What Can We Steal From Kim Addonizio’s “Divine”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Divine,” poem
Author: Kim Addonizio
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The poem was first published in the Spring 2012 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal.  The incredible Denise Duhamel and David Lehman chose the poem for the 2013 volume of Best American Poetry.

Bonuses: Poet John Gallagher offers some excellent analysis of the poem; there’s also an interesting discussion in the comments.  Ms. Addonizio is EVERYWHERE, folks.  Here is her Poetry Foundation page.  Here is an interview Ms. Addonizio gave to Poetry Daily.  Poetry, of course, is usually best enjoyed in performance.  Here are some examples of the poet reading her work:

Ms. Addonizio is certainly a fascinating woman; here she is performing with a blues band:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Free Verse

Discussion:
Guess what.  You’re stuck in the dark woods, a place where you are at risk of being flayed by werewolves and of meeting those creatures humans have created to keep their children in line.  Ms. Addonizio addresses YOU in the poem, using that second person swag to immerse you in a place rife with:

black trees

hung with sleeping bats

like ugly Christmas ornaments.

As the poem ends, “you” are left impotent and alone in a scary and dangerous place.

Okay, so this poem is in free verse.  Even though I love poetry (and all writing) of all kinds, free verse has always been a bit of an enigma to me.  There isn’t much obvious structure, is there?  No meter, no rhyme.  As Robert Frost said, writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.  Ms. Addonizio’s poem is a good example of how free verse DOES have a structure and how poets are definitely working within a series of rules in order to create.

Here’s the big lesson that fiction writers and other free verse averse folks can learn from “Divine.”  Even though the poem somewhat resembles a stream-of-consciousness explanation of a dream, each line of the poem is interesting.  Each line is a little poem unto itself.

Prose writers can take hundreds of thousands of words to make their ultimate point; poets have a far smaller canvas.  There’s a lot more margin for error in a short story, too.  So a sentence sounds crummy to the ear or a paragraph represents a little bit of a tangent…that’s fine.  There are countless additional opportunities for the writer to impart meaning.

Poets don’t have that luxury.  That’s why Ms. Addonizio ensured that each line had SOMETHING going for it…even if it’s only two words long.

oozing mayonnaise.

See?  Two words long.  Why shouldn’t Ms. Addonizio have simply hit “backspace” to put those two words on the previous line?  In this case, the words evoke a very powerful and visceral image.  (And a gross one.)  Oozing mayonnaise.  Ew.  The line also forces you to exercise your lips.  Read it aloud.  You have to go from the OOOOO to the AAAAAHHH.  Your lips pursed, then your mouth completely open.

Another example:

If you had a real one you could stab

Okay, okay.  What do we appreciate about this line in isolation?  Well, it sets up the next line, allowing “your undead love” to exist on its own.  I also love the momentum of the line.  Commaless, we run into that powerful verb without much warning.  “Stab” is a scary verb, isn’t it?

I also admire that the poem is abstract…but not too abstract.  Reading some poems, you’ll agree, make you feel as though the poet is daring you to get some meaning out of the lines.  (My students often experience this sensation.  It’s an unpleasant cycle.  The only way to “get better” at reading poems is to…read poems.)

Ms. Addonizio mentions that “you watched the DVDs that dropped/ from the DVD tree.”  Someone like my father–a smart man, but not much of a poetry reader–might struggle with the abstraction momentarily.  There’s no such thing as a DVD tree!  But when you think about it for a while, having been primed by the other “fantastic” concepts Ms. Addonizio uses in the poem, it kinda makes sense.  You can conceive of some kind of “DVD tree.”  (And if you think about it, is Redbox all that different from a DVD tree?)

Ms. Addonizio writes,

Ping went your iHeart

What?!?!?  There’s a new product from Apple called the iHeart?  type-a…type-a…type-a…type-a…type-a…wait for the network…click-a…click-a…click-a…click-a…

Hey, there’s no iHeart scheduled for release!  Oh…Ms. Addonizio is making a comment about the rote, mechanical nature of romance and attraction to which we all sometimes fall prey.  See?  The accessible abstraction allowed her to engender complicated and interesting thought.  (And she was able to do so with just six characters!)

What Should We Steal?

  • Make the most of each line, particularly in free verse.  Go through each line to make sure there’s SOMETHING for the reader to enjoy.
  • Keep your abstraction accessible.  Even if you never meet the person who is reading your poem, you are still performing for them.  You don’t have to take them by the hand…but you should at least hook your pinky into theirs as you lead them along.

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