Write me: rjn@richardjnewman.com
Craft Talk 3: Figuring Out Why a Poem Doesn’t Work For Me
Abook I’ve been mak­ing my way through this sum­mer is Call­ing A Wolf A Wolf, Iran­ian-Amer­i­can poet Kaveh Akbar’s first full-length col­lec­tion. I say “mak­ing my way through” because, while there have been lines, phras­es, stan­zas, and occa­sion­al­ly entire poems that have lit­er­al­ly made me hold my breath, no mat­ter how hard I’ve tried, I just can­not muster the enthu­si­asm for the book as a whole, for the expe­ri­ence of read­ing it, that the hype sur­round­ing it sug­gests I ought to feel. In part, this may be due to the fact that no work of art ever lives up to the hype sur­round­ing it, but I’ve been read­ing and writ­ing poet­ry for long enough to rec­og­nize the dif­fer­ence between a clear­ly not suc­cess­ful, or just plain bad, book that I’ve picked up because of the hype and a book that I real­ly want to like as much as the hype says I should, because I can tru­ly see from the work itself where the hype is com­ing from, but can’t. Call­ing A Wolf A Wolf is in the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry.


Why two dif­fer­ent peo­ple might have very dif­fer­ent respons­es to whether a poem (or book of poems) is suc­cess­ful is a real­ly inter­est­ing ques­tion, so I decid­ed to go back through as much of the book as I’ve read, about 50 pages, to see if I could fig­ure out what keeps get­ting in my way. This is what I dis­cov­ered: In many of the poems—I did not count because I’m not inter­est­ed in what that kind of quan­tifi­ca­tion would sig­ni­fy, but in enough of them that a pat­tern of my read­ing expe­ri­ence pre­sent­ed itself to me—there were lines, phras­es, some­times whole sec­tions, that took me out of the poem, or, to be more pre­cise, out of what I will call the music of emo­tion that the poem had drawn me into. (I’m not exact­ly sure what I mean by “music of emo­tion,” but I want­ed an expres­sion that would include both the music of lan­guage, with­out which there is no poet­ry, and the flow of emotion—including the emo­tions con­nect­ed with intellection—without which there is no point.)

When I looked more close­ly at these dis­rup­tive moments, I found that they almost always involved instances where the speak­er starts explain­ing things, telling me what I am sup­posed to understand—saying, in essence, what the poem already says, but in plain and straight­for­ward terms that ulti­mate­ly under­mine, for me, what­ev­er pow­er the poem had. By way of exam­ple, I want to talk about Akbar’s poem called “Prayer,” which is on page 40 of the book. (Please for­give errors in spac­ing.)

again i am think­ing of self-love     filled with self-love     the stom­ach
of the girl who ate only hair was filled with hair     they cut
it out when she died     it formed a mold of her stom­ach     reduc­ing
a life to its most grotesque arti­fact     my gur­gling inter­nal devo­tion
to myself     a jaw half-formed     there are words
I will not say     the mus­cle of my face smeared
with clay     I am more than the wor­ry I make     I choose
my words care­ful­ly     we now know some angels are more ter­ri­fy­ing
than oth­ers     our ene­mies are replace­able     the stones behind their teeth
glow in moon­light     com­pared to even a small star
the moon is tiny     it is not God but the flower behind God I trea­sure

I want to start with the poem’s last sentence–“it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure”–because this is one of those lines that made me sit back and take notice, not only for its mean­ing, about which more in a moment, but also for its econ­o­my of lan­guage and the way it is craft­ed. Two exam­ples:

  • Leav­ing out before “I trea­sure” the rel­a­tive pro­noun that, the gram­mat­i­cal ref­er­ent for which would have been flower. Had the phrase read “the flower behind God that I trea­sure,” in oth­er words, the lan­guage would have direct­ed the reader’s atten­tion back to the flower as the object of the speaker’s ado­ra­tion and away from where Akbar clear­ly wants it, on the speak­er as the sub­ject of the verb trea­sure, which calls back in an inter­est­ing way to the idea of self-love and self-involve­ment that the poem explores in its begin­ning lines.
  • The two spon­dees (two con­sec­u­tive stressed syl­la­bles)–“not God” and “behind God”–are like stakes dri­ven into the ground of the line, around which the rhythm of the rest of the line orga­nizes itself. They also serve to empha­size the line’s nega­tion or denial of, or at least the speaker’s desire to set aside the tra­di­tion­al notion of God in favor of the actu­al flower you find if you can see past that tra­di­tion. There is, in oth­er words, a ten­sion in the line between being a self that desires to get “behind God,” what­ev­er that means, and the fact that, as long as this self remains a self, as long as it remains a con­scious­ness that can trea­sure what is behind God, that is con­scious of God, then God will always remain in the way.

This ten­sion and the quest to resolve it—and I am guess­ing, since Akbar is from Iran­ian, that this is no accident—in some ways defines Sufism, a way of prac­tic­ing Islam that plays a cen­tral role in Iran’s his­to­ry. Sufism is also cen­tral to the work of some of Iran’s, and the world’s, great­est poets, the most famous being Rumi, but there’s also Attar, Hafez, and Saa­di.1 Indeed, Akbar’s ref­er­ence to the flower behind God, alludes, whether he intend­ed it or not, to a pas­sage from what is gen­er­al­ly cit­ed as Saadi’s most impor­tant work, his Gulis­tan, or Rose Gar­den. The pas­sage I am think­ing about–this is my ren­di­tion of it–is this:

A man of God immersed him­self in med­i­ta­tion. When he emerged from the vision that was grant­ed him, a smil­ing com­pan­ion wel­comed him back, “What beau­ti­ful gift have you brought us from the gar­den in which you were walk­ing?”

The holy man replied, “I walked until I reached the rose­bush, where I gath­ered up the skirts of my robe to hold the ros­es so I could present them to my friends, but the scent of the petals so intox­i­cat­ed me that I let every­thing fall from my hands.”

The “flower behind God,” in oth­er words, can only be expe­ri­enced direct­ly, word­less­ly, not shared, and not “trea­sured” as an object that you can pos­sess.

Cer­tain­ly, you don’t need to know about Sufism or Saadi’s Gulis­tan in order to appre­ci­ate the artistry in the line from “Prayer” that I’m talk­ing about. I’ve laid all this out here, and tried to indi­cate some of its com­plex­i­ty, to under­score the fact that, whether Akbar con­scious­ly intend­ed it or not, the line did not turn out the way it did by accident—if by “acci­dent” we mean a com­plete­ly ran­dom hap­pen­stance. On the oth­er hand, if by “acci­dent” we mean—and I am bad­ly para­phras­ing here some­thing I read a long time ago in an essay I can­not now find by Hay­den Carruth—the kind of thing that starts to hap­pen “nat­u­ral­ly,” with­out con­scious fore­thought, after seri­ous study, rig­or­ous prac­tice, and a deep immer­sion in craft and sub­ject mat­ter, then you start to see why I think this line (along with much else in Call­ing A Wolf A Wolf) is evi­dence of Akbar’s skill as a poet.

This skill is also evi­dent in the two pri­ma­ry images Akbar crafts to set up the res­o­nance that leads to the final line: “the stomach/of the girl who ate only hair was filled with hair” and “the stones behind [our ene­mies’] teeth/glow in moon­light.” In each of these images, an objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of the self—the stom­ach filled with hair, the stones behind the ene­mies’ teeth—also rep­re­sents, or sym­bol­izes, how lov­ing the self as an object ulti­mate­ly destroys the self that is so loved. There is a pro­gres­sion in those two images as well, from an object that rep­re­sents com­plete self-absorp­tion, the hair, to one that starts to resem­ble “the flower behind God,” the stones behind the ene­mies’ teeth. This is how Akbar sets up the ten­sion in the last line that I wrote about above, between the desire for direct expe­ri­ence of the flower behind God and the speaker’s inabil­i­ty to give up the desir­ing self.

As I’m sure you can tell by now, this is a poem I real­ly want not sim­ply to like, but to expe­ri­ence ful­ly. I’m not a Sufi, or a mys­tic of any sort real­ly, but there’s a lot in what I learned about Sufism from the trans­la­tions I have worked on that res­onates with me, and so it was dis­ap­point­ing to find myself tak­en out of the expe­ri­ence of the poem by some of the choic­es Akbar made in com­pos­ing it. I’m going to dis­cuss three exam­ples.


Let’s start with the lines about the girl who ate only hair:

again i am think­ing of self-love      filled with self-love       the stom­ach
of the girl who ate only hair was filled with hair       they cut
it out when she died       it formed a mold of her stom­ach       reduc­ing
a life to its most grotesque arti­fact

The last inde­pen­dent clause here, “it formed a mold of her stom­ach,” along with the gerund phrase that fol­lows, “reducing/a life to its most grotesque arti­fact,” don’t real­ly do any­thing but, first, indi­cate what the ref­er­ent of it is in “they cut/it out when she died” and, sec­ond, tell us what we are sup­posed to think about the hair that “formed a mold of her stom­ach.” The speak­er, in oth­er words, is telling us pre­cise­ly how he wants us to under­stand the image he has cre­at­ed, rather than let­ting the image—and the ambigu­ous pro­noun ref­er­ence (was the “it” that was cut out the stom­ach or the hair?)—do its own work. Indeed, allow­ing that it to remain ambigu­ous would have result­ed, for me, in a far more pow­er­ful cou­ple of lines, since it would have embed­ded in the lan­guage not only the image of the (un)digested hair, but also the rela­tion­ship between that arti­fact and the organ of hunger, and the hunger, that cre­at­ed it.

Anoth­er line that takes me out of the expe­ri­ence of the poem as I read it is “I choose/my words care­ful­ly.” First, this is unam­bigu­ous­ly a cliché. More than that, though, it’s not much more than a mun­dane restate­ment of mean­ing that is already con­tained in the line “there are words/I will not say,” which is far more inter­est­ing, espe­cial­ly in the con­text of the lines between which it appears:

a jaw half-formed       there are words
I will not say       the mus­cle of my face smeared
with clay 

I rec­og­nize that those lines, which con­jure the image of a par­tial­ly sculpt­ed face, are prob­a­bly sup­posed to hear­ken back to the “sculp­ture” that the hair in the girl’s stom­ach became when they cut it out of her stom­ach, and I can see that this is/could have been a pow­er­ful asso­cia­tive move, and that look­ing into it more deeply might yield an inter­est­ing intel­lec­tu­al analy­sis. I’m not try­ing here to ana­lyze the poem as pub­lished, how­ev­er, the way I might ask stu­dents to do in a class I was teach­ing. Rather, I am try­ing to work through why the poem doesn’t work for me as a poem, why read­ing it is not a ful­fill­ing emo­tion­al and aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence for me.

To take one last exam­ple: “com­pared to even a small star/the moon is tiny.” Not only is this such a patent­ly obvi­ous statement—one that makes me feel, frankly, not entire­ly trust­ed as a reader—I’m hon­est­ly not sure how it’s sup­posed to func­tion in the poem, inter­rupt­ing as it does the oth­er­wise pow­er­ful jux­ta­po­si­tion between the stones behind the ene­mies’ teeth and the flower behind God:

our ene­mies are replace­able       the stones behind their teeth
glow in moon­light       com­pared to even a small star
the moon is tiny       it is not God but the flower behind God I trea­sure

Again, I can imag­ine a poten­tial­ly inter­est­ing analy­sis that points out the rela­tion­ships between and among the stones, the moon, the star, the enor­mi­ty of God, and the even greater enor­mi­ty of the idea that there is some­thing behind, beyond, God. To focus here on that kind of analy­sis, how­ev­er, is to skip over the fact that a poem is, first of all, a work of art, and that if it does not suc­ceed on those grounds, as I am say­ing this poem does not suc­ceed for me, then it does not suc­ceed. To argue for that suc­cess on pure­ly intel­lec­tu­al grounds is to turn the poem into an aca­d­e­m­ic exer­cise.

The expe­ri­ence I have just tried to describe, of being tak­en repeat­ed­ly out of a poem by lan­guage in the poem, is why I’ve been hav­ing such a hard time fin­ish­ing (and ful­ly enjoy­ing) Call­ing a Wolf a Wolf. Does this mean I think the book should not have been pub­lished? No. I’m pret­ty sure it’s Eavan Boland who has an essay some­where in which she talks about the plea­sures of fol­low­ing a poet’s career from the inevitable uneven­ness of their first book through the process by which they arrive at their lat­er, more mature work; and I am look­ing for­ward to this plea­sure in fol­low­ing Akbar’s work as it devel­ops.2 I should also add my con­grat­u­la­tions. As I was fin­ish­ing this post, I learned that Call­ing A Wolf A Wolf has won this year’s Levis Prize from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty. I dis­cov­ered as well, through read­ing the press release, that the book has received a host of oth­er hon­ors I did not know about. My cri­tique aside, there is much that is impor­tant, and much that does suc­ceed as poet­ry, in this book, and I am glad it is get­ting this kind of recog­ni­tion.

  1. A note to those who might be inter­est­ed in look­ing up the work of some of these poets: While Cole­man Barks and Daniel Ladin­sky have pro­duced the most pop­u­lar ver­sions of Rumi and Hafez, respec­tive­ly, in the Unit­ed States, if not in Eng­lish in gen­er­al, I would not rec­om­mend those ver­sions as entrees into under­stand­ing the place those two poets occu­py in either Per­sian or world lit­er­a­ture. I wrote a blog post about Barks and Rumi—and I would also rec­om­mend read­ing the arti­cle by Roz­i­na Ali that I ref­er­ence there—and Aria Fani wrote a post on the Ajam Media Collective’s blog about trans­lat­ing Hafez that con­tains a good cri­tique of peo­ple who work like Ladin­sky. Murat Nemet-Nejat also wrote a cri­tique of Ladin­sky that’s worth read­ing. Dick Davis’ trans­la­tion of Attar’s The Con­fer­ence of the Birds is the best known trans­la­tion of Attar’s work into Eng­lish, but there is also a new trans­la­tion by Sholeh Wolpe, which I haven’t read yet. If you’re inter­est­ed in get­ting a taste of some­thing else that Attar wrote, I co-trans­lat­ed parts of Elahi Nameh, or The Book of God, one of which—along with an intro­duc­to­ry essay—I pub­lished in Mod­ern Lan­guage Stud­ies. You can get a copy here. As for Saa­di, while I refer above to my own ver­sion of pas­sages from Gulis­tan, it’s worth know­ing that there is a recent trans­la­tion of the com­plete text—the first one in more than a century—by W. M. Thack­ston. As far as I know, though, my Selec­tions from Saadi’s Bus­tan is the only recent, non-reli­gious and lit­er­ary trans­la­tion of that text that is eas­i­ly avail­able, since you can get it direct­ly from me. []
  2. Boland’s essay, if I remem­ber it correctly—and if she is, in fact, its author—is actu­al­ly a kind of eulo­gy for first books, in the sense that I mean here. She argues, I think, that because so many poets these days come through MFA pro­grams, their first books are often the prod­uct of an extend­ed vet­ting and hon­ing process, designed to pro­duce a man­u­script that is not only ready for pub­li­ca­tion, but that has osten­si­bly been smoothed of all its rough edges and pol­ished to a uni­fied coheren­cy, depriv­ing read­ers of the expe­ri­ence of one stage in a poet’s devel­op­ment. []

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