My next few articles will act as a deep dive into specific short form works. We’ll examine a piece from each short form and dive deep into its inner workings to find the path to success in our own short form pieces.
Poets are alchemists. We transform the chaos of everyday life into sonnets and haikus, into verses of order. We name the unnameable. We create small spaces in which to catch our collective breaths.
Pretty cool job description, huh? Lofty, definitely, and well worth the effort that an active poetry-writing practice demands.
Our aim, as poets, is to simplify the complex. The excitement of naming the unnameable draws us, again and again, to the page. We begin by stringing words, simple and musical, on screen or paper.
Poetry requires us to manipulate those words—through condensing and compressing specific events or emotions—into something universally relatable. However, much of our early attempts at poetry will miss the mark. Much of it, I hate to admit, will veer into triteness or sentimentality.
So, how does one avoid writing superficially? You can’t. At least, not at first. It’s an unavoidable stage in our development as poets. But our time of surface writing can be shortened by the writing, reading, and close study of poems. No one of these is more important than the other. A good poet must do all three.
Writing poetry regularly, and varying our subjects, forms, and language, builds our confidence on the page. It offers us the satisfaction of seeing our work outside our imaginations. Reading widely in poetry (and fiction) gives us a sense of what’s possible in our own poetry writing practice. However, it is in the close reading of a well-constructed poem where we get to see poetic alchemy up close.
Up Close and Personal
Actors understand the importance of knowing a role intimately. They study the character’s habits, strengths, and weaknesses. All to enhance their performances. So too should we poets. We study the work of others to understand the nuances of using language, form, and subjects in specific ways.
One poem, The News Reported She Wore Her Body to the Event by Amy Key, offers a perfect marriage of form and simplicity of language to highlight her subject. In a 2017 interview with The Poetry Extension founder Natalya Anderson, Key said in writing the collection Isn’t Forever in which the poem was printed, she wanted “to shine a light on elements of femininity that might be dismissed as froth—wanting to fit in with feminine ideals but fighting against them”. The poem itself addresses body image, loneliness, and feelings of rejection for not having society’s ideal feminine body.
Key takes this weighty subject in hand by using a simple palate of words: she, her, body, sun. She lets them stand on their own without fuss. As the poem gathers momentum, Key begins to seed the poem with longer, heavier words: slovenliness, coalition, consensus. These breaks from unadorned language are used to highlight the impact of societal pressure, for Key to “sweep off that top layer of the shimmery language and be more direct, more brutal and somehow more tender with it.” Her use of buoyancy in the next to the last line of the poem brings that tenderness to the poem and the reader.
Excerpts from “The News Reported She Wore Her Body to the Event”, Amy Key, from Isn’t Forever (Bloodaxe Books)
The poem’s form creates tension with its lines crossing over and back again. It brings to mind a corset and with it the idea of restraining the body, the projection of desire onto that body.
The lines, while constrained, begin simply enough with “she carried herself in her body.” In the poem’s middle, Key writes “the crowd couldn’t decide/if her body was too much/or too little/some demanded that her body amend itself.”
Key constructs the poem around a schism running through the center. Fittingly, she closes it in the last lines as the poem’s protagonist realizes that to live she must embrace all of her self.
Key’s use of craft and art is very much on display in this poem. She weaves subject, word choice and poetic form to bring a complex topic and its nuances down to a strikingly readable form.
The work Key does with and in this poem brings to mind a remark on poets and poetry by U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. In Episode 28: On Kindness of The Slowdown, her new poetry podcast, she reflects on what poetry offers to readers and what is required from the poet.
Smith speaks, in her thoughtful manner, of poetry’s generosity—the beauty it uncovers—but also of the poet’s necessity to do work beyond the surface, to bear witness and sit in life’s difficult places:
“I’m not just talking about wowing the reader with beautiful or vivid language. But rather a willingness to think about what is at stake and to push past what is merely safe. To really and truly dwell for a while in the heart or the meat of the matter. The place in the poem where actual need sits.”
This is where we poets start to acquire depth. We gather our words and put them to work, mingling forms and language. We spend time pondering them and the heart of what birthed them. We learn in those hours how to bear witness. I can think of no better calling.
Brenda Joyce Patterson is a poet, writer, librarian, and lover of short writing forms. Her poetry and flash fiction have been published in Vayavya, Gravel Magazine, and Melancholy Hyperbole. Along with works by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Alice Walker, her travel essay “The Kindness of Strangers” appeared in Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Guide to Travel and Adventure.