instrument. What sets a skilled poet apart from a technical writer, for instance, is his understanding and manipulation of these elements. In his collection Poems for Teeth, Richard Loranger often lends his language to nonsense, sacrificing a verbal sense of meaning for that of a more visceral, phonetic nature. Certain passages are italicized to indicate that they be sung, rather than read, and are even accompanied by sheet music in the collection’s appendix. “Tooth of Entropy” ends:
Oopsy-doopsy    floopsy-whoopsy
woozy-twosy    inna chute
Bouncy-flouncy    slidesy-widse
lucksy-ducksy    whadda dupe

Hopsy-slopsy    numbsy-thumbsy
headsy-firsty    inna dive
Splatsy-flatsy    cracksy-wacksy 
byesy-whysy    spap oop.
Here, Loranger manipulates rhyme, rhythm, and nonsense the way a guitarist might manipulate a scale, or the equalization settings on his amplifier, to allow certain tones and pitches to resonate. This intangible approach to sentiment, a great poet knows, belongs to language as well as music.

Another shared element of music and language integral to the construction of a successful poem is momentum, the speed and frequency with which words, ideas, and images are strung together. In her introduction to The Best American Poetry 1993, Louise Gluck discusses the failings of a certain type of poem: “The poem which mistakes noble utterance for perception, conviction for impassioned intelligence, has located a wisdom it means to confer on its readers. Although such a poem may be organized dramatically and will likely have its climactic moment, it lacks drama: one feels, too early, its intention." This mistake, of communicating too blatantly a poem’s intention to its readers, is often the sole downfall of what many might consider to be a “bad poem.” Readers, especially readers of poetry, simply don’t like to be told what to think.  Thus, a skilled poet will use her intuition to dissolve her intentions throughout the mechanisms of her poetry, often doing so by varying the speed with which the reader is exposed to sounds and images. In her piece “Underneath,” Jorie Graham accomplishes this through a play of syntax and spacing:
nerves wearing only moonlight lie down
lie still patrol yr cage
be a phenomenon
at the bottom bellow the word
intention, lick past it
rip     years

Here, Graham urges us to feel a great deal. Within these lines are defeat, panic, arousal, and anger, each assigned its own space, or lack thereof, to steep within the reader’s senses. The clipping of the word “your” to “yr” implies that we skip through the line, and the image of a cage might give us a sense of entrapment, or panic. This is offset at the end of the passage, by the space between “rip” and “years.” Here we are encouraged to take our time, to meditate on the absurdity of the image while feeling its rage. Notice that none of these abstract terms—panic, entrapment, absurdity, rage—appear in the text itself. Rather, Graham has masterfully used what is not there, the negative space of thought and sound, in order to illuminate that which is.

This utilization negative space—not only in Graham’s work, but in the work of all the poets who I believe have successfully penetrated the very core of subtlety—perhaps embodies the general aptitude present in a great poet which I have been trying all along to identify. I urge readers of Artichoke Haircut to be surprised, not only by what the poets we choose to publish have done in their work, but also by that which they have chosen not to do. It is, I think, the potential inherent in such poems, the room for possibility that the poet leaves between each stanza, line, and syllable, that keeps me returning to them for inspiration, enjoyment, and the absolute bliss of surprise.

By Jon Gavazzi

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