What Can We Steal From David O’Connell’s “Aneurysm”?
Bonuses: Mr. O’Connell was the 2013 winner of the Philbrick Poetry Project‘s chapbook competition. You can purchase his chapbook from the Providence Athenaeum or from Amazon. Here is Richard Merelman’s review of A Better Way to Fall from Verse Wisconsin Online. Here is “Redeemer,” a poem Mr. O’Connell published in Boxcar Poetry Review. Here is “Thaw,” a poem he placed in Rattle.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Lineation
Mr. O’Connell’s poem is a fairly straightforward description of a very sad event. The poem is dedicated to “P.L.,” who lived from 1974 to 2001; we assume that the young man in the poem has died during a very common rite of passage: jumping into a pool from a roof. Through fourteen lines, Mr. O’Connell communicates the sense of loss he felt and connects it to the kinds of loss that we all share.
The first thing that struck me about the poem is the way Mr. O’Connell prepares us for what the poem will do. The title? “Anuerysm.” The dedication? “for P.L. 1974-2001.” What do we learn about the poem from those two elements?
- Tone: the poem probably won’t be upbeat and carefree. Aneurysms are scary and unpleasant and we’re all pretty bummed when people die young.
- Subject matter: we assume we’re going to read an account of the young person’s death.
- Characterization: Mr. O’Connell is a character in the poem; the title and dedication make him seem like a solemn and respectful person…when it comes to this topic, at least. I’m sure Mr. O’Connell has a healthy sense of humor with regard to the appropriate subjects.
Mr. O’Connell introduces the poem in such a manner that the reader feels welcomed. While we all love writing that may be a little more opaque in its meaning, the opening of “Aneurysm” faithfully mimics the approachability of the rest of the text.
I love the way that “Aneurysm” makes use of lineation. It’s my impression that many beginning writers struggle with that jagged right margin. Ending a line is pretty easy when you’re writing prose; you just keep writing. When you’re writing a poem, knowing where to begin again is far more difficult.
Mr. O’Connell demonstrates the power of lineation. Look at the end of the first stanza:
the chimney. Sixteen, he’s on my roof
and then not. Cut by glare, his fall
So P.L. ends that first line on the roof…the reader moves his or her eyes down and to the left…and he’s no longer on the roof. The eye movement mimics the literal movement of the character in the poem. That stanza break also forces the reader into a moment of anticipation, even if that anticipation is subconscious. For that split second, we’re wondering what will come next. Let’s see how the effect would be ruined if we slapped all of the words onto the same line.
…the chimney. Sixteen, he’s on my roof and then not. Cut by glare, his fall…
See? We lose the tension Mr. O’Connell was smart enough to create.
Another great thing about the poem is the way Mr. O’Connell chooses an unanticipated and powerful verb:
the moment he explodes the pool,
Mr. O’Connell had a number of more conventional options:
- falls into
- dives into
- drops into
- descends into
- reaches into
- slips into
Instead, Mr. O’Connell has the protagonist “explode” the pool. Not only do we get an idea of what the narrator must have looked like upon contact with the water, but we get a better idea of how the pool itself must have appeared. Even better, “explode” is a pretty heavy duty word, isn’t it?
What Should We Steal?
- Welcome the reader into the piece. The title and first lines should communicate the tone, intent and subject matter of the rest of the piece.
- Compose your lines in such a manner that you create anticipation and reflect the events of your poem. Lineation is a special instance of cognitive understanding that is shaped by physical movements.
- Employ unexpected verbs. A baseball player can “hit” the ball…or he can “knock,” “slap,” “pound,” “slam” or “drive” the ball.
I’m not quite sure where this fits in, but the first line of the poem reminds me of what I guess I think of as “poet meter.” Is it just me, or do you hear this meter a lot when you go to poetry readings?
It’s not quite iambic pentameter, but it has that sing-songy quality that draws you in.