HARNESSING WILDNESS: THE PRACTICE OF POETIC LEAPS
A Craft Essay by Kari Ann Ebert
To avoid stagnation and cliché, one of the tools in a poet’s arsenal is to conjure associations that bring energy to the poem and add complex layers. These associations can show themselves as metaphors, changes of perspective, or wild unfettered leaps. Carl Phillips identifies associative poetry as, “poetry that works almost entirely by means of association— no connecting narrative pieces, often no syntactical connection, poetry that is characterized by leaps not just from stanza to stanza, but from one image to the next in ways that do not immediately make sense…”
Robert Frost’s adage, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader” is so familiar that we often lose its urgency, but without something fresh and new, why even read poetry? If we’re regurgitating the same form, the same imagery, the same metaphors, why even attempt to write a poem? A disruption is needed to engage the reader (and the writer) when we find ourselves falling into a familiar or even formulaic pattern. Christopher Salerno challenges us to startle and be startled: “I really want to read (and write) poetry that has the ability to startle—startle by getting beyond the automatism of commercial and habitual and unconscious language.” One of the ways we can accomplish this is through associative leaps, and often these leaps are wildly unexpected.
Take, for example, the first eight lines of Salerno’s poem “Wild Lemons”:
We wake like bees and peel a lemon.
Then there is a glowing.
Do you want to eat it wedge by wedge?
Pull the pith off, keep the seeds.
Lift a blue crayon, ring
each other’s mouths in blue.
We all live under a rule—
a lemon law for what’s beyond repair:
Right away in the first line, there’s a small jump: “We wake like bees and peel a lemon.” We don’t associate bees with lemons, but a link exists perhaps in the yellow of the honey/lemon or the singularity of honey/lemon tastes. Another link exists between “wedge by wedge” and the segmented honeycombs made by bees. Those two associations work to store up a bit of kinetic energy leading to a larger, wilder leap. In the lines “Lift a blue crayon, ring / each other’s mouths in blue” the reader is propelled into the speaker’s / lover’s bodies and emotions. We’re startled by the blue crayon, drawn into a closeup of their mouths. Up until this moment, we had no hint of a blue crayon popping up in this bee and lemon poem. Perhaps we could make a connection because crayons are made from wax, and honeybees produce wax. But that’s just in retrospect. This leap is highly unexpected. Its appearance is unsettling almost wild, but it sets the emotional tone. Blue connotes sadness, and the lovers are coloring each other’s mouths blue. They are together in (perhaps) despair. I can’t help but think of what blue mouths could mean: freezing, oxygen-deprived. The image feels deadly, but the action of ringing “each other’s mouths in blue” vibrates sexual energy. Salerno then makes another leap to this idea of “a lemon law for what’s beyond repair.” This seems to be the crux of the poem, a statement of what is at stake for the lovers and their world. Is there some sort of restitution when things are doomed from the start? From there the poem leaps from wallet pictures to Reader’s Digest to dreams of dead souls to a hunger developing. Finally, the poem ends focused on the lover’s body, and we’re left to wonder if the lemon law will be revoked or if it will be upheld.
Another example, Kaveh Akbar’s poem “Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating in Space with Severed Umbilicus” , builds up the energy of leaps even in the title. Three seemingly unrelated images are presented. Akbar woos us with our own curiosity. How could we not read on? He continues the leaping as the poem weaves in and out of sensory moments, childhood memories, observations of the natural world, and the speaker’s perspective from space. It’s a dizzying mélange of moments propelling the poem more and more feverishly toward the ending lines referring to the speaker’s brother “I wish / he were here now / he could be here this cave / is big enough for everyone / look at all the diamonds.” The wild leaps leading up to it make the ending sing as it circles back to the title. The energy generated gives this poem a distinctive sense of movement and also pulls it away from the ordinary and banal.
We could look at so many examples of this in poems that excite and intrigue us, but how can we infuse our own poetry with leaping energy? Robert Bly gives us a hint where it originates: “a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.” (Leaping Poetry: an Idea with Poems and Translations). But how do we initiate our own mind-leaping? In his essay “Leaps of Faith,” Gerry LaFemina gives this advice, “when writing we have to return to a sense of play, to a sense of possibility, to a sense of exploration.” It seems we must strip away our rigid idea of how a poem acts and somehow ignite the hidden parts of ourselves.
One way to fire up the subconscious is by adding variety and surprise to your poetry practice. Carolyn Forché compiles notebooks full of lists, images, and notes. She calls these “gleanings from the world” that may ultimately become “repositories” housing parts of a future poem inside. Mary Ruefle has transformed over 92 18th century books into full volumes of erasure poetry. Even though she doesn’t have a writing ritual or practice before she sits down to write, these books are her artistic fuel. In an interview with Lauren Mallett she said: “So I do have a daily ritual, that is my life as an artist, and it’s making these erasures” (Sycamore Review). Surely this practice infiltrates her consciousness and brews up surprising associations and ideas when she sits down to write. In my own poetic practice, I make myself write without stopping for at least 15 minutes. Sometimes it’s lists, sometimes stream of consciousness nonsense, sometimes I pick a rhythm and write phrases with rhyming words that fit that rhythm. In this case, it doesn’t matter if I produce anything with meaning. It’s all about the rhythm and sound of the words. I may never use any of this writing, but in these ways, I prime the pump of my subconscious.
A wilder approach comes from poet C.A. Conrad who developed a ritual-based practice called (soma)tic writing which is a fully immersive experience of the present, whereby the poet investigates and applies sustained concentration on any “thing” and the sensations of the body while taking detailed notes. The poems are brought to fruition through these very specific rituals. For example, one of Conrad’s exercises they have given to students is as follows: “The possibilities of the fridge and freezer are endless. You could hold an empty drinking glass against the side of it and study the sound of its motor. Use a magnifying glass to examine the exterior and interior in ways you had never done before. Use binoculars to sit across the room to look at it very carefully while far away. Close your eyes and smell the inside. With your eyes closed feel the contents, taste them. Take notes throughout the process of a daily exploration of the refrigerator.” More of their (soma)tic poetry exercises can be found here: http://writing.upenn.edu/~taransky/somatic-exercises.pdf
Finally, revision presents ample opportunity to look for moments that lack energy. This is the very ground upon which we can propel the poem through a startling leap. In a Dodge Poetry Festival craft talk, Carolyn Forché advised poets to “Read every word, every line. Interrogate them.” She says that every line, stanza, and final ending should lift off into “implication not explanation.” Two revision techniques she uses are to cut apart the poem into strips of each line, then rearrange them and try to rewrite a “finished” poem from memory. Tyehimba Jess reads his poems backwards to see if he should rearrange the flow.
Whatever the approach, the craft of creating startling poetry through wild leaps is really a practice in experimentation. With a little imagination and willingness to reject stiff formulaic patterns, we can write poems that bring our readers (and ourselves) great joy. In the words of Robert Bly, “The real joy of poetry is to experience this leaping inside a poem.”
Kari Ann Ebert is the Poetry & Interview editor for The Broadkill Review. Winner of the 2020 Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry and the 2018 Gigantic Sequins Poetry Contest, Kari’s work has appeared in journals such as The Night Heron Barks, Mojave River Review, Philadelphia Stories, The Main Street Rag, The Ekphrastic Review, and Gargoyle as well as several anthologies. Her honors include a residency at Virginia Creative Center for the arts (2021), Individual Artist Fellow in Literature: Poetry, Delaware Division of the Arts (2020), and fellowships from MidAtlantic Arts Foundation (2021), The Shipman Agency (2020), BOAAT Press (2020), and Brooklyn Poets (2019). Her limited-edition chapbook Alphabet of Mo(u)rning is forthcoming in 2022 from Lily Press. Kari lives in Dover, Delaware and is an active member of the arts community there.