What Can We Steal From Elizabeth Breese’s “Calamity The Way I Think It”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Calamity The Way I Think It,” poem
Author: Elizabeth Breese
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem can be found in Elizabeth Breese’s first book of poetry, The Lonely-Wilds, and was also reprinted by Verse Daily.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Use of Language

Discussion:
One of the great things about poetry is the way that the form allows you to be playful with language, casting reality in abstract phrases than can seem random until you think about them.  One of the drawbacks of contemporary poetry is that the form allows you to be playful with language and to cast reality in abstract phrases than can seem random until you think about them.  A lot of students with whom I speak have a lot of trouble with abstract poetry.  The only way to break through this wall?  Practice!

Elizabeth Breese’s “Calamity The Way I Think It” is a very playful poem.  Ms. Breese lets you know immediately that you are going to be taken on a fun ride:  “The radio is a brown jug/ puffing world news over my shoulder.”  Is she really talking about a radio?  Why is the brown jug “puffing”?  Why is the world news going over the narrator’s shoulder?  The poem requires the reader to come up with his or her own interpretation, making it difficult to summarize.  Ms. Breese is doing what I call “painting with words.”  The sentences, phrases, words and syllables were placed in order by the poet, just as a painter arranges colors and shapes.  Are these random phrases?  I would wager that most are not.  Instead of using boring, common language to communicate the idea Ms. Breese had, she paints with words to leave more to the reader’s interpretation.

Think of a great poet—I certainly don’t consider myself one—in the same way a baseball player thinks about his swing.  Can the casual fan look at Miguel Cabrera’s swing and tell him what he’s doing right or wrong?  Not really.  It takes long practice and countless hours of observation to understand all of the moving parts in a swing.

Howard Bryant’s great book Juicing the Game contains a great anecdote that applies to this analysis.  Here’s a brief excerpt from Chapter 17:

Once, a young San Diego Padres center fielder named Mark Kotsay had summoned the nerve to talk to Bonds, asking him about a difficult element of the hitting process that Bonds seemed to do so effortlessly. Kotsay had grown up idolizing Bonds, and it seemed he was on the verge of a memorable moment listening to the master. “It wouldn’t do much good,” Bonds explained somewhat coldly. “I mean, I could tell you what I do, but you’re not me.” It was a line Bonds used frequently.

I like to think that writing instructors are generally a lot warmer than Barry Bonds, but the principle remains valid to some extent.  If you ever meet the kind and generous Ms. Breese at a conference or a reading, feel free to ask her how she does what she does.  You’ll get much more out of her answer, however, the more you have written and the more you have thought about your own work.  By the same token, a ballplayer will get more value out of a session with a hitting coach if he already understands each part of his swing and has watched video of himself ten thousand times.

Whether reading or writing an abstract poem, include handholds for your reader.  Even if you understand nothing else in the poem, you can get a lot out of the line, “a tornado will come/ for everyone who knows/ my love language is non sequiturs.”  If nothing else, can we all relate to this concept?  A non-sequitur is something that is out of place, something that “does not follow.”  It’s sad, but people in romantic relationships often have problems with communication; the narrator understands that her (or his!) inability to communicate will cause serious problems for people she loves.

What Should We Steal?

  • Paint with words.  Consider the effect of each letter you use and its placement on the page.
  • Offer your reader handholds to help them worm their way into your work.  Allow the abstraction in your works to clear for a moment, giving the reader something to cling to.  Whenever I have discussed an abstract poem with a class, I’ve gotten the best results when I start figuring out the easier parts of the piece and working my way up.

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