I'm being dropped. I took a turn pulling the head of our long line of humming wheels and bobbing legs traversing the empty landscape, and now I've rotated to the back, following behind my neighbor and longtime riding partner. Marc is still getting stronger, but age and injury have started to exact their toll on me.
The peloton is a loosely coupled train. Gaps develop and widen as the pace quickens, and I find myself slipping off Marc's tire. I try to sprint back, but there's no starch left. He spins up to another rider in front. Gradually the riders in front grow smaller in the distance and finally disappear. I am churning along with my aching quads under the blue dome of the sky, pulling only myself, being pulled by no one. Suddenly I am no longer in Vermont, but in a place I've been blown back to all my life. I am in Kansas.
I was a child in Leavenworth, in a large brick house beside the Penitentiary. A guard tower stood in our yard, and behind the house the wheat began. I watched squirrels chase each other through the tops of the tall elms. I stood on a wall and directed the black storm clouds in their advance. I built a paper zoo, with paper cages for paper lions. I waited each summer day for my father to come home from the prison in his suit and tie, newspaper folded under his arm. I walked to school across the wide reservation and through the leafy neighborhoods alone.
Father bought me a red Schwinn a few days before my ninth birthday, and taught me to ride it, running along beside as I wobbled. On my birthday, while I was at school, he pulled away, borne beyond the horizon on a swift coronary. His last words were "What a beautiful day!" My mother packed our things in cardboard barrels and we left Kansas. I later marveled at how few memories I carried, as if I hadn't been paying attention.
Still doggedly pedaling on today's empty road, I spare a look around. The flat fields of Addison are pleasant on this beautiful day, but the winds in Kansas rippled the wheat fields like waves of a golden ocean. I made friends with myself while watching them. I learned to enjoy my thoughts. Today I feel the winds of age blowing against me, a privilege my father never had. I try to imagine my young self riding out of my childhood not fatally damaged or condemned by circumstance, but just another odd variation of the human species. It's time to rewrite myself.
Marc is lying on a church lawn. I thank him for waiting, and he says that he wasn't sorry to let the group hurtle on without him. We resume a brisk pace of our own. I'm grateful for his friendship. I'm happy to be riding right now, right here, with a mind and body that could be worse. I'm grateful even for Kansas.
Copyright 2010 by Ken Martin
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
Free writes, automatic writing, journaling, the Amherst Writers & Artists method—what we have here are a lot of expressions that, when applied to the composition of poetry, all amount to same thing: much poetry begins with prose. This makes sense. We think in prose. We are natural with it. Streaming our consciousness through a pen can, indeed, help us discover and explore our material with an ease that may elude us when faced with the more formal concerns of constructing a poem.
But then what? How do we locate and shape a poem from the raw material we have produced? This month, Critique Corner is indebted to Ken Martin of Vermont for allowing us to use his flash memoir "Kansas" as an object lesson. Though far more polished than a typical sample of, say, automatic writing, this 500-word personal essay does provide clues that may help us lift the poems from our prose.
To begin, let's recall a few notions discussed in last month's Critique Corner, which addressed some of the differences between story and poem. Poems, I wrote then, "verse", which is to say, turn away from themselves, sometimes returning, sometimes not. Obviously, "Kansas" does this. The first two paragraphs establish a frame to which Martin returns in his final paragraph.
What makes this set-up and return an essay device, as opposed to a poetic one, is that the first paragraph clearly establishes a theme (aging) and the final paragraph provides an epiphany relating to that theme (the gratitude he feels for his vigor, his friendship, even his awareness that he is grateful). A poem is usually not quite so tidy. We do not neatly sum the turns we take in our poems. Rather we leave the reader to make of them what he or she will, inviting participation. While this is a large part of what makes reading a poem enjoyable, the conclusive nature of essay is what makes it satisfying. Every form of writing has its merits and uses.
Remove that frame, however, and what remains reads very much like a poem. Recall once again last month's essay, in which I stated that one way poems unify is through sound devices, and one way to create a sound device in a narrative poem is to create parallel grammatical structures. Now look at the third paragraph of "Kansas". Beginning with the third sentence, every sentence has the same construction. It begins with "I" then uses a simple past-tense verb. In the first two sentences, the nouns in the second half of the sentence are modified with adjectives. In the next sentence, all the nouns are modified with the same adjective, "paper". Language need not be ornate or grand to be musical; rather, it requires pattern. See for yourself how these two plain but effective repeated structures organize the remaining sentences of the paragraph.
Often, when using prose as a pre-writing technique, we fall into this type of repetition. Noticing it will help pull the poem out from the prose. Reinforcing it or building it in revision can help give the material shape. Be sure to vary the pattern as you work to keep the ear surprised.
Paragraph four has a graceful balance between specificity and abstraction, furthering its resemblance to poetry. In the first sentence we are given a color, a brand name and a number. In the second, the phrase "pulled away" comes, in context, to have a double meaning. It refers to the previous information. But then, without further ado, Martin pivots the phrase to apply to what follows, the abstract "borne beyond the horizon", then quickly returns to more concrete diction with "swift coronary". Though subtle, this shift of tone is enough to underscore the heightened importance of the event. There is no need for explanation or italics.
The sharper turn, however, takes place in the final sentence of that paragraph. Staying true to the timbre of the piece, Martin uses no artifice to move from the memory to his present-day reflection upon it. With this, he progresses from the specifically personal to the universal, that is, from his childhood in Kansas to the way all adults feel at some time about their own childhoods. This would make a fine ending to the poem.
But then, so would "It's time to rewrite myself" which concludes the following paragraph. Is that material also part of the piece? Taste and author's intent would ultimately govern that decision, meaning some close analysis will be useful to inform the decision.
The first sentence of paragraph five is really there to tie back to its frame. By simply removing the word "still", the poem would continue along the new path the previous paragraph laid for it. So, it could "work" but what would it add? Well, it adds what the larger frame gave the essay: a springboard to the memory.
Next, there is a comparison between the present and the past. This might be a worthwhile contrast for the poem, though the simile of wheat fields to ocean waves is not nearly as original as the paper zoo. Anthropomorphizing the fields (making friends with them), on the other hand, is considerably fresher.
The deeper question, however, rests with the final three sentences of paragraph five. The choice ultimately is: does the author want this to be a poem about the nature of childhood memory, or about living past the age at which one's parent dies?
This is a decision that only the poet can make. The more relevant point to our consideration today is what to do with the raw prose material. I submit that paragraph five could be divided in two. The first half might begin the poem, establishing a frame and context. The material starting with "Today" might end the poem.
I point this out not because I think it's the best choice, but only because I want to demonstrate how malleable the prose pre-writing can be. Just because the thoughts occur to us in a specific order, or because we conceive of them originally as being part of the same paragraph, does not mean that they should remain that way as we redraft. One practical technique for re-opening prose for reshaping into poem is to separate every sentence from its predecessor—cut them apart, if need be—and then experiment with new arrangements.
Of course the poem is not finished. It will require a title—which the raw material seems almost magically always to offer—and a form—stanzification, line breaks, etc. Surely these topics merit their own discussions. (You will find a few tips on breaking lines in June's Critique Corner.) My point today is that before all that, the poem requires something more basic: it requires recognition. If you find yourself just breaking your prose pre-writing into lines, then you will have prose broken into lines, not a poem. So look for pattern and repetition, look for turns and shifts of tone or subject or audience, and perhaps before any of that, look for what will be your final line. You're on your way.
Where could an essay like "Kansas" be submitted? The following contest may be of interest:
Writers' Workshop Annual Memoirs Contest
Postmark Deadline: December 30
The Writers' Workshop of Asheville, NC offers $300 for personal essays up to 4,000 words; fee includes critique
In addition, this upcoming contest may be a good fit for narrative poetry based on personal experience
Postmark Deadline: October 15
The Georgia Poetry Society offers $75 and anthology publication for poems up to 80 lines on any subject; no simultaneous submissions
This essay and critique appeared in the September 2010 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques