A Writing Tip from Leonard Kress
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
I was driving to work a few weeks ago, listening closely to a news report about the survivalist Eric Frein, who had just murdered a Pennsylvania State Trooper and managed to evade capture by hiding out in the dense forests of the Pocono Mountains. Although hundreds of people were engaged in a desperate and dramatic search for the killer, he had thus far evaded capture.
I listened closely to the report. I grew up in Philadelphia and the Poconos almost rivaled the Jersey shore for vacation fun—summer camp, ski trips, hiking, camping, and later, gambling casinos. When I was older, I became more and more fascinated by the old mining towns and patches, the abandoned anthracite coal breakers, the eternally burning mine and town of Centralia, the gold-domed churches of immigrants from Russia, Ukraine, Slovakia.
As tragic as the killing was, it still sounded like something out of the 19th century—as though a character—Ivan from The Brothers Karamazov—had moved to the region, taken up with a magistrate or mine-owners wife. Here among his fellow Slavs, he could continue his profligate ways, until he broke. And went crazy.
I was imagining all this, thinking about writing a sequel to Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, as the report continued. Of course, Frein was not Russian, was part of the survivalist-militia fringe, and most likely a neo-Nazi, eager to foment violent revolution and anarchy. And then I heard this statement from a police spokesman providing an update: They had no idea where Frein was hiding out, but deep in a secluded forest, they came across the following:
“Serbian cigarettes and soiled diapers.”
Immediately, I pulled off the road—into the Tim Horton’s parking lot and repeated the phrase over and over. This is what I heard:
SER-bian CIGarettes / and SOILED DIA-pers.
A line consisting of two accents, a caesura (pause), and then two more accents, and three out of the four accents alliterative. A perfect example of Anglo-Saxon Alliterative verse:
Wrath was wakeful, watching in hatred;
hot-hearted Beowulf was bent upon battle.
There’s more though. There’s the sharp contrast between the exotic brand of cigarettes cohabiting in the same line with poopy pampers. There’s the oddness of the “America-first” Frein choosing something from the Balkans—with all those associations: Dostoevsky’s championing of Pan Slavism, the role of a Serbian anarchist in starting World War I, the more recent atrocities committed by the Bosnian Serbs…..the magnificent poems of Charles Simic. In short, I was hearing poetry, if only a single line.
Today, almost seven weeks later, Frein was finally captured. (As though emerging from the Bardo Thodol.) Various media reports reveled in what their own writers felt was poetic—that Frein was shackled with the handcuffs of the murdered state trooper. The press, the American public, scriptwriters seem to love that sort of comeuppance, as though it’s an act of retributive justice.
Perhaps they’re right, but I think that a headline from the day before his capture struck me as pure poetry:
Falling leaves in the Pocono Mountains
could expose U.S. public enemy number one.
If the headline is broken into two lines, the first conveys a fairly typical sentiment that could appear in a multitude of poems. For example, William Butler Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole”:
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry
Yet, as simple as the first line of the headline seems, it is more complex rhythmically than the strict iambic pentameter of the opening two lines of the Yeats poem. In the headline, we get a nice mix of iambs and trochees:
FALling / LEAVES in / the PO– / coNO / MOUNTains
And then, just when you expect the poem to continue, a la Yeats, we encounter something completely unexpected. The word “expose,” with its links to “poser,” and “exposé,” presents the first detour which leads directly to the long bureaucratic and sensationalist jargon of the wanted poster or even hip hop’s Public Enemy. From there, had the copy editor really cut loose, I could imagine the execution-style murder of one of Yeats’ wild swans…or even the assassination or assault of Keats’ drunk, drugged, and drowsy autumn maid.
When writing poetry, then, I would urge poets to think in terms of headline writing. Although newspaper copy editors might not be fully aware of their own editorial processes, I’m sure that at some level they have internalized these lessons—even if those lessons have been watered down or simplified for the sake of their readers. Yet, I suspect that foremost in their mind (and their mind’s ear) is the quest to be poetic and the search for the best language to capture our attentions and shake us out of our complacencies.
Leonard Kress has published poetry, translations, non-fiction, and fiction in Missouri Review, Tupelo, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, etc. Among his collections are The Orpheus Complex, Walk Like Bo Diddley, Living in the Candy Store and Other Poems and his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. Craniotomy Sestinas appeared in 2021. Leonard Kress has received multiple grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. Leonard Kress currently teaches at Temple University. Visit his website here.
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