Alphabet Poems: Workshop 2


Last week I showed you my worse alphabet poem (strictly speaking, these aren’t alphabet poems, but my friend and I have christened them so). We talked about why it sucked, and I promised that this week I’d speak about what’s good about the poem.

I should warn you that lines 11 through 19 are gobbledygook. By the time I reached line 11, I glanced at the previous lines and felt the need to do anything different, as long as it was better. So I went surreal, wrote what came, and demanded images from myself.

M is for Bad Poetry
By Emile DeWeaver

1   Members of Congress dismember
2   merry lambs and sing
3   melodies to bleating sheep
4   massed around the reflecting pond. The
5   message: lamb-parts
6   made this nation great.
7   Mistakes we
8   make, but if
9   memories cannot be trusted, how can you not
10  misconceive our sins.
11  Mops in a closet damp with
12  mold spores that climb the dust
13  motes settling in the once-dark room
14  mucus on linoleum
15  maggots in wood grain
16  moco-colored moccasins hissing on a squaw’s
17  mumbling feet.
18  Milk spilling strings through a cheese grater, dripping curdled
19  murals on the floor.

What works is concrete imagery gives the poem immediacy. Immediacy precedes reader involvement, so it’s at least a step in the right direction.

Examples: In lines 11-13, mops, closet, dampness, allusions to moldy smells, dust motes: all are readily identifiable images, all readily appeal to the senses. Earlier in lines 1-2 we have what I’ve called a false image (because it betrays the poet with its ineffectiveness): “Congress dismember merry lambs.” The difference between these images is when I say “dust” or “mop,” one million readers will see more or less the same picture (no need to point out that I have less than 40 followers). These images unite readers to each other and the artist. But when I say “dismember merry lambs,” this could produce a thousand vastly different images, if it produces any at all. In that way it divides readers and artist. Worse, the artist has lost control of the effects she or he is trying to produce. Because we can rely on the images produced by concrete words, we can predict their effect. If we can forecast words’ effects, then we can create in a reader love, joy, fear, suspicion, or admiration for our great talent by carefully choosing our images.

Let’s examine more images. I used “linoleum” in line 14 because it’s more specific (and thus more readily identifiable) than “floor.” In line 15 “wood grain” isn’t necessarily more detailed than “wood,” but by calling attention to the grain, I hope to achieve a zooming-in effect, a close-up in the reader’s mind. My decision may or may not produce my intended effect (only you can tell me), but that’s part of the risk in pushing the boundaries of our craft. We have to try things.

Lines 16 and 17 provide an example of what I call a double image (because it’s working double time). “moco-colored moccasins hissing on a squaw’s/ mumbling feet. At its best the double image adds depth. At its worse, it distracts. Here we have moccasins that can be shoes or a snakes.  There’s an irrationality here, the dream-quality that poetry allows. Snakes don’t belong on feet nor do shoes hiss, but lines in poetry can impose their own logic. For example, shoes don’t hiss, but if feet can mumble, we’ve entered a world where shoes can hiss.

My favorite images are in the last two lines: “Milk spilling strings through a cheese grater, dripping curdled / murals on the floor.” There’s kinetic power in these lines that the other images lack because the subject, milk, moves through a grater and creates something, a mural, on the floor. The image also contains a lot of texture: white milk, smooth strings of milk, metallic grater, “dripping” introduces sound, “curdled” hints at odor, and “murals on the floor” transforms the texture of white milk to something marble-like.

What do all these images mean, what did I aim to make readers feel? Well, as I said, it’s gobbledygook. The worst poem I’ve written. But even a bad poem can teach us something if we can bear to look at it long enough.


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