with critique by Tracy Koretsky
if i put the pen in the flame
the damn thing will melt
dropping black ink
into the yellow heat
so small but so hot
capable of major injury and harm
but will i be careless
I don't think I choose that kind of pain
written in my blood
with spilt black ink
bubbling and cooking my flesh
time to clean out the closet
the dust and unused books of directions
the funny photographs with the finger
in front of the lens
the lost pasta box with one strand
of thin spaghetti remaining
the birthday hat
converted to new year's eve
in two thousand and five
i sneeze and curse the dirt
my fingertips begin their
transformation to grey
i cough and wipe my nose
on my dusty sleeve
memories spill to the floor
winding up in the tall green trash
making room for more
to touch and discard
time to clean out the closet
a positive note
sprayed the air
printed in the smallest type
but the message is clear
shattering the gloom like glasses
plastered over the hillsides
lowsides and inbetween
bringing that unmistakable something
so usually unseen
not hiding but waiting
Copyright 2010 by Tim Young
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
Last month in Critique Corner, we considered a technique for adding complexity to a poem, not to obscure it, but rather to open it to multiple interpretations and invite the reader's participation. This month, I'd like to take the discussion farther with an already quite complex piece: "Three Poems" from New York rocker Tim Young.
Notice that the diction and grammar of "Three Poems" is spare and plain. Nothing is incomprehensible or evasive. Indeed, the first abstract concept does not occur until more than halfway through, with the phrase "memories spill to the floor". Moreover, this is not a poem that expounds upon grand concepts. It is not about Justice, Eternal Love, or the Glory of God. Rather, "Three Poems" focuses on accessible—mundane, actually—objects and circumstances.
So, one might ask, why might this poem be considered complex? It has to do with the relationship of the narrator to the objects, as well as the relationship of the objects to one another. It has to do with the tone of each individual section, or "canto", particularly in its shifts from canto to canto. Above all, it has to do with the fact that these relationships are neither explicit nor justified. Young leaves it to the reader to make of these lines what he or she will.
Why is he telling me about a pen and what does the pen have to do with the closet? How do either relate to the final canto, whatever it is about? The key, as I suggested above, is to attend to their tone.
With the line "I don't think I choose that kind of pain" Young signals to the reader that he has at least actively considered hurting himself. Notice that he has capitalized the personal pronoun in this line—the only place in the poem in which he does so. Do "i" and "I" represent two separate psyches? The Id and Ego? As a reader, I can only wonder, and be intrigued—that, and troubled. Without saying "I am in pain" Young conveys a very real sense of emotional distress. I don't know why and I don't need to. Enough room is left for the reader to relate his or her own experience to that of the narrator.
I particularly admire the psychological observation found in the final line of that canto. Here, the internal pain of the speaker is transferred to the object in two deft words.
In the second canto, with its focus on tangible, even slightly silly artifacts, and its emphasis on physical action, the tone lightens considerably. One is relieved that our narrator has put aside his self-mutilating musings for what seems like some overdue tidying up. One can, of course, read "closet" as "closet", but just as easily it can be read as "the subconscious" or "the past", be it a specific time or event, or a more general sense of personal history. All these readings work. This is the point of complexity: multiple readings can be simultaneously true.
Again, I don't know what is inspiring our narrator's mania; I don't need to. Instead, I am led to recall some time when I manifested a similar psychological state with a similar physical response. Or, if not me personally, then someone I know, because this is a common human process. Complexity renders our poems more universal by making room for the reader's own experience to become relevant to their interpretations.
With the third canto, a very different tone is introduced: ecstasy, the dazzling aftermath of pain's release. The opening lines operate as extended synesthesia, conflating music with substance with text and again with music. As a device, synesthesia is always arresting; at some level one must stop and say, "Wait. Did I read that correctly?" In so doing, it has a way of waking a reader up. Interestingly, synesthesia is most frequently associated with the French Symbolists, known for encoding internal states with ordinary objects, as this poem does. Here, Young prolongs this state of heightened sensual awareness over five lines to suggest that the formerly dampened spirits of our narrator have been enlivened—some sort of passage has been completed.
This can only mean it's time for song, as the poem gives over to pure musicality, riffing through lines six through ten. To end, a coda, a restatement of the same idea that completes the second canto: The time to clean out closets will come again, and, if we live, again and again.
Thus, the pen, on some level, indicates the acknowledgment of pain; the closet, psychological processing which leads to emotional catharsis. With no knowledge of the particulars or instructions towards response, poet and reader together make a complete and satisfying journey.
Which is not to say this poem is complete or has fully met its potential. I assume, as I do with all pieces submitted to Critique Corner, that this is a draft. To revise, I suggest that throughout, the author simply demand more from himself. Mr. Young is a songwriter, so I would remind him that in a song you have the rhythm, melody and chords to give valence and energy to the lyrics. All you have with a poem is its language.
"Thin spaghetti." That would be as opposed to fat? Demand sharper or fresher images. The line "capable of major injury and harm" is a good example. Young means "capable of causing..." Dropping the "causing" probably elides well in a song, but here, it just strains the syntax. On the other hand, restoring an extra verb there leaves us with the most pedestrian of prose.
Fortunately, poetry is made out of images and "major injury" and "harm" just cry out to be images. They don't have to be metaphors which might pull us out of the dramatic pen/flame scenario, but perhaps something sensual within the moment, or specific and within the realm of possibility.
Make sure every line says something, and that it says it succinctly, unless you are adding words because of rhythm.
A quick scanning of the left side of the poem suggests that line breaks might be reconsidered to fall less predictably and elicit more tension across lines. Certainly, this triptych deserves a more evocative title.
So, it needs a red-penning, but please, Mr. Young, nowhere near fire! Still, taken together, "Three Poems" nicely demonstrates one of the important differences between poetry and prose: the associations a poem suggests are as significant to interpretation as its specifics.
Where could a poem like "Three Poems" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry and Short Story Competitions
Postmark Deadline: September 20
UK-based magazine of world literature offers quarterly prizes up to 150 pounds for unpublished poems and stories
Poetry Kit Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by September 30
The Poetry Kit, a UK-based site with listings of markets and contests for writers, offers 100 pounds and web publication for poems of any length; fee is a pay-as-you-wish donation
Reuben Rose Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by October 9
Long-running international contest from Voices Israel offers prizes up to $500 and anthology publication for unpublished poems
Little Red Tree International Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: October 15
Prizes up to $1,000 plus anthology publication, from an independent small press in Connecticut whose motto is "Delight, entertain and educate"; enter by mail or online
Duckabush Prize for Poetry
Entries must be received by November 30
$500 prize for unpublished poems from A River & Sound Review, a Washington-based journal with an interest in humor and performance poetry, whose motto is "Serious literature with an unpretentious soul"; enter online
This poem and critique appeared in the September 2011 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to email@example.com. 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.