What Can We Steal From Diane Seuss’s “Either everything is sexual, or nothing is. Take this flock of poppies”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “Either everything is sexual, or nothing is. Take this flock of poppies,” poem
Author: Diane Seuss (on Twitter: @dlseuss)
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem was originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of Blackbird, a very good journal.  The poem was subsequently awarded a Pushcart Prize and was included in the award’s 2013 anthology.

Bonuses: Ms. Seuss wrote this poem that was published in Poetry Magazine. Cool; here is a profile of Ms. Seuss that appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Guiding Your Reader

Discussion:
Ms. Seuss sets up the central subject of the poem very quickly: “Everything is sexual or nothing is.”  Through the course of the poem, she challenges the reader with a series of dilemmas around the theme.  Either the world is a passionate place drenched in sex and sweat, or it’s the kind of sterile, drab place that you see in monochrome duck-and-cover films.  It seems to me that Ms. Seuss leaves little room for real discussion; the world is indeed a place filled with primal and instinctive joy…so long as you choose to accept this truth.

I loved this poem more by the second after I clicked my gel pen to the ready.  The structure is quite clever and felicitous.  The poem is a series of rhetorical binaries that start out somewhat simple.  After all, logical statements are fairly easy to decode.  Either something is or it isn’t.  Once Ms. Seuss makes her structure clear, she employs much longer sentences with increasingly extreme language and more outlandish metaphors.  It’s very easy to imagine that flowers are sexual.  It takes a little more imagination to imagine cunnilingus as a “ocean salting every alleyway.”  If Ms. Seuss hadn’t freed up some of our brain space by making her structure clear, we may have a more difficult time keeping up with her.

It’s not just the structure that helps the reader understand these increasingly creative and powerful comparisons.  She begins with more concrete examples before she lays down the gauntlet and unleashes the ideas we might otherwise have trouble with.  Here’s a metaphor: Ms. Seuss’s poem is the ladder on the side of a skateboard ramp.  In order for the reader to reach impressive heights and to do impressive mental tricks, he or she must first have a satisfactory way to ascend the ramp.

Remember science class?  You learned about potential and kinetic energy.  A piano suspended in the air possesses a lot of potential energy.  This energy is made kinetic when the piano hits the ground and shatters.  The same concept applies to creative writing.  Look at Ms. Seuss’s final metaphor: the “book of wet matches.”  Those matches have potential energy; they can set a campfire or burn down a house.  The fact that they are wet means that the potential is doused.  What a wonderful way to depict sexual confusion or the sublimation of passion!

What Should We Steal?

  • Train your reader to understand the leaps you are taking.  Once your reader knows, for example, that your poem is a series of binaries, you can experiment with language and be as playful as you like with metaphor.
  • Employ the concrete before you build your way to the abstract.  Imagination is grounded in an understanding of the world you create.  Once the reader knows what your special world is like, you can start altering its gravity.
  • Consider potential and kinetic energy.  Your work should offer a lot of possibilities and capitalize on at least some of them.

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