Night of Sky and East vs. West
NIGHT OF SKY by Changming Yuan
night of sky in the sea, bursting
with clouds and whales and chrysanthemums
night of sky in my mind—flat
when my meditative spirit stays still
among shapes and sounds, like a lotus-eater
night of sky in the sky, deep night
when my imaginings are starfish finding themselves
swimming closer to the carrel tree, to their nests
Copyright 2010 by Changming Yuan; originally published in Sea Stories
EAST VS. WEST by Changming Yuan
bare bricks on the Berlin Wall
collected from the ruins
to build a transparent bridge
between the past and the future
earthen bricks for Badalin Ridge
baked in a dragon fire
to repair and strengthen the long wall
separating the prairies farther from the gobi
Copyright 2010 by Changming Yuan; originally published in Hando No Kuzushi
Critique by Tracy Koretsky
In last month's Critique Corner, I made this fairly audacious statement: "Even more than repetition, rhythm, or rhyme, it is metaphor that distinguishes poetry from every other type of writing." I say audacious because, from the bulk of our mail here at Winning Writers, it is clear that most emerging writers believe that poetry equals repetition, either of sound—in other words, rhyme—or as phrase. This is a misconception.
What is true is that, while metaphor is the logic of poetry—its way of thinking, if you will—repetition is its most powerful device. Surely, that explains why it is immediately noticed and most frequently emulated. But, as with anything powerful, repetition must be handled with care.
One poet who does so artfully is Canadian Changming Yuan, author of Chansons of a Chinaman (Leaf Garden Press, 2009) and Politics and Poetics (Lambert Academic Publishing, 2009), a widely-published writer who, this month, has contributed two poems organized by repetition for us to compare and contrast.
Let's begin with what these poems don't do. They do not repeat the phrase without evolution in meaning. This is the single most common error emerging poets make.
Repetition of a phrase only works when the phrase morphs or takes on shades. This may be achieved as a change in context, as we will see in Yuan's poems, or through grammar, as we saw in Janet Butler's triolet, "Design", featured in the November 2009 Critique Corner. In some cases, the repeated phrase can drive the narrative, as in the "six hundred" from Tennyson's famous poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" . No matter how it is applied, what is essential to understand is that effective repetition is not static. Misused it can easily overwhelm a poem, render it predictable and soon, dull.
One way that all of these poems evolve their repetitions is through variation. The phrases are not repeated strictly, though enough elements are retained to make the pattern obvious. It is not always necessary to vary the repetition of a phrase, though a great deal—possibly the majority—of well-made, repetition-reliant contemporary poems do. Such variance surprises the ear and holds the reader's interest.
Moving a poem that relies upon strict repetition is much harder to do (and impressive when it happens). One tip: keep the poem short. If you have a many-stanzaed poem built around an exact repetition, consider breaking it into several differently-titled short poems.
Notice the length of Yuan's poems. Notice too, that in "Night of Sky", Yuan does not attempt to extend a single meaning through every repetition of the phrase. Rather, he uses the phrase to organize three distinct metaphors.
Only the initial words are repeated, that is "night of sky in..." Yuan then creates a pattern with the remainder. That is, in the first and third stanzas, the phrase is completed by the definite article "the" followed by a single syllable word beginning with the letter "s". Each is completed by a comma plus a two-syllable word.
The similarity in the construction of these two lines form a bookend surrounding the more greatly varied second stanza in which the phrase is followed by a personal pronoun, a dash (a longer pause than a comma) and a single-syllable word, as if the extra pause given to the dash accounts for the rhythmic beat given to a syllable. Observe that the noun following the phrase in stanzas one and three uses a long vowel, whereas the second stanza uses a soft one.
To further fulfill this graceful balance, Yuan's final repetition of the phrase in stanza three repeats twice within itself by beginning and ending the line with "night", as well as his almost hypnotic use of "sky in the sky". This line is an excellent demonstration of one of the chief functions of repetition—strong emphasis. To modify "night" with "deep night" is simple, stirring, and universally affecting.
Taken as a whole, however, the poem proves the true power of repetition: music. Read the poem aloud and you are practically singing. The ear will always respond to pattern.
I could continue to discuss this fine piece: its careful sound correspondences that lead to more music; the way it moves from its metaphoric framework into the personal, finally bringing the two together in its resolution; how its metaphors are extended through the use of a diction family—but as this is an essay dedicated to the use of repetition, I will instead turn our attention now to "East vs. West".
Here repetition is used to organize a comparison. What one notices first and foremost is the initial phrase and its inversion. However, a bit of deeper analysis reveals that the grammatical structures of the two stanzas are just about identical—a more nuanced method of repetition. Notice that in each stanza the fourth line begins with "to", that "bricks" is the second word of each second line. The effort to parallel the two walls is supported by these choices and made obvious. Too obvious, in my personal opinion. Repetition is, after all, a powerful device—always noticeable. Used here, where it is not meant to "sing", it feels, to me, a bit forced, or at the very least, intellectual as opposed to musical.
That said, creating a parallel grammatical structure is a compelling way to imbue a poem with dignity. Far more subtle than strict phrase repetition, it nevertheless reinforces meaning in much the same way. If you have a poem that uses strict repetition, one way you might consider revising is to create many fewer resoundings of the phrase, and more grammatical parallelism.
In the case of "East vs. West", one revision might be to cut the first line of each stanza or to leave only one of the two closely-related words, perhaps a different one in each. I suspect the poet might believe that much of the art of the piece is bound in the fine distinction between the two forms of the word, but the effect upon the reader is to command so much attention to their parsing that the rest of the poem is slighted.
So strong is repetition that it can easily overpower a poem. Even just the use of the word in a different form is enough to alert the reader to pattern. Respect repetition and your poems will be elegant and memorable.
Where could poems like "Night of Sky" and "East vs. West" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Wild Leaf Press Annual Poetry Contest
Entries must be received by April 30
Small press based in New Haven offers prizes up to $1,000 and publication in annual anthology for unpublished poems
Writer's Digest Annual Writing Competition
Postmark Deadline: May 2
Competitive contest for poetry and several prose genres from Writer's Digest, a leading publisher of directories and advice books for writers; top prize across all genres is $3,000, plus prizes up to $1,000 in each genre
Poetry on the Lake Competition
Postmark Deadline: May 15
Prizes up to $400 for unpublished poems, sponsored by the annual 3-day Poetry on the Lake festival on Lake Orta in Italy; 2011 suggested theme is "Stone"
These poems and critique appeared in the April 2011 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques