What Can We Steal From Suellen Wedmore’s “When I Haven’t Been Kissed”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “When I Haven’t Been Kissed,” poem
Author: Suellen Wedmore
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem was published in Issue 5.2 of the very cool lit mag Sweet: A Literary Confection. You can find the poem right here.

Bonuses: Ms. Wedmore is the Poet Laureate emerita of the “small seaside town of Rockport, Massachusetts.” And what a wonderful thing that she was a speech and language therapist for young people!  Check out her poem “Monogamy and the Big Beef” from the Harvard Review Online.  You can get her book, On Marriage and Other Parallel Universes from the Finish Line Press.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Perspective

Discussion:
The narrator of Ms. Wedmore’s poem is a little lonely.  When the narrator–probably a woman, but why not a man?–hasn’t felt intimate contact in a while, she heads to the mall, where she can be around other people.  She watches people go by and fantasizes, just a little, about what it would be like to share a moment of intimacy with the men she doesn’t know.  In the last move of the poem, Ms. Wedmore’s narrator muses on the dedication of the male tarantula, a creature that will risk its life to find a mate.

What strikes me first about the poem?  How wonderfully accessible it is.  (This is anything but a put-down.)  Whenever I teach about poetry, my students inform me that poetry is the following:

  • Unceasingly brooding.  The writer must be poor and depressed.
  • Filled with opaque language.  A poem can’t be “great” to those “scholar-type” “people” unless it contains words like asceticism, foulard, appoggiatura, autochthonous, succedaneum or guetapens.
  • Rhyming.  What kind of self-respecting poem doesn’t rhyme “love” with “above”?
  • Focused on flowers or something.  All poets just sit around and write about flowers, right?
  • Boring.  ZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

Here’s the problem: I never knew that poetry was any of these things!  Sure, some poetry is a little ZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, but that’s the case for a small subset of anything in the world.  Ms. Wedmore’s poem addresses each of these common concerns:

  • The narrator may be bummed, but she is not brooding or depressed or miserable.  (At least not in this poem.)
  • The language is “poetic,” but accessible to everyone.
  • The poem does not rhyme, but Ms. Wedmore is playing with rhythm and sounds a lot.
  • The poem is not boring!  What would that be like?  To combat loneliness by people watching?  To imagine romance with a stranger?  To find romance in the animal kingdom?  I’ll be right back–I’m going to find out.

Okay, I’m back.  That was fun!  You shouldn’t have these preconceived notions in your head all the time as you write.  Just remember that a great many people around you think that poetry is just something for Hallmark or only a Dr. Seuss book that you read to your kids when they’re three.  In this poem, Ms. Wedmore seems to be very interested in simply telling a powerful little story in an unanticipated way and with beautiful language.  Ms. Wedmore was the Poet Laureate of her town; why not think of yourself as the Poet Laureate of your own area?

And look at those crooked little ampersands.  (That’s the & thing, in case you forgot its name.)  The first thing I thought of when I saw those twisted little beasts is an article I read in Poets & Writers.  So what is an ampersand, really?  Let Kevin Nance school you:

The modern-day ampersand is believed to be a descendant of an earlier Latin logogram—a combination of the cursive letters e and t (et meaning and)—that was part of a shorthand system invented by Marcus Tullius Tiro, secretary and former slave of the Roman writer Cicero.

The ampersand, as Alfred Corn is quoted as saying in the article, represents a little cognitive hump.  It’s not really a word; it’s a symbol.  The reader is looking at the words, digesting them with one part of the brain and then–WHUMP–the reader must use a slightly different part of the brain to accommodate the symbol.  The ampersand is a visual trick that you don’t really notice if you read the words aloud.  So what is the effect of the ampersand in Ms. Wedmore’s poem?  Look where they occur.  The poem is split into three sections, really.  The narrator describes her process (she peoplewatches at the mall), then her brief encounter with the brown-haired man and then the nugget about the tarantula.

Ms. Wedmore uses FOUR ampersands–as many as there are in the rest of the poem–in the second section.  Doesn’t that make sense?  When you have a chance encounter with someone and you feel the flicker of romance, doesn’t time speed up a little?  Aren’t abbreviations and symbols appropriate when describing the onset of love (or attraction)?  (When I feel that emotion myself, this is the symbol I use:

symbolI’m a little afraid about what that says about me.)

I also love the way that Ms. Wedmore uses the narrative “camera” in the poem.  She begins with a “medium shot.”  The narrator goes to the mall and looks at people and thinks about them.  A lot of folks are involved and it’s a very public time.  She then zooms in on one encounter between two people that may or may not have an agreed-upon meeting.  Immediately thereafter, she pulls the camera back to think about the way people operate with respect to the rest of the animal kingdom.  (Or insect kingdom.  By the way, sorry about the image at the bottom of the essay; I couldn’t help myself.  Don’t worry; it can’t bite you.)  By varying the perspective in the poem, Ms. Wedmore not only keeps your attention, but is able to make comments that are wider-ranging in scope.

What Should We Steal?

  • Subvert some of the common perceptions of poetry and show off your work.  Poetry is a beautiful expression of the human consciousness.  Be a proud representative of the honorable lineage of practitioners of wordcraft.
  • Employ the ampersand with knowing style.  As Mr. Nance points out in that Poets & Writers article, the symbol can be problematic, but it can also be a move that is graceful.
  • Zoom your camera in and out.  Where do the events of your story fit in the context of the world at large?  What about in the context of the protagonist’s life?

 

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