In End of the sentimental journey/A Mystery Poem, Sarah Vap walks us through a line of inquiry, composing and sequencing thoughts, propositions, and considerations, which unfolds, as the book’s subtitle cues us, like a mystery.
The first poem, “First Clue: Difficulty” begins:
People often ask me: Do you mean for your poems to be so difficult? Why are they so difficult?
A shadow of a response that I always have: Why do you want them to be easy?
But what I mean is: What is “difficult” anyway? and, What is easy?
I begin to feel a little bit worried. (Am I difficult?)
And then I wonder: Does that mean other people are easy?
Hours later I might be asking myself: Is there such a thing as “good-difficult” and “bad-difficult”? “Good-easy” and “bad-easy”? And who gets to decide.
I read this book against the mental backdrop of a couple of articles I’d read about what Jeremy Paxman (a BBC broadcaster and recent judge for a big money literary prize) had to say about poetry. I hesitate to reference his commentary because when it comes to discussions about capital P- poetry, concern for and appeals to the ‘ordinary people’ are reductive at best, and insidiuously oppressive at worst. Still, the coincidence of his remarks and my experience with Vap’s book seemed cosmically aligned. A brief aside, before I belabor his provocations: the poetry “inquisition” Paxman dreams of already exists, though most ordinary folks might just call it a quality liberal arts education. Any literature and creative writing class—whether behind the lectern or desk—can attest.
This was also just a few days after the passing of Dr. Maya Angelou, whose poetry I was introduced to as a young girl. Listening to Michelle Obama speak at Dr. Angelou’s memorial service, I felt returned to a few of my highest hopes about art and literature. Her eulogy—as Angelou’s poetry did—moved me in a way that felt necessary and true. The contours of accessibility and difficulty as issues in poetry, at this point in time, seemed set in relief.
I’ve grown into a reader whose tastes lean towards the opaque, but I also love that which speaks to me without guile, ornament, or armor. When I first started writing poetry seriously, I was advised by men to whose opinions I defered that my work should avoid the personal and strive for the universal, and because of how and why I choose to write poetry, this notion of accessibility holds implications and complexities that go beyond a conversation about craft and audience. That is, if developing one’s craft is to find one’s voice, what does it mean to ‘universalize’ that voice?
While I concede that theirs is fair and sensible advice for most young writers, it’s akin to a father advising his daughter to pursue journalism or law instead of poetry (anak, how will you eat?!), and it is advice whose prescriptiveness fathoms the way things are, while remaining either oblivious to, or dismissive of, how Art means making that which confounds the way things are.
From “Danger, Cont.”, Sarah Vap quotes at length a startling passage from Derrick Jensen’s book, A Language Older Than Words:
During the nineteenth century, many vivisections routinely severed the vocal cords before operating on an animal. This meant that during the experiment the animals could not scream (referred to in the literature as emitting “high-pitched vocalization”).
What I mean is, there are some things we are willing to hear, and some things we are unwilling to hear. And we have very complicated strategies, even (or especially) in poetry, for not hearing what we don’t want to hear.
We have complicated strategies for cutting vocal cords.
This section appears towards the end of the book, and to preserve a future’s reader’s pleasure of its mystery unfolding, I’ll only speak to how Vap triangulates truths, connecting one disparate fact to another with an ease and familiarity that belies the structural complexity of her argument. Her plainness disarms and devastates. She proceeds with an unnerving earnestness, employing the exclamation mark to sublime comic effect. Her mode of investigation, her questions, and the examples she uses to layer and elaborate her initial analogy, are both outrageous and preternaturally coherent.
The subject of accessibility often frustrates me because, even as I’m incensed or impassioned by defenses or admonishments of ‘difficult poetry’, the surrounding discussion has ever felt like a red herring, or smoke and mirrors, or, some other cliché that means a rhetorical feint intending to distract (distraction being just one strategy of deception). The conversation is often foreclosed or overdetermined by a bottom line of ‘use’ and ‘relevance’. Given the space of an honest argument, ‘use’ and ‘relevance’ often reveal themselves to be no more (or less) universal than one’s personal experience, tastes, and preferences.
It’s for these, and many other reasons, that I did not want to review this book. At least, not in the conventional sense. Instead, I wanted to have a conversation with it. I wanted to graph and diagram and conduct panels and forums on its structure, form, and content. I wanted to collage, power point, and Ted Talk everything I felt and thought as I followed along. My reading experience was… exclamatory, punctuated with expletives, laughter, and moments of shocked stillness. A few of my reactions:
– I must hand deliver this to Paxman, and all other Paxmans of the world, and make them read it.
– I wish I had a classroom wherein I was given the privilege of making other people read it.
– If not a classroom, then at least the power to convince everyone in my Facebook feed to read it, so I can talk through what this book did inside my head.
End of the sentimental journey shifts the conversation about poetry’s use and relevance into a conversation about power, and intimacy, and about how difficulty is essential to a fully human experience. In short, it is a feminist mode of inquiry.
I’m against any one tenor of language becoming so beloved, so performed, so privileged, that it becomes—like the holy language of Catholicism of my childhood and the correct language of political correctness of my young adulthood—ineffectual.
Without the capacity to express a wide range of human situations, foibles, intentions, or experiences.
I felt allied with this book’s discoveries and uncertainties. I wanted very badly to engage it in an intelligent way, but found myself stalled by a genuine wonder that such a thing exists, and that it is called poetry.
And I feel pride and excitement that it is called poetry. Vap, throughout the book, insists and recognizes and names this work—a poem. This is important to me, not just as a poet, but as a thinker—as someone who values problems and the methods with which we begin to approach or understand them. This work posits (or perhaps, newly re-affirms) that poetry is a finer logic, a more apt mode of inquiry for investigating the human condition. It is premised not epistemologically, but emotionally. Its conclusion is neither an end or a resolution, but a dilation. The mystery’s reveal dazzles gradually, and aslant.
Tagged with:Accessibility, Difficulty, feminism, Jeremy Paxman, Mystery, Poetry, Sarah Vap
The titles and first few lines of your poem represent the hand you extend in friendship toward your reader.
–Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual
A few weeks ago, someone dared me on Facebook to prove a person could find poetry in something as unpoetic as roadkill. Now, Tweetspeak Poetry may have begun on Twitter, but I owe my own poetry beginnings to challenges issued on Facebook that pride demanded I answer. So, I thought back to the day the raccoon stood firm against the onslaught of my little gold Malibu and found the poetry:
Come to think of it, there was
something strangely poetic
about the raccoon standing
in front of the Chevy
on two iambic feet, enjambed
across the glowing center line—
his eyes frozen blank
like a verse in headlights
pooled on the pavement
eager to receive his fresh offering.
A defiant thought flashed
across black-masked eyes
at the sound of the tires’ screech,
I’m not about to be a
The editor picked up the untitled poem on Facebook, and assigned a title to it: Roadkill. She read the poem and saw the raccoon’s defiant, hands-on-hips, I’m-not-taking-this-lying-down stand in the middle of the road, and felt the simplicity of Roadkill let the raccoon’s fierce bravado speak for itself.
As has been known to happen, the editor saw something in my poem I had not yet recognized, and meanwhile, I had asked that it be called Poetry Slam, a mischievous title more in line with other poetic wordplays in the poem, from enjambment to to free verse to a long-stretch onomatopoeia (ten points if you figure that one out). Titling the poem Poetry Slam or Roadkill produces a change in tone significant enough that, though both are brilliant (I think), it could be argued you have two different poems.
(Want to know which title we used? Take a look in Every Day Poems.)
Kooser says that a poem’s title is the “first exposure [a reader] has, and you want to make a good impression.” Titles tell a reader what a poem is about, and often times can be used to relay information that might be disruptive or clumsy (or boring) to include in the poem itself or even can be used as the poem’s first line. But he cautions the poet: “titles build expectations. Use a title like ‘A Snowy Night in Oshkosh’ and you’ll be expected to follow through with real snow and a real Oshkosh.”
Here are nine more poems with make-or-break titles. Consider what function the title fulfills: Does the poet use it to set the tone, as exposition or background, or to accomplish some other purpose? In the case of “And I Raised My Hand in Return, ” notice how poet Joseph Stroud ingeniously uses the title as the ending. Or in L.L. Barkat’s “Meet Me in a Minimalist Poem, ” the title is . . . well, I’ll let you decide what the title is.
moth’s wings, enormous, celadon, trembling.
— Melissa Stein
hung from the morning like a pearl pendant.
— Anne M. Doe Overstreet
I love the drape of the red towel.”
— Kathryn Neel
St. Eve in Exile
Here amid a field of light
You say my name.
And I am not she
the girl You called Your own.
My mouth a cavern.
My chest an empty cave.
I am dry and dusty.
I am not wet or well.
Not the riverbed of love
You shaped me to be,
wide as a delta,
deep as any mine-
ful of diamonds,
not this common coal,
my birthstone, my rock
of heavy longing.
I am black with it
where You would have me white.
Ever a disappointment,
I grew breasts
where you shaped me straight and smooth,
spoke when you asked for a song,
agreed where you hoped
I would exceed,
climb out of the hole
You dug for me,
place where You planted
me in the dark
who never knew my name.
You cut me in two.
I take half the blame.
— Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
And I Raised My Hand in Return
the skin off with a pair of pliers which he waved to me in greeting.
Meet me in a minimalist poem, where we can wear
COMPOSED UPON WESTMINSTER BRIDGE, SEPTEMBER 3, 1802
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and the temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
— William Wordsworth
No one spoke
The host, the guest,
The white chrysanthemums
—Ryota (tr. Kenneth Rexroth)
To the Engraver of My Skin
I understand the pact is mortal,
agree to bear this permanence.
I contract with limitation; I say
no and no then yes to you, and sign
—here, on the dotted line—
for whatever comes, I do: our time,
our outline, the filling-in of our details
(it’s density that hurts, always,
not the original scheme); I’m here
for revision, discoloration her to fade
and last, ineradicable, blue. Write me!
This ink lasts longer than I do.
Photo by Jenny Downing, Creative Commons license via Flickr.
How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland
Buy How to Write a Poem Now!
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