Friday, April 27, 2012

Imaginary Toads, Real Gardens

Since I've been writing mostly prose for the last few months, it's a pleasure to have a few poems appear recently in the journals cant and The Potomac--the former a cool, slimline journal to which I was introduced last year and the latter a terrific web mag I’ve been reading for several year’s due to its keen sense of attitude. My poems in these journals' current issues (thanks again, editors!) are out of my Aphrodite's Son MS, which I hope to place here someday, pending the never ending series of revisions it undergoes--a process of intense scrutiny followed by weeks of looking away, looking away. I feel like wind slowly eroding a stone. Hopefully there’s something left when I’m all finished.

Be that as it may, it's been fun to be a prose writer for awhile, specifically a fiction writer, which is not my natural inclination. The thing about a story is that one typically has to pay attention to a certain physical reality in order to write it. That is to say, one must create through the legerdemain of language the illusion of a physical reality--you know, setting and stuff. Plot takes time, and time requires that things (characters) move through a physical space. So right there you've got the rudiments of fiction: plot, setting, character. A story isn't often as simple as that, but generally speaking each of these pieces has a role to play. It's sort of like building a house: the studs and insulation aren't what it's all about, but they are nevertheless important for holding the thing together with any kind of efficiency.

In a poem, however, at least as I write one, such components have very little to do with anything. While a story requires that aforementioned physical reality, a poem does not--much too lofty for such pedestrian items. It really could care less about time and space and the laws of physics. Those laws are irrelevant in poetry. Poems are spaceless, timeless aliens that place reality forcibly in the realm of the imagination. As Marianne Moore famously put it, they drop real toads into imaginary gardens. It is this contradictory, paradoxical nature that can make a good poem click--assuming, that is, the reader is willing to leap into such a vacuum.

Fiction seems to me to work in the opposite manner, placing imaginary toads in very real gardens. This is the trick that allows readers to identify with fictional characters (imaginary toads) and to imagine themselves in whatever environments through which the action moves, be it NYC or the Starship Enterprise, which flies according to the laws of physics, not the imagination. That sense of grounding is important. Not only does it allow readers to invest in characters, it allows characters to do unbelievable things readers notwithstandingly will find believeable via their suspension of disbelief. It's quite a remarkable achievement when you think about it.

On the other hand, because poetry's setting is the imagination, readers are left to connect the pieces on their own. Real toads, yes. We all know what a toad is, how it feels, how it's shaped, the fact it's likely to pee in your palm if you pick it up. But where to put the thing? It's your imagination, after all, as well as the poet's. The poet just gives you some odds and ends bought at a garage sale and asks that you, the reader, ultimately organize the poetic diorama.

I don’t really know where this is going save to say it’s nice to be thinking poetry in these times of fiction. Check out the above journals—they are, regardless of my work's inclusion in them, worth the read.