Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Poetry According to Pops

"Show, don't tell."
"Brushes" -- copyright Russell Streur

Recently,  Russell Streur, editor of the Plum Tree Tavern (and the late Camel Saloon), sent me a critical essay on poetry.  Evolution and learning are a part of poetry.  I think that we can all learn from Russell's essay.

"The world is full of sound, color, and character: use some."
"Buskers" -- copyright Russell Streur

Poetry According to Pops
by Russell Streur
Editor, Plum Tree Tavern

Pops was a tall, stern English professor at a strict Midwestern college and he had some opinions about the language.  He especially had opinions about poetry, which he considered to be capable of reaching high art, if poets would just follow his advice more often.  Little surprise that his son became the editor of online poetry journals.  Having read thousands of submissions along the way for some years now, I find myself relying more and more on what Pops said about the craft to judge the work I see.

“A poem has to be more than broken lines of thought typed on good paper,” he said in those inky, pre-digital days.  “It has to offer vitality to the audience: colors and sounds, specificity in character and story, a recognizable place, and a season or a time of day to give context to the scene.”   

That was good advice then, and it remains good advice now, to breathe life into a poem.  A recent submission to Plum Tree Tavern by a New York writer would have made Pops sigh in frustration.  It begins with one declarative sentence stating that heat and drought cause trees to die, and ends with a second sentence that describes global warming as:

a threatening condition
to the climate cycle
that may consume
our air supply. 

I can imagine Pops looking up from reading this and dismissing it with an icy sting in his blue eyes.  There’s no life in the poem, just two flat sentences and a thud of a definition as the grand finale to the fireworks   Editors need a lot more to say yes to a submission, and a lot less.

Pops was clear on describing the poet’s job.  “There are three parts.  First, it’s the poet’s job to discover a truth about a thing.  Then, the poet has to write the poem in a way to bring the audience along on the journey to the truth as an equal partner.  Finally, the poet has to deliver the discovery in a way that the audience can claim as its own.”

In shorthand, of course, that translates to the time-honored writer’s directive, “Show, don’t tell.”

Poems that are all tell and no show are a losing combination.  More show and less tell doesn’t guarantee an acceptance.  But it sure beats a lecture, any day of the week.  The lecture hall, for those who are new to the premises, is down two flights and to the left.

Audience was always a big deal to Pops, and he wasn’t generous about it.  “A poet who is writing poetry only for himself, should keep it to himself,” came easily to his tongue.  He insisted that a poet had to know the audience when submitting, and he gave the advice that’s always given—read the back issues, and read the guidelines.  Then, he’d say, read the guidelines again, and follow them.  A work submitted to the tavern not long ago begins:

The dew that rests upon a flowers petal every morning
needs the petal to rest upon as much the petal needs the dew.
For a short time they need each other equally,
but for a short moment only.

The work continues in a similar manner for another 35 lines, complete with a staggering number of absent apostrophes, before concluding that the rotation of the earth allows the sun to commit a number of crimes.   Regardless of any points deducted for poor punctuation and any merit in the metaphysical arguments of petal, dew and planetary orbit, the submission guidelines at Plum Tree ask for short poems of between 3 and 14 lines.  A densely packed, page-long work is not likely to be accepted.  Reading the guidelines twice and following them won’t guarantee an acceptance.  But it sure beats not following the guidelines, any day of the week.  The philosophy department, by the way, is down the hall and to the right.

Plum Tree’s guidelines also ask for specificity, a quality that Pops defined as the border separating poetry from greeting cards.  A writer from India once submitted a short poem to the tavern that pictured a bird soaring above towers in smog, in desperate search of a tree.

The reader yearns to know where the towers are, what type of bird is flying, the type of tree it so desperately seeks.  But without specificity, it could be a pigeon in Chicago.  It could be, that is, if anyone in the Windy City has ever actually seen a pigeon soaring above the Sears and Hancock buildings.   Doubtful, and an image that requires a trip to the architecture department to make sure we’ve got the names of the tallest buildings in Chicago right.  Up one flight of stairs and straight ahead comes the bad news:  the Willis and the Trump Hotel hopelessly spoil the scene.

So we are left in search of the ornithology department, second floor through the lobby door, where it is our good fortune to find a fine work titled Descent, used here by permission of the author, Taylor Graham:

A Great Horned Owl. Three hoots repeated
at intervals. A school lesson, mantra, a warning –
a message to solve. That owl's no stranger,
a local presence. We live with it like thunder,
or dynamite muffled by hills.
It stooped soundless to take our lamb,
leaving no more evidence than water
siphoned from a pond. A change in pressure,
an absence; algebra of regret. Spirit
of a lost one. A second voice joined the first,
call and response.
Then silence, the long history of night.

Sounds—a lot of them.  All show.  Specificity.  An ending that allows each reader to enter his and her own silence and ancestral history. 

“Now that,” Pops would say, “is poetry.”  Editors of literary journals would like to see more of it come their way. 

"Allow the audience to share in the discovery."
"Discovery" -- copyright Russell Streur

Let's finish with some music.  Since Russell mentioned the ornithology department, I'll start us off with "Ornithology":  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LphuCadyQi0

This version of "Compulsion" features not only Sonny Rollins but also Charlie Parker and Miles Davis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EselUPfUlnM

On "The Bridge," Sonny Rollins mastered his craft: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIq5w-NogWA

I'll end with Wayne Shorter's "Sweet Bird," from his CD The Joni Letters.

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