Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Adding Escalators to Your Poems

I've been reading Elizabeth Bishop, and I see that this woman likes her escalators.  The poems contain a moment when the ostensible subject is revealed to be just the starting point, and the poem delves deeper or lifts higher.  It's a moment when the reader feels momentum under her feet, carrying her forward.  Escalator moment!

Here's an example from Bishop's "In the Waiting Room."  It begins:
In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist's waiting room.
As she waits, she reads a National Geographic.  She is amazed at the images of volcanoes, native peoples, and European anthropologists.  It dislocates her.  She goes on (bold font mine),
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo's voice--
not very loud or long.
I wasn't at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn't. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I--we--were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918. . . .
The poem continues, but right there, the poem pulls the reader to a new level.  To me, it's a deeper level.  We've taken a quick escalator down into the collective unconscious, ridden toward the foundations of human nature.  Read the rest of the poem at: poets.org

Escalator moments take us up as well.  It's common for that up-escalator to appear in the final lines, as here, in Kim Addonizio's "Mermaid Song."  (bold font mine)
Mermaid Song
by Kim Addonizio
for Aya at fifteen

Damp-haired from the bath, you drape yourself
upside down across the sofa, reading,
one hand idly sunk into a bowl
of crackers, goldfish with smiles stamped on.
I think they are growing gills, swimming
up the sweet air to reach you. Small girl,
my slim miracle, they multiply.
In the black hours when I lie sleepless,
near drowning, dread-heavy, your face
is the bright lure I look for, love's hook
piercing me, hauling me cleanly up.

We, too, are hauled up.  Into hope, I think, and into appreciation of this young woman's potential -- maybe humankind's potential.  The escalator is love, and we ride it to a new vantage point.  The girl reading on the couch becomes something more than just a girl reading on a couch.

I want escalators in my poems.  Moments of new perspective on the starting topic.  Moments of depth and height.  But how can we do this without sounding fake or inflated?  Here's what I'm going to try:
1) Keep the language concrete, even as the ideas soar.  Objects, like Addonizio's hook, resonate with meaning, whereas abstractions run the risk of sounding holier-than-thou or more-insightful-than-thou.
2) Don't set out with a predetermined idea; let the process surprise you.   Surrendering to the creative flow leads us to surprising places.  Frost says, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader."  Let the writing itself lead you.
3) Take imaginative leaps.  Addonizio leaps with "I think they are growing gills, swimming  / up the sweet air to reach you."  This fantastical turn makes the escalator moment possible.
4) Shock yourself and the reader by writing the truth.  The truth of our lives is something we need courage to face and to speak.  Once a poem is underway, ask, "What is the truth of this situation?"  Boldly go there.  Ralph Waldo Emerson says, "Insist on yourself; never imitate."  Your reality and your individual understanding of this life should show in your work.  Be real, even as you work with fictions.

Enjoy those escalators!

Books of the poets I mention here: