Auld Lang Syne

Friday, June 24, 2011

It's Your Space... writing with setting as a consideration

Character, controlling metaphor, action, conflict, resolution of conflict. Sounds like the stuff of novels or memoir, right? Yes, of course. But what many people do not realize is that poets who write narrative poems deal with these too, but in a more condensed frame.

What I care about most of all (other than strong imagery) is that I set the poem somewhere. I recall teaching a class in community college where students questioned the importance of setting AT ALL, much less in a poem, especially in a poem. Of course there are schools of thought where the poets believe that it is all image and language and setting is not a factor. Bah! Double bah, I say.

One thing we all agree upon is that we want our readers to engage with what we write. We want a connection. I heard Billy Collins state emphatically that we must address the reader in some way, whether covertly or overtly. He went so far as to say that a collection of poems ought to begin with a "dear reader" kind of poem. I'm not so sure he is right about this, but...  What I believe is that we (poets) need to anchor our readers in some kind of locale, even if that place is not a place they have visited or inhabited. If we can act to include physical space in our poems, we can invite readers into that space with us.

What is the definition of place as it pertains to writing poems? Is it some grand locale, like the domes of Russia or the rocks of Zion National Park? Or can place be one small view of a larger space, like under a bed, in a car or closet or bed? Certainly. In fact, I suggest that poets ought to do what some great photographers do, squint a little to eliminate the "big picture" and focus on the minute detail IN the picture. What a daunting task it is to write about "the forest" for example, or "the sea." How limiting it is for the writer to have a seemingly unlimited topic. Better yet, write about a particular nest in a particular tree in a specific direction (the northernmost birch). Of course one of the most famous poems of place is a bit indefinite in its location, while appealing to the universal idea of its place. I refer here to Frost's Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. Frost handles the nonspecific, the generic, by engaging the reader in speculation as he himself wonders. Whose wood these are I think I know lets the reader believe that these are woods of a specific person and place. The reader will suspend concern over the specific location and ownership in favor of having just clues to these. This is a good strategy for a poet to use. Leave 'em wanting more in a sense.

Most of all, the poet needs to become passionate about place, gain a certain intimacy with it. If he or she is writing a poem that takes place in a car for example, be very sure of the look, smell, feel, sounds of that car. Name it. Claim it. If the poem takes place in a kitchen, what items are there? What happens there will be believed only if the mise en scene is correct. In a recent poem, Lemon Cake, I was careful to include teacups and egg beaters to anchor the poem in space and time. In her poem, Girl in the Doorway, Dorianne Laux is very specific about the location of the speaker of the poem and the girl herself. She got it so right that when we read the poem, we are THERE hearing the dryer, seeing the V of light between her legs as the girl goes out into the sunshine. We are not told ABOUT what is happening (internally for the mother or externally for both mother and daughter). We get the poem, the incident, fully present,fully engaged. It is in large part because Laux understands setting in a poem, is fully passionate about the details so that we can become impassioned too. Ask yourself if the poem would have been as intense, so poignant, if the setting had been different. I think not. The mother's place just outside the daughter's room lends the whole poem a deep intimacy that would not exist if the mother was in the kitchen thinking about things. Richard Wilbur takes a similar stance in his wonderful poem, The Writer. The father, presumably Wilbur, is on the outside, overhearing and speculating about his daughter's activity (my daughter is writing a story). Again, the details of place reinforce and amplify the meaning of the poem. There is a window, desk, typewriter, typewriter keys, chair, desk, all of the things that belong in the place of the poem (mise en scene). Again, the wedge of time and space we are permitted to observe makes the poem solid and universal, invites us in and keeps us there until the final lines. Again, the poem would not have impact on our deeper selves if it were not set in the particular small vantage point of the  closed door and the overhearing father. Both Laux and Wilbur chose a small spot and a big issue and made them work together. These poems are not just musings of parents whose children are embarking on life without needing them. They are instead, poems of physical and emotional place. They both use setting to platform feeling.

I can't help but think of Wordsworth and Coleridge here. Both Tintern Abbey and Frost at Midnight occupy specific spaces.

What about setting the negative in place, a setting that is dark, dangerous, or regret-filled? OK, so Dante took his main character to the underworld and let him see the horrors that a wasted life might bring. I'm not talking about the kind of epic locale he used (though he did it brilliantly). I'm talking about space that is unlovely, dreary, boring, frightening. For example what about setting a poem in a kitchen, putting the character's dreadful situation of abuse on that black and white patterned floor, adding in normal utensils and furnishings. Can setting that is "normal" work for action that is not? Oh most definitely, in fact wonderfully. Then you are using setting for contrast, to make metaphor for secrets. In my first collection, Daughter of the Ardennes Forest (a verse memoir published by Main Street Rag in 2007), I set the poems in and around WWII and the Belgian-German theatre. In this way, I could write persona poems as well as poems that comment upon the nature of post-war PTSD and its effects on families. Without the setting, the poems would simply have been artifice. I was able to place myself and my parents, especially my father, into the place where the PTSD had its origins. The longish poem, Lines Composed Upon A Visit to Maddingly Cemetery was literally a visit to a spot, and the imaginings evoked from what was found there. Combined with a "tolling of the names," the place, the setting, makes for a clear view on the part of the reader as to the price of war. This poem is certainly not a celebration of place, yet it is an honoring of what led to the place's existence. The poem, In My Foxhole Again is a poem that uses place and time to recreate the hellishness of war. the final stanza illustrates my point:

In my foxhole again,
refuse of fifty years brushed away,
exact location calculated as we once did it,
I stop and listen for the click of the camera.
For one shitty second, it's not the camera at all
but that click you hear just before
you die, the shell hitting bone or ripping you
into pieces small enough to mail home
to your mother who's been watching the door
and lighting enough candles to burn down the world.

The bottom line here is this: write with an eye and ear to setting. Consider that setting may indeed be a character in the narrative you wish to tell. Your poems will take on an irresistible quality and will satisfy the truth.

1 comment:

  1. Again and again I am awed and inspired by your presentation. Unlike most academics you enlighten rather than obscure.