Monday, May 16, 2011

Writing Prompt #9: The Sum of Its Parts

We've talked about this several times over the course of the term, but since it came up again in Friday's class, I thought it might be worth making a prompt out of the idea of fragmentation and linking.   

At the heart of this technique is the notion that what we're trying to say in a poem doesn't have to be accomplished in one continuous train of thought.  Much like the way in which line and stanza breaks can create a necessary pause or add emphasis, breaking your poem into discreet sections can give you the room to make dramatic shifts in perspective or characterization or let a particularly resonant idea ring out in your readers minds.  This technique is most effective when the connection between the fragments isn't explicitly clear (leaving it to your reader to bridge those gaps) or if you choose to work around a topic in an abstract fashion, considering different facets of the idea at hand with each section.

One well-known poem written in this form is Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird":

 Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Among twenty snowy mountains,   
The only moving thing   
Was the eye of the blackbird.   

I was of three minds,   
Like a tree   
In which there are three blackbirds.   

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.   
It was a small part of the pantomime.   

A man and a woman   
Are one.   
A man and a woman and a blackbird   
Are one.   

I do not know which to prefer,   
The beauty of inflections   
Or the beauty of innuendoes,   
The blackbird whistling   
Or just after.   

Icicles filled the long window   
With barbaric glass.   
The shadow of the blackbird   
Crossed it, to and fro.   
The mood   
Traced in the shadow   
An indecipherable cause.   

O thin men of Haddam,   
Why do you imagine golden birds?   
Do you not see how the blackbird   
Walks around the feet   
Of the women about you?   

I know noble accents   
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   
But I know, too,   
That the blackbird is involved   
In what I know.   

When the blackbird flew out of sight,   
It marked the edge   
Of one of many circles.   

At the sight of blackbirds   
Flying in a green light,   
Even the bawds of euphony   
Would cry out sharply.   

He rode over Connecticut   
In a glass coach.   
Once, a fear pierced him,   
In that he mistook   
The shadow of his equipage   
For blackbirds.   

The river is moving.   
The blackbird must be flying.   

It was evening all afternoon.   
It was snowing   
And it was going to snow.   
The blackbird sat   
In the cedar-limbs.

While Stevens' poem doesn't necessarily add up to a clear and definitive picture he does approach his topic from many unique angles.  A more contemporary master of this style is Rae Armantrout, who works in a minimalist style, frequently combining seemingly disconnected segments to create a wide-ranging poetic picture.  Here's her poem, "The Subject":

The Subject

It’s as if we’ve just been turned human   
in order to learn   
that the beetle we’ve caught   
and are now devouring   
is our elder brother   
and that we   
are a young prince.


I was just going to click   
on “Phoebe is changed   
into a mermaid   
tomorrow!” when suddenly   
it all changed   
into the image   
of a Citizen watch.


If each moment is in love   
with its image   
in the mirror of   
adjacent moments   

(as if matter stuttered),

then, of course, we’re restless!

“What is a surface?”
we ask,

trying to change the subject. 
Here are a few more examples of her work: "Fact," "Passage" and "Apartment."

While this technique works well in a more abstract fashion, it can also quite successfully be used in a narrative fashion, with each section serving as a micro-chapter of sorts.  Two great examples of this are Allen Ginsberg's "After Lalon" and Richard Brautigan's "The Galilee Hitchhiker."

Armed with these examples, I'd like you to try to write a poem that works in a similar fashion, using fragmentation and linking to great poetic effect.

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