Of the ways into poems, one way has reliably worked for me. A variant of the “cut-up” method, which I believe is traced to William S. Burroughs, it might be called negative erasures, or From Prose Chaos, or, after Duchamp, “With Hidden Noise.”
Several years ago one could to receive hundreds of junk emails advertising Cialis and/or sup-prime mortgages. At first these emails were not filtered into junk at all. Later, the senders attempted to trick servers with odd typography and pasted-in wordlists.
That the lists rode along the ads for pharmaceuticals and loan sharks lent them a certain hilarious, and also potent, quality. Signals of someone casting about and copy-pasting abounded, e.g. tiny floating bits of news articles or HTML from the sender’s own email program.
Here’s one of the lists:
Check out Duchamp’s piece “With Hidden Noise.” Think of the prose chaos in the wordlist as a skein of words surrounding a hidden subject—a noise. Because it’s made of words, the skein is never quite the same. The hidden noises are therefore many, emerging with your noticing (and notice).
Whether your poem is “noisy” per se is up to you. It seems to me that noise is contingent on the state of capture: release cancels it out.
Choose your blend of constraint + personal creative authority. Decide on adding connective words or whether to make changes according to the needs of the emerging poem. For example, if a word from the list proves to be not right, consider replacing it with a word that rhymes with it (another hidden noise).
I came across a copy of W.S. Merwin’s Lament for the Makers. It’s an anthology about the size of a 45rpm record, constructed as an elegy for some of the poets Merwin admired. The work of these poets—twenty three of them—comprises the anthology. It’s a nice basis for a book; embodying the title poem lends it certain come-to-life vividness.
Constrained by brevity of lives and of presentation, he chooses unexpectedly from mostly familiar poets. Sylvia Plath’s “Words,” for example, caught my eye on the first flip-through. For Dylan Thomas, he offers “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.”
I didn’t know the poem myself, but right away the title indicated that it was going to be a difficult one to pull off. Dylan Thomas manages it. I found myself in the surprising position of reaching for an anthology to read more Dylan Thomas—it had been awhile.
Michael Robbins writes of Dylan Thomas’s work that “self-seriousness is the major trope” (the whole short piece is worth reading). But in “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” Dylan Thomas enacts a kind of stepping down from proclaiming. He reveals a flip-side of self-consciousness. He sort of contrasts himself.
Self-seriousness, meanwhile, to use Robbins’ more specific term, is seductive. As such, as a writer’s writer, Dylan Thomas can lure one into imitation—big mistake. Perhaps a writer-reader, from a conscious stance—at least specifically avoiding imitation—can use, burn, that intense energy, and produce something different.
In any case, so prompted, I turned around and wrote some prompts.
I might add one: create a selection of poets to anthologize, and explain your selection. Attempting to do that in a poem, as Merwin does, would be a real challenge, I think, especially for more than about seven of them*. But if you truly adore (or mourn) the poets you chose, it might work wonderfully.
First read Dylan Thomas’ poem “The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.”
In a letter, Thomas wrote: “I make one image…let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make, of the third image bred out of the other two together; a fourth contradictory image, and let them all within my imposed formal limits, conflict. Each image holds within it the seeds of its own destruction, and my dialectical method, as I understand it, is a constant building up and breaking down of the images that come out of the central seed, which is itself destructive and constructive at the same time…” (as quoted in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry).
The first stanza of the poem illustrates this technique, a complete ‘seed cycle’ within a formal limit:
"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer..."
Write a poem using this technique, or a variant of it.
Adjust compression (the spacing of the contrasted elements) as needed and experimentally. Also, adjust the formal constraint (rhymes, stanza shape), or jettison it entirely.
Less Death’s Dominion
First read “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.”
Write a poem so unexpected, that death shall have no dominion in it at all. The goal is to strain (or non-strain) to write not only with freshness (a familiar goal that in and of itself seems to yearn towards a writerly "death shall have no dominion" on its own), but literally to create an open, clear, deathless field or vista or space in which everybody has a star “at elbow and foot.” Is it possible?
The interesting thing about Dylan Thomas’ poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” is the extent to which death does have dominion in it.
For this exercise, however, the poem should be different; death will have no dominion in it, not even in paradox. It will be a poem from another world.
* See the notion of "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," which suggests that humans can hold onto about seven new concepts at a time.
I came across this excellent bit from Keats, describing an encounter with Coleridge:
I walked with him a(t) his alderman-after-dinner pace for near two miles I suppose. In those two miles he broached a thousand things—let me see if I can give you a list—Nightingales, Poetry—on Poetical Sensation—Metaphysics—Different genera and species of Dreams—Nightmare—a dream accompanied by a sense of touch—single and double touch—A dream related—First and second consciousness—the difference explained between will and Volition—so m(an)y metaphysicians from a want of smoking the second consciousness—Monsters—the Kraken—Mermaids—Southey believes in them—Southey's belief too much diluted—A Ghost story—Good morning—I heard his voice as he came towards me—I heard it as he moved away—I heard it all the interval—if it may be called so."
Source: Johnson, E.D.H., ed., The Poetry of the Earth, Antheneum, New York, 1974, p. 95.
A writing prompt:
Keats’ memory of an encounter reads like a list poem. Create a different encounter between other people. The tone of the encounter would likely change—what happens if the meeting is not so harmonious, or interminable?
Consider collaborating. Arrange a walk or meeting with someone, perhaps another writer (or two walks, exchanging roles in each one).
From this basic prompt, one could change other parameters—for example how would such an exchange look if it was more abstract, less a memoir-narrative? How would it look as a visual poem?
I did some unintended research, the kind in which one interesting thing leads to another, which leads to Chuck D.
The sequence was as follows:
1. Found at a thrift shop:
Greek Lyric Poetry, translated by Willis Barnstone. (Bantam Books, 1962).
2) I flipped to the Hellenistic era poets in this anthology, since I've incidentally been reading Plutarch's Hellenistic Lives.
3) There I randomly turned to Kallimachos or Callimachus. He was a poet and scholar who critiqued long-form verse, and wrote among other things epyllia, or miniature epics.
“The sweet myrtle of Kallimachos
said the Stephanos of Meleagros.
(Willis Barnstone, translator, doesn’t identify 'the Stephanos of Meleagros' after this comment. Perhaps he’s referring to Stephanus Grammaticus, who was included in a much older anthology, the Greek Anthology.)
Anyway, what caught my eye was:
4) this idea of the epyllion, or mini-epic—a tempting project. Though mini, the form still employs epic meter, or
5) dactylic hexameter (A line of 6 dactlys. In English, this sounds like “higgeldy piggeldy,” times 6).
Along with Kallimachos and epyllion, I reviewed dactylic hexameter in Wikpedia, and in a rather Wikipedia-esque way, that entry doesn't fail to mention:
6) the classic rap song, "Bring the Noise"—a recent example of lyrics spoken in epic meter.
Thus, six steps to Public Enemy’s ‘harsh honey:’
Postscript: Writing Prompt
Write an epyllion, no matter how short, whether using dactylic hexameter lines or not. It could narrate a protest, perhaps, involving honey.