Well, here’s some good news: the Mods at Poets.org’s Discussion Forum have chosen me as August’s member of the month! I’m delighted. Since I am no longer the Site Admin, it was pleasant to write about my ideas without being constrained by diplomacy. Simply put: I didn’t have to worry about appeasing members or diffusing arguments. I could simply talk about what poetry means to me. What a gift!
Here’s what I had to say:
Christine Klocek-Lim was born in the coal-mining region of northeastern Pennsylvania, and now re-sides in the Lehigh Valley with her husband and two sons. She received a BA in professional writing from Carnegie Mellon and has worked as a technical writer. This exposure to both industry and nature and her awareness of northeastern American life shapes her poetry and photography. Her poems have recently ap-peared in Nimrod, The Pedestal Magazine, Philadelphia Poets, Terrain.org and the anthology Riffing on Strings: Creative Writing Inspired by String Theory. In 2006, her work was selected as a finalist for Nimrod’s Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. She is editor of the online journal, Autumn Sky Poetry, and her website is www.novembersky.com.
I’ve been writing poetry for as long as I can remember. In these 30-odd years, my idea of what poetry and a poem is and can be has changed over and over again. I expect that my idea of poetics will continue to change as I am continually searching for new answers to this old question. I realized a number of years ago that many people regard poems in two ways; one group of poets thinks that the poem is a piece of art that the reader happens to overhear. The other group believes that a poem is a piece of art that commu-nicates something to a reader. I originally fell into the first camp in my teens. However, as I showed my poems to my family, I realized that I wanted my poems to be liked. That is an impossible task when the poem is written entirely in the small world of one’s conscious and internal reality. I know that sometimes a poem written for oneself may speak to another, but when the intention of communication is not pursued, this result is accidental and occasional.
So, quite unconsciously at first, but inevitably, I have fallen into the group of people who believe that a poem should speak to a reader. It can be comedic, dramatic, narrative, whatever type of story or form or experiment one likes, but for me, it must have a way of connecting with another person. This desire to communicate, and to have my poems read and have people want to read them, brought me to the understanding that even with this intent in mind, not every reader will understand one’s poem as it is written. This difficulty stems from the various differences in philosophy, culture, education, and interest that exists between the poet and possible readers. Of course, at this conclusion, it’s easy to give into despair. How can one possibly write a poem that speaks to a reader if one cannot predict what the reader’s experience brings to the reading?
This idea, finally, has brought me to the belief that a firm understanding of the basics of language and communication are the fundamental tools that are needed to communicate using poetry. In my own culture and language (English), I have the assumption that most of the people reading my poems will also know the basics of grammar and word choice, at least to a certain extent. Obviously, references to other works, whether literary or in the popular culture or other microcultures, further break down experiences into fractured communities, but one must start somewhere. Once writing the basics are intuitive, then one can move on into the more esoteric applications of language which is where true artistry begins. A simple analogy for this might be learning to cook: at first, one knows from eating scrambled eggs that one likes the taste. Moving on from there to the ability to cook eggs just as one likes them involves learning about eggs, heat, and the judicial application of heat. Once these basics are mastered, one can move onto omelets.
Indeed, this is where I believe true artistry with poetry is possible. If we all have an idea together of how our written language functions (think memo, recipe, email, news article, etc.), what is the next step? Consider: if every human brain is nothing more than a pattern recognition device, what is the basis for that spark of pleasure or dismay or excitement that good art provides? My answer, after much thought, has been this: the slight deviation from expected patterns provides the spark. So a poem that in all aspects seems very ordinary, can through the original use of language tools (metaphor, imagery, meter, etc.), deviate slightly from the norm and thus provide that extra spark which a true piece of art needs in order to endure in the collective human consciousness.
My ideas about critiquing stem somewhat from a pithy essay called, “The Indecipherable Poem,” by Robert Francis. Granted, he wrote the book which contains the essay as a sort of bitter statement against the more accepted denizens of the poetry world in his time, but the amusing truth of the essay nevertheless continues to appeal to me. Francis wrote: “It is not difficult to be difficult.
What I mean is, a poem that is very difficult to read may not have been at all difficult to write.”
My understanding of the essay is this: any poem can be exactly what the poet claims it is, and no one can really argue. This kind of thought is perfectly valid for those writers who want nothing more than to write for themselves and stuff their heart’s work under the mattress and are content, or those who believe that all poetry is art merely to be overheard. I believe this idea has no place in a workshop where critique of a poem is the point of the entire thing.
If, however, one wants to communicate with one’s reader, critique can be an invaluable tool for discerning whether or not your poem will function on its own, far away from your cushioning explanations. The biggest difficulty with workshopping is the level of critique any one poet thinks he/she wants versus what he/she needs. Most beginner poets need a lot of critique just to see that their poem does not function as a communication device, but most beginner poets don’t want to know that (Yes, myself included. I could go on and on at how bitterly I resented an early critique of a particularly bad sestina I’d written but I would hate to bore you with the details. Suffice to say the critique stopped me from writing for two years.). Once a poet has reached the point where one can divorce one’s desire to create a wonderful poem that everybody loves using all sorts of literary devices from the actual learning of the basics of language and communication, then having one’s poem critiqued becomes extremely useful. It is the lack of the basics that really hamstrings a poet from creating exactly what one wants to create. Most of the time, there is a spark of talent and desire and interest, but not understanding how language can influence a reader makes one’s early poetic suc-cesses rather accidental.
Once a poet reaches the intentional stage of creativity, critique serves to bring awareness to those problem pieces of one’s poem that one has simply missed. One didn’t really mean to use thirty-eight articles, most of them the word “the” and didn’t realize how much it bogged down the inherent grace of one’s poem. Having someone point that out is useful. Of course, I also believe that one can go beyond intentional into the truly inspirational, and that is where I think that critique begins to become less useful, and from then on to an active hindrance in some cases. This particular stage hinges on one thing: trust.
Most people who participate in online and real life workshops are by the very nature of such activi-ties admitting to a lack of knowledge about poetry. This is not actually true in all cases, but the perception of it on the part of the other participants exists, and this affects the critique of the poem. For example, if one writes a nontraditional sonnet, knowing full well that one has moved beyond the traditional idea of say, fourteen lines and into sixteen, one hopes that the readers will trust that you know what you are doing and give the poem a chance, despite the deviant number of lines. The poem can be completely successful as a sixteen line sonnet, but only if the reader thinks you can pull it off. This usually does not happen in a workshop environment because most of the critics are not only focused on learning the basics of sonnet form themselves, but also because most of them think that you are still learning the basics of sonnet form. That makes them believe that you goofed, rather than gave the poem sixteen lines deliberately. This makes receiving a worthwhile critique of that particular poem extremely difficult. This is not to discount the one or two readers/critics who will believe one knows what one is doing, but the statistical probability is much lower. Consequently, one will find that most people in the workshop will focus only on the excess number of lines and not on the help you need to weed out the extraneous articles and lurching meter.
Despite all this, I find the most useful critiques to be not those that focus on articles or meter or grammar, but the ones who explain what the poem meant to the reader. Often one will write a poem about a kitten and think that it is entirely sensible and easy to understand, and a reader will tell you how much he/she loved your poem about plums. This, even more than pointing out the excess adjectives, is the most useful form of critique because it leaves creative control in the hands of the poet. The most brilliant of critics are those who help the poet make the poem better, not as the critic would have written it, but as the poet intended to write it. This is rare, and the easiest way to do it is to offer prose that tells the poet what the poem said rather than give examples of how one particular line can be tightened which runs the risk of having the critic’s voice bleed into the poem unintentionally.
This brings me to my last idea about critiquing: at all stages of skill, the only critiquing that is always useful is that of a small group of people who are not poets at all, but who are completely honest. Because these readers aren’t poets, they can’t help you with metaphors or imagery, but they can tell you what the poem made them feel or think about. If one’s best friend, who has never written a poem in his life, reads your poem and finds your reliance on alliteration to be overwhelming (even if he doesn’t know that the term for too many s words in a row is alliteration), he is probably correct. Conversely, if he loves your poem and explains to you what he has understood and learned and experienced from it, and it is exactly what you intended, your poem is a success. Pat yourself on the back.
How to photograph the heart
You remember how the lens squeezed
unimportant details into stillness:
the essential trail of rain down glass,
the plummet of autumn-dead leaves,
your grandfather’s last blink when
the breath moved on.
Your startled hands compressed
the shutter when you realized: this is it,
this is the last movement he will take
away from the silent fall of morphine,
beyond the soft gasp of the nurse,
past the sick, slow thud of your heart
moving in the luminous silence.
Guardian Workshop Lucy Newlyn’s “Poems that tell a story” workshop November 2005 shortlist posted December 7, 2005 online
Philadelphia Poets April 2008
“Tonight I walked into the sunset”
Here the fragile white of age-bleached skull
curves through a hinge of jaw like youthful skin,
and there, two restless eyes seem fraught with all
she could not say. She didn’t paint within
the lines, couldn’t choose the safe belief
that everything is simple. Stark as grief
her violet buildings rise beneath a moon
so white that bone shows through. There the noon
sun lights the mountains. Here you see how hands
crack wide her heart: she painted sound, used blood
to mark the earth. Because she knew that strands
of life are drawn of clay and bone, not mud,
she wrote: “so give my greetings to the sky. . .”
And in her art the skulls nod in reply.
Commended Award Margaret Reid Contest for Traditional Verse for 2006 online
Sailing in the Mist of Time: Fifty Award-Winning Poems November 2006 print anthology
MiPoRadio’s The Countdown Episode 15 September 24, 2006 online
Zachary learns to swim
The ant, black as licorice, insists
the chair is his, roams up the legs
and arms as if the pool with its cool
blue depths wasn’t a foot away,
where the boy learns how water
can cup the torso, slide past hair
like a mini-ocean, not quite welcome,
not quite unfamiliar, but still
the absence of air,
how necessary it is to blow bubbles
through the nose, become a dolphin,
free with clicks and the fresh
jump into the deep
where water opens its mouth
Nimrod October 2006 Fall/Winter 2006, Vol. 50, No. 1 Awards 28 issue: “Doing the Hundreds at 50” print
I have just today become
at peace beneath the twilight sky.
The moon hung like silence
as I dragged garbage
down the hill and I thought
it would rain. All day it should
have rained in the grey cloud-light.
I refused to leave the house
while you mowed the lawn
until I realized
the week’s junk would
have to go despite the weather.
I went out and crouched
in the driveway. I counted
stones and locusts.
I looked for leaves
and the occasional
I thought of you,
how it’s been seventeen years
since we slept on a narrow bed.
When the cicadas hatched
I spent hours avoiding
but this year I examined
their red eyes,
their transparent wings
etched with veins and purpose
until they laid their eggs
and died. Now the moon
hangs like wisdom
above our garbage at the curb.
And I’ve counted all the leaves
while you nap inside,
unaware of the importance
of bugs, how much depends
on seventeen years of silence.
About.com -Poetry Summer Poems Anthology September 2007 online
Concelebratory Shoehorn Review Issue 11 November 2007 online
Twenty-year love poem
I want to remember, but not too clearly.
More like remembering falling in love
than falling in love—the past spread
out behind us in a comfortable distance,
the hardships forgotten. The truth is
we were starving and lived on loose
change and vending machine pretzels.
The excitement of finding a quarter
in the hallway would sustain us all day
and sometimes into the night. Surviving
was learning how to jump when the elevator
refused to stop at the right floor, then prying
the doors open until the darkened space
of the shaft lay revealed in front of us,
emptiness below and above, a little fear.
Now I understand that only the very hungry
could get through that small opening between
floors. I remember your face in the darkness
of that small box, smiling like the shine
on a new coin. The richness. Wanting
to stay there with you forever.
Quay September 2007 online & .pdf
Children, do not mourn the snow
There is fear we say. Snow breaks over our feet.
The school bus drives away, a blizzard of young faces
at the windows. We fall sometimes when ice changes
the earth and to reassure ourselves we insist
there are no disasters here. But the day meanders
against our impatience as snow engulfs our bus
again and again. Inside, children carve frost-flowers
down from the windows to watch them melt against skin.
They barely noticed the drive begin while we floundered
on the curb, swiping at the cold. The shock of it all cornered
our voices until we examined the damage that silence makes
and waved goodbye too late. When the bus comes home again,
we kiss our children’s faces, pinked in this weather, turned up
into the wind that frosts the afternoon with light.
MiPoRadio’s The Countdown Episode 20 February 27, 2007 online
Best of Café’ Café’ ~ Summer 2007 print anthology publisher Didi Menendez/Lulu.com May 2007
Into the quiet
I dreamed of my grandmother
and in the silence she died
again. And my brother held
the casket which cut his hands.
Again we walked down marble
steps to the uneven ground
where tarps covered
the peeled skin of the grave
and we stood witness.
My brother’s fingers bled
from the weight but he said
nothing. In the dream I knew
already what happened:
how I would try to follow her
for six months into the quiet,
how her voice lingered
on the answering machine.
I called each day to hear
the final click and beep
of the tape on which I left
In my dream the rain hid
tears. Mourners filed past
the glimmer of a shovel
tossed beneath the tarp.
My feet did not stay dry.
In dreams death moves
ahead too fast, too suddenly
I walked outside my home
and again I saw the flawed rigor
of a corpse on the side of the road,
the deer’s head thrown back
above a casket of exposed ribs,
no heart. I saw the tarp of skin
sunken into the ground.
I held my breath in silence
and moved forward, sideways,
because the wind blew into me.
Still, the smell lingered.
Quay, A Journal of the Arts, Volume 1, Issue 2, September-December 2007. online & .pdf