Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Sound of Emptiness Revisited

Back in June of ’09 I remarked on poetry that seemed to be all flash and no substance. I want to revisit the concept because a book-length manuscript came across my desk that embodied it. Out of the sixty or more poems only two or three moved me. Those seemed to build their images around a recognizable theme; the others seemed extremely unconnected.

In fact they reminded me of the “Where’s Waldo” puzzles, you know the themed scenes populated by a multitude of human figures. The trick is to find which one has all the recognizable tributes of the “Waldo” character. Imagine how frustrating play would be if there was no Waldo included! That’s how I felt about those poems. The fact that they were devoid of any customary rhythm or rhyme scheme only emphasized their meaninglessness.

There’s nothing wrong with setting down words or sounds without a precise, discernable meaning. “Sound” poets do it all the time. But they will admit that it works better on stage than on the page. The flow of words/sounds creates a mood enhanced and emphasized by poetic devices: rhyme (both end and internal), other repetition, defined even if changing rhythms. The fundamentals that please the ear and mind.

It reminded me of a poem I wrote some years back; it was never published and was never meant to be. It’s a piece I liked to perform live on stage because the way the sounds driven by rhythm and repetitions connected with the audience. If it established a sentiment, a mood, all to the good; if it didn’t it was still a sequence of pleasing sounds. I’ll publish it here so you can see what I mean.


when craven vultures songbirds be
new babes laugh hanging in each tree
through ruby filtered light you see
one trail is free

radiance crowns the powdered rack
fishermen mourn their linen sack
and oil now burns the broken back
the clabbered hack

promises mend a shirt of snow
and buttered railways slide below
the trees fall off the wheels to know
these weights won’t go

all frozen lobsters on a kite
sing for a nose to free the night
we vanquish chip-shops in delight
and leave to write

so shine the copper lilies round
run with the growling shaded hound
the magic ice flows underground
while we resound

The poem as it exists has no obvious meaning. Its “poetry” hangs on the well defined frame of rhythm and rhyme scheme. For me the joy was in the movement of the mouth, the embouchure, as vowel slipped toward vowel and consonant shaped to the next consonant.

If that joy is not there, what are we left with? Ink spots on a page? Or from the stage a cacophony?

I have written other poems that had no obvious meaning but because the way images interacted, complimented each other, and were held by a common structure, they carried a discernable meaning that could be touched. Several of these have been published and well received.

So, does meaning have to be obvious? No. But a way must be shown that can lead to a satisfactory conclusion by the reader/listener. Otherwise you are pumping darkness into a place where there is no light.

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