Type of Document Thesis Author Dennis, Robert Thomas Author's Email Address email@example.com URN etd-08022004-130932 Title Perp Degree Master of Arts Department English, Department of Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title James Kimbrell Committee Chair Andrew Epstein Committee Member David Kirby Committee Member Keywords
- Creative Writing
Date of Defense 2004-07-26 Availability unrestricted AbstractIn the following paragraphs I shall attempt to deliver a mini-poetics, or at the very least, try to clarify the main components of my thought process when writing these poems. This is dangerous territory. It’s all too easy to employ abstract and quasi-religious phrases when talking about something as seemingly ineffable as the process of literary creation; I shall endeavor to avoid doing so wherever possible. Please feel free to overlook those places where I fail.
The concept of tension is central to how I approach writing poems. I may begin with a line or a vague idea of the subject matter, but as I write, it is tension that creates the poem. A former teacher once argued—correctly, I think—that language generates insight. If we agree that insight is a component “good” poetry, then it would follow that one needs first to generate language. This is where I start. I may begin a poem with a line that’s been rattling around in my head, but in order to generate language, I first generate tension. I accomplish this on the level of the line.
The method I employ most frequently to generate tension is a perhaps obsessive-compulsive attention to line length. I try to make each line in a poem or section approximately the same length. This generates tension by forcing me to carefully consider my words—if a line’s too long, I obviously need a shorter word, and vice versa. This attention to line length goes hand-in-hand with an attention to line breaks. Of the latter, I have no special ideas, just the general mandates I believe most poets try to follow—don’t break lines on weak words, make the breaks work with the rhythms of the poem, etc. On occasion, I break a line in what I hope is a clever way (cf. the sixth stanza of “From nowhere with love”), but these instances are few and far between.
Another way I generate tension is through the use of non-accentual syllabics. “Last Sighs of the Dog” is an example of this—each line has ten syllables. “The North Shore” is another—the syllabic pattern of the first section is mimicked throughout the rest of the poem. The tension the syllabics create has the same effect as an attention to line length—again forcing me to consider more closely my words.
The poems here that are non-syllabic and have lines of irregular length either began as one of the two or I just didn’t see the necessity for such tension. Sometimes the tension comes built-in. Sometimes the language comes out of my head in prepackaged high-pressure form. But then again, sometimes it does not. It’s quite likely that a few of these poems are loose, baggy monsters.
It seems the greatest of follies to begin a poem with an idea in mind. A vague one is okay. A nebulous notion even better. But a full-fledged idea is certain death. When one sits down to write a poem about X, then it becomes very difficult to deviate from X—one is committed to making X work (like being in a bad relationship) and spends too much time and effort trying to make X happy. It’s better, I think, to make the poem happy (which, in the end, is really the same as making yourself happy).
I’ve tried in this collection to avoid beginning with ideas. The ideas will crop up on their own. Or, as I’ve written in “Think about beans”: subjects have a way of arranging themselves. And anyway, one’s intentions in a poem are often very different from what readers will find there. Vladimir Nabokov put it best. In his introduction to Bend Sinister he wrote that “well-wishers [would] bring their own symbols and mobiles, and portable radios, to [his] little party.” One will see that I have shamelessly imported this quote in the first “Rorschach” poem in the “Psychological Evaluation” section.
One place in this collection where I think there’s the stain of a pre-poem idea is in the last section of the title poem. I had settled on titling the collection “Perp” before I had written the poem in which “perp” would appear. I wanted this piece of jargon ripped from the annals of Law & Order to suggest the secret vocabularies that develop in relationships, the inevitability of closure, and the notion that our missteps in life (which most good stories are about) can be seen as criminal behaviors—all very lofty and ambitious, yes, but perhaps the jury’s still out on whether or not I’ve somehow managed to make it work.
SOME THINGS YOU MIGHT WANT KNOW ABOUT THE POEMS
“Perp,” the title poem, is broken into eight sections. Odd numbered sections run forward in time, even numbered sections backward. This may all be a bit confusing, but I couldn’t bring myself to follow a more traditionally chronological structure.
“Think about beans,” takes Herbert Morris’s “Ultimate Poem” as inspiration.
“Echolalia Frustrata” is a parody, to the syllable, of D.A. Powell’s “[darling can you kill me: with your mickeymouse pillows]”.
The last stanza of “Alas—” blatantly, and perhaps criminally, rips off a passage from J.D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction.
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