I wish more poets would try working in the past tense. I am tired of reading poems that rely on startling metaphors and present-tense immediacy for most of their effect. It begins to feel very formulaic and unearned. How about some genuine insight once in a while?

Novelist and blogger Richard Lawrence Cohen has a terrific little story that suggests how all those run-of-the-mill poems come about.

But conditioned reflex comes to the rescue. She knows how to write a poem. She knows how to trawl for a metaphor, how to stitch lines together with assonance and consonance (and the occasional alliteration, not too much), she knows how to intertwine nature images with love-memories and transcendent ideas. So here is Listen, the first word, followed by a colon, herding the reader with an authoritative bark. Here is wind in the next line, another short-i sound, and then lent to tie the l’s and n’s and short e’s through three lines. Here is blue forgiving the encroaching purple, forgiveness is always good, and linen-clad dandelions whisper together, with that l- n-short-vowel combo again, and personifying nature’s voice is a reliable tactic. She makes the gesture of a surprising epithet; she makes the gesture of a truncated line; she pays witty homage to a better-known colleague’s best-known poem.

To me, the most telling thing about the writing process as depicted in Cohen’s story is its origin in impulse and distraction, rather than in true attention to something outside the writer.

23 Replies to “Reflex”

  1. That really is a wonderful story. It’s not easy to write interestingly about a tedious–and sometimes cynical–art.

    The bar he has set for comments on his pages (must have Google account) is unfortunately too high for me. But if he reads this: excellent stuff Richard, thank you.

  2. must have Google account
    I believe that’s a feature of the new Blogger, part of its more thorough integration with its parent company (and yet another good reason for Blogspot bloggers to switch to I’m sure we’ll hear from other commenters shortly if I’m mistaken.

    Glad you shared my high opinion of Cohen’s piece.

  3. My first reaction was to assume that this was someone whom Cohen knew who he was so pitilessly dismembering, and to think, shit and corruption, I’m never going to try to write anything again if I’m to be thus exposed as a precious, disingenuous, self-conscious fraud… then I looked again and went and read the whole story and in context it seemed slightly different.
    Immediacy has become something we’re overly besotted with, I suppose, and must be largely spurious if you want to see it that way, because once you start making anything ( I am leary of the word ‘art’ in the same way as I am of ‘spirituality’ ) of experience, you can only recreate its immediacy artificially …
    It seems harsh, though, to attack contrived and self-conscious writing but also to denigrate attempts at more spontaneous, immediate work as lazy and formulaic and not worked at. But there we are, life is harsh!
    I seem to have read a few novels too, lately, written in the present tense. Any enhanced sense of immediacy or narrative drive I fear is largely lost on me; I often don’t even notice this break with convention which has become a convention – the present historic may well become the prevalent form for fiction – until some way through, and having observed it promptly forget about it, my brain simply adjusts to it.
    I think perhaps my critical faculty is as blunt as an old HB.
    I liked the precautions for use of a cathedral, except I thought stage diving from the altar seemed quite a good idea. The comments section for that seened to have become an exclusive chatroom then to have come to a dead end.

  4. Lucy – Short of enlightenment, we’re all a bit fraudulent, I think, and what makes Cohen’s piece so moving is that the character is so sympathetic. (One of the commenters at his blog even saw her as a heroic, mythic figure, which strikes me as a bit of a stretch, but it’s not an invalid reading.) I suppose I should have made it clearer in my opening paragraph that I don’t think that the use of startling metaphors and present-tense immediacy is bad in and of itself — hell, a majority of my own poems rely on that, too. It’s just that when they become virtually the only means of poetic expression that they begin to bore and frustrate me. Poets should fool around not just with different tenses but with word-play and puns, too. It’s fun to try writing poems without any explicit metaphors or similes. But most of all, I think we need to cultivate a finer quality of attention — that’s the key to real poetic depth, IMO.

    I’m sorry if you feel excluded from a comment thread, and wish you wouldn’t, but whatever. I always feel complimented when discussions range far beyond the parameters of the post that spawned them. Anyone is free to say whatever is on their minds, and non sequitors are welcomed and encouraged (by me, at any rate).

  5. Sorry to check in late… Thanks so much, everyone, for reading and discussing and liking my story. When I first conceived of it, it was a satire of a mediocre poet who relied on stock gestures; but as I went along in the writing, it became an ambivalent homage to a merely human artist who kept butting against the boundaries that confine us all, and didn’t let it stop her.

  6. PS: I started requiring a Blogger account for comments because I was getting too many spam comments. I love getting comments, and you guys have so many intelligent things to say, I hope you’ll take the trouble to set up Blogger accounts — which doesn’t mean you have to create a blog. It only takes five minutes.

  7. Richard – Thanks for weighing in. It’s always useful to know how an author conceives of his characters. I too find it hard to write straight satire due to an over-active empathic impulse.

  8. What a prickly mood I was in to be sure! First, about the comment thread to the cathedral piece, which I’ve just read in full, and thoroughly enjoyed. When I say it came to a dead end, it really did, some time before it got interesting, just disappeared… now it’s there. In feeble defence of my crabbiness, I can only say that in the absence of broadband speed, I do sometimes get frustrated and discouraged and give up on things too quickly.
    The RLC story is remarkable in the way it provokes such different responses, isn’t it? I must say I was astonished at the commenter who saw her as such an exalted, sublime figure when contemptible and meretricious was my first reading of her. But it was so much more interesting and troubling that she wasn’t clearly either, and could yet entertain angels unawares. And we do have to beware of being precious and facile.
    Anyway, my grateful thanks for introducing me to RLCs blog, he was gracious enough to come and visit, and we find we share the same blogger template!

  9. Lucy – Fortunately, I like prickly people (it’s the porcupine thing). Though I must say that trying to play the gracious blog-host over the past three years (and not always succeeding, of course) has taught me a lot about how to be pleasant when one is actually feeling prickly, cranky, withdrawn, or what-not.

    As for comment threads, I am fortunate in having some very interesting commenters despite a relatively small readership. Any creative writer is familiar with the feeling that one’s best words aren’t really one’s own, that they seem to come from some place outside oneself (whence the notion of inspiration). With blogging, the tendency of occasional comment threads to go off in a completely different direction from the post that spawned them just heightens that feeling, for me.

    I’m glad you and RLC have hit it off; both of you deserve many more incoming links and readers than you currently have. In a way, though, I’m glad there aren’t too many bloggers of your calibre out there — if there were, I’d never get off my butt!

  10. Hullo, Dave–

    Did Teju really mean “tedious”? Or is that a comment not on the nature of poetry but the nature of contemporary poetry? Or what?

    And are crabby bloggers more interesting? It occurs to me that some of my favorite blogs are ruled by curmudgeons.

    Does this mean that I am not enough of a porcupine?

    “must have a Google account” is only an option, and most don’t take it… I’m afraid that I am too lazy to move.

    I want more poems where the poet lost himself/herself in the poem, and where I can do the same thing.

  11. Hi marly –

    1. I’m not sure, but in my experience, it’s a very bad idea to take anything “Teju Cole” says seriously. Unless he’s saying kind things about me, of course.

    2. Negative thinking is a powerful force, especially in a culture like that of the United States where relentless positivism is so often a cover for hypocrisy, brutality, and even war crimes. I’ve just spent the last 45 minutes belly-laughing over all the demotivational posters available through . (And you know what they say: Laughter is the best medicine!)

    3. There is such a thing as too many porcupines. That is, unless you really hate trees.

    4. If you ever overcome your laziness, I’ll be happy to walk you through the steps required to relocate to a blog. (You can export all your posts and comments, too.)

    5. I’m glad to hear you say you like that kind of poem, because I’ve written quite a few in which my own voice and experience don’t figure at all. That’s not because I am any less self-centered than the the average poet, but rather because my own life is unutterably dull.

  12. Oh I do think poetry is tedious. Terribly so. That’s why hardly anyone likes it. I thought this was common knowledge.

    Doesn’t mean there aren’t earth-shattering poems. But, as a whole, the art of poetry isn’t my idea of a wonderful evening, no.

    By the way, Marly, pay no attention to anything Dave might say about me. Especially if he puts my name in scare quotes.

  13. Now all that was enlightening. I knew nobody liked it–I knew that it was sheer foolery to go on writing the stuff. But that the root cause was sheer “tediousness” (with scare quotes)! That I did not grasp. Thank you, Teju Cole!

    Has Teju Cole, the man from “Ajeria,” said nice things about you, Dave? And are you making him a fiction with those quotes? Or is he a fiction, rather like “Ajeria?” He seemed so very real… “Ajeria,” though, is lodged somewhere between one thing and another, so perhaps Teju Cole is likewise.

    Dull is not so bad for a writer and photographer, isn’t it? One never gets work done when it is too lively. Come to consider it, I could use a swath of dull, tedious days with perfect-in-behavior children and nothing happening.

    I once saw a gigantic porcupine at the top of a much-too-small sapling, and I now remember it whenever I visit you.

    Perhaps I will move some day. But right now I have to climb up with the snow rake and shovel the back porch roof.

  14. “Ajeria,� though, is lodged somewhere between one thing and another, so perhaps Teju Cole is likewise.

    Well, that might be a good way to put it. You read his recent short story, perhaps, about a man named Teju Cole who was clearly the author’s antithesis in most important ways? Hence the quotation marks. And the prisoner who committed suicide in that story bore the name of a previous blog-incarnation, one of four since I’ve known him.

    As for dullness: to a porcupine, I’m sure, wood tastes delicious. He’s probably glad that not too many other critters feel the same way.

    O.K., off to go chew on my too-small sapling. Must update the smorgasblog…

  15. Marly, thanks for understanding.

    I make an effort to say true things about Dave. I can’t be held responsible if some of them happen to be nice.

    Anyhow, Marly, here’s an offering, specially for you:

  16. Dave,

    I do hope you’re holding on tight. You’re much too big for that wispy tree…


    I wonder, where did he get the one in the bucket hat and the companion-in-wig? If not a wig, what? Something parasitical, no doubt. I think I will leave Marly Gomont off my list of Marly-sites to visit, now that you have shown it to me…

  17. The thing is, it’s a great IDEA for a poem — the two women setting their phones down while they go off to the bathroom. The author failed to make anything interesting out of it.

  18. OK. Several days have passed, and I’m still obsessing over verb tense. (Present perfect, plus present progressive.) I had not thought about verb tenses lately, but it seems I have lost the past tense. (Past perfect, present, present perfect.) Where can I find it again?

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