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Craft Talk 1: Figuring Out Why a Poem Doesn’t Work For Me

A book I’ve been trying to make my way through this summer is Calling A Wolf A Wolf, Iranian-American poet Kaveh Akbar’s first full-length collection. I say trying to make my way through” because, while there have been lines, phrases, and stanzas 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 that the hype surrounding it suggests I ought to feel. No work of art ever fully lives up to the hype surrounding it, of course, and I think there’s a lot to say about the way books of poetry, especially first books of poetry, are hyped these days, but I wanted to like this book for reasons that I think will become clear as I go on, and so I decided to go back through the fifty or so pages that I’ve read, 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. 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 I think Akbar clearly wants it, on the speaker as the subject of the verb treasure, and also on the way the elided that gives I treasure the feel of an adjectival modifying both God and flower.
  • 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 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 of the flower that ought to be the true goal.

This tension and the quest to resolve it in complete oneness with God defines the Sufi path to enlightenment. The idea of that path plays a central role in the work of some of Iran’s, and the world’s, greatest poets: Rumi, Attar, Hafez, and Sa’di, to name a few. Indeed, Akbar’s reference to the flower behind God resonated for me with a passage from what is generally cited as Saadi’s most important work, his Golestan, or Rose Garden. This is the version I published in Selections from Saadi’s Gulistan:

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.

I’ve analyzed this line in such detail, both in terms of its craft and its meaning, because I don’t think this kind of line happens by accident, if by accident we mean entirely 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 is evidence of Akbar’s skill as a poet. I also wanted to give you a sense of my own investment in the poem as a way of foregrounding the disappointment I felt as I read to find myself taken out of the poem by some of the choices Akbar made in composing it.

Take, for example, these lines from the very beginning of the poem: the stomach/of the girl who ate only hair was filled with hair,” which I read as a metaphor for how objectification of the self—the stomach filled with hair—also represents how loving the self as an object ultimately destroys that self.

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. The effect, on me at least, is that I no longer feel trusted as a reader, which really means I am confronted with a speaker who does not fully trust the power of his own language, and this takes me out of the poem in a way that makes it very difficult to get back in.

(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.)

There are other, similar, moments in this poem, and in poems throughout the book, which is why I’ve been having such a hard time finishing 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 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. As I said, there are moments of real power in this book and I am glad to have been able to read them. The hype surrounding the book, however, sets up the expectation that reading it in its entirety will also be one of those moments. For me, that certainly has not been true.

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