with critique by Tracy Koretsky
I take your hand
which has at times enfolded mine,
with fingers certain of their strength and power
I search your face
so familiar as you turn to me,
each line etched upon my heart
by our countless years as one
Your eyes seek mine
yet gone from them is the heat,
the blazing force of passion
now cooled by drifting clouds of fear
Your mind, once compelled to dwell in
fierce logic and complexity,
has lost its way in the fog of disease
leaving you forgetful of even simple tasks
I loved you then; I love you now
yet my heart aches with the memory of the man I knew
as I live with the man who remains
Copyright 2010 by Maggi Roark
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
The difficulty in writing about illness, whether our own or that of someone we love, is that the emotions are so very strong. We long to express their full magnitude but have only feeble words to work with. Poetry presents itself as a way to empower, even venerate, these words, yet poetry requires form—some sort of containment. While this may seem oppressively restrictive in the heat of our urge to communicate, it can—in fact, must—become an asset if we are to write a successful poem. Containing our feelings pressurizes them, and it is this threat of explosion that moves the reader.
In last month's Critique Corner, we compared two poems that wrapped their narrator's experiences in metaphors, much as bitter medicines are wrapped in pill casings. By doing so, they enable the reader to swallow them, and so, feel their effects. This month, for contrast, we will look at another, very different, poem: "Lost" by Maggi Roark of San Diego, California, who told me in her letter that she originally turned to poetry while deep in grief. With "Lost" Roark has been less gentle than last month's poets, forcing the reader to look directly at what she herself is seeing.
The strength of "Lost" is its simple but elegant form: stanzas one and two begin with "I"; stanzas two and three begin with "your"; stanza five achieves a satisfying cadence by balancing "I loved" with "I love." This clean, musical structure helps to quiet the revelations of the text to a volume at which the reader can hear them.
Without it, phrases like "countless years" or "blazing force" might shout. They are, essentially, hyperbole, and hyperbole, when not used as irony or wit, can strain a reader. A second sort of hyperbole evident in this poem is redundancy—in other words, one way to overstate something is to say it twice. "Heat" in stanza three is restated as "blazing force"; "so familiar" rephrased as "etched upon my heart".
Since simplicity is this poem's chief asset, I suggest looking for ways to strengthen that quality, with a particular eye toward removing redundancy.
One way to revise towards simplicity is to scrub the text of extraneous words and syllables. "Helper" verbs, prepositions, articles, and so forth, can often be excised with no loss to meaning. For example, stanza one might lose "has" in line two and "with" in line three.
In stanza three, one word the author might want to reconsider is "countless" for the obvious reason that they are not countless at all, though perhaps seemingly so. Therefore the word needs either to be cut or modified.
More importantly though, as I said above, stanzas two and three contain restatements. Unless there is an expressive reason to do otherwise, only the strongest phrasing should survive revision. In this poem, "familiar" in stanza two could be removed. So could the entire second line of stanza three, especially since the third line with its lovely sound correlations between "cooled", "clouds", and "now" as well as "drifting" and "fear" make it the poem's strongest line.
Part of that strength is owed to the way the metaphor of the line extends into stanza five, as the clouds descend to fog. Following that image up with an explanation greatly reduces its impact. The reader understands line four of the stanza even without its being stated.
As for the final stanza, its beauty is in its balance. Besides, we have "heart" above. I suggest reinforcing the balance by removing everything in lines two and three but "the man I knew/the man who remains".
It can be an amazing and wonderful discovery for a poet to realize how powerful simplicity can be. Poems are constructed upon tensions. The contrast of overwhelming emotions plainly put forth is potent. Organized into an unassuming form, they become a plangent and universal song.
Where could a poem like "Lost" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Abilene Writers Guild Contest
Postmark Deadline: November 30
Prizes up to $100 in a number of genres including rhymed and unrhymed poetry, short stories, articles, children's literature, and novel excerpts
Writer's Digest Poetry Awards
Postmark Deadline: December 15
Good exposure for emerging writers in this contest from a national writers' magazine, which offers prizes up to $500 for poems 32 lines or less; online entries accepted; no simultaneous submissions
Dream Quest One Poetry & Writing Contest
Postmark Deadline: December 31
Twice-yearly contest for emerging writers offers top prizes of $500 for prose, $250 for poetry; previously published work accepted
Heart Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: December 31
Twice-yearly contest from Nostalgia Press offers $500 for "insightful, immersing" free-verse poems
This poem and critique appeared in the November 2010 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.