This is the question Tom Dow asks his students. He asked again during the March WMO’s lead-up to National Poetry Month. Three poets, Anne Kissel, Judith Stanton, and Mark MacAllister provided their answers before reading one of their poems.
They addressed this question in different ways.
Anne Kissel said the question made her wonder: What is the intent of the poem? What do I make of it?
Judith Stanton prefers poems about experiences that ‘real people’ can relate to.
Mark MacAllister went further, invoking both machines and hourglasses.
Below are Mark’s notes:
In thinking about poetry—both writing poems and reading poems—I look to a couple of images to explain what poems ought to be.
I start first with a quote from a William Carlos Williams essay, where he states that a poem is a “machine made of words.”
I love that image because it makes me think of a poem as being something consciously built, piece by intricate piece, labored over and tested, with pieces replaced and re-tooled, all toward the goal of making it work efficiently, quietly and powerfully.
And, as I grew up in a family of mechanics and farmers and tinkerers, it was not a big leap to think of that poem/machine as an engine, rather than as some electrical box that sits on one’s desk and hums with no discernible moving parts.
Anyone who knows engines will, in turn, tell you that three things are needed to make one work: fuel, air, and spark. Take away any one of these three things and it will sit there lifeless and without hope of moving forward.
- fuel = the writer’s vocabulary…using the words that fit correctly in the poem, that land correctly both in the ear and in the mouth, words that challenge the reader’s definitions and expectations
- air = the poem’s rhythm, the cadence of each line, the use of white space and line breaks/stanza breaks and punctuation…the reader should hear the poet’s breath in the poem itself, and the poem itself should seem to breathe
- spark = the idea, the event in the narrative, something that is revealed or learned…what makes the air and the fuel explode and what drives the poem forward
If this machine does not have air, fuel and spark, then it is not a machine…it is something else and likely valuable in its own way, but it is not a machine.
Likewise, it is not a machine without a sense of line, without the poet’s breath, without words that please both the ear and the mouth, without an idea that excites the reader as much as the writer.
Until the correct mix of words and air and spark, the poem will run lean and eventually stall, or it will run rich and sluggish, black smoke coming out the back end until it floods and chokes out.
I’m also interested in the role experience plays in poems. Charles Olson of Black Mountain College noted that a poem is essentially “…energy transferred from where the poet got it…all the way over to…the reader.” Likewise, the Beats valued a sense of real-life in poetry, to the point where there was little to differentiate the poem from the genuine lived experience that preceded it.
When I think about it, I am drawn to the image of an hourglass, built of two round glass bulbs, the top full of sand and the bottom empty, connected by a thin neck of glass that allows the sand to flow slowly from the top to the bottom.
- The top bulb is the reservoir—the poet’s experience, her knowledge and personal history and experience, her imaginings, everything that is meaningful to her.
- The bottom is simply the world—the place that the poem is driving toward. It could be a world of one, of many, or of none. Both the poet and the poem know nothing of what is in this world.
- The neck of the hourglass, then, is the poem itself—the lines or stanzas built with the goal of articulating some experience, of guiding the poet’s intentions and ambitions out into the world. It presents the poet’s experience in a way that is measured, consistent, accessible and, if all goes well, unstoppable.
And—one of the wonderful things about an hourglass is that it never empties…it is simply turned over so that another reservoir forms, then flows to fill the world.
So, for me, the question is this: How do you best move that sand from the top bulb to the bottom? Of course, you cannot let the sand simply fall unguided to the bottom, where it will land as a single mass. Nor can you choke off the flow of sand so that it never leaves the top or gains the bottom. You must be able to shape things so that, perhaps above all else, someone observing says That was really beautiful before turning your hourglass over and starting it again.