What Can We Steal From Tory Adkisson’s “Harbingers”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Harbingers,” poem
Author: Tory Adkisson
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem made its world debut in Issue 4 of Four Way Review.  You can read the piece here.

Bonus:  Here are some reviews Mr. Adkisson wrote for The Rumpus.  Here is a cool poem Mr. Adkisson placed in Lambda Literary.

Very cool!  Here is a video of Mr. Adkisson reading poetry:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Pathos

“Harbingers” is a poem that consists of 24 three-line stanzas whose lines meander across the page (or screen)…and one extra line.  The first person narrator (at least in my view) is talking to a significant other.  Perhaps it’s just because of my own perception of relationships, but it doesn’t seem as if things are going well.  The boyfriend or girlfriend is told:

adkissonThe narrator imagines, it seems, that the two of them are game birds, just waiting “to be savaged.”

I suppose what I admire most about the poem is that Mr. Adkisson demonstrates a very high level of control over words and language.  The jagged lines and fascinating word choices make me think that he’s a surgeon with a scalpel and I’m a construction worker with a sledgehammer.  Aside from that, I love the way that Mr. Adkisson sublimates the poem’s powerful emotion in a practical way.

Most of us have been in a relationship that is or was…suboptimal.  It would be VERY easy to write a poem that is simply a string of expletives intended to shatter your ex’s Vital Lie, to render them broken and sobbing on the floor.  Unfortunately for me, that doesn’t qualify as great literature.  In “Harbingers,” the deep pathos is present, but Mr. Adkisson put complicated meaning ahead of the lower desires we all possess.  If you’re angry at someone, you probably aren’t as eloquent.  Calm and thoughtful reflection is really the only way that you’ll ever get the kind of understanding that lets you characterize troubled lovers as a:

adkisson2Compare the skill demonstrated in Mr. Adkisson’s poem to the lack of skill present in teen angst poetry.  We all wrote TERRIBLE poems when we were sixteen; it’s nothing of which we should be ashamed.  Here’s an excerpt from my favorite example, Devan Daly’s “Fuck You Poem.”  (It’s my understanding that all of the poems on that blog were submitted by the authors, so don’t worry; we’re not laughing AT someone…we’re laughing WITH them.)

devandalyMr. Adkisson demonstrates that we can still write with our hearts, but we should mix in a good part of the head, too.

There are many ways to keep yourself cool when you fight with a significant other.  You can think of all of the names of the players on your favorite baseball team.  You can say the alphabet backwards in your head.  You could even name different varieties of birds.

What kind of poem will result if you spend an hour playing with a list of words used to describe groups of animals?  “A ‘kettle’ of vultures,” you might wonder.  “What does that mean?  A ‘streak’ of tigers?  Fascinating!”

What could happen if you explore the 1882 roster of the Cincinnati Red Stockings?  (That’s the team that soon took the name of the “Cincinnati Reds.”)

What could happen if you pay some close attention to the transcript of the Apollo 11 mission?

What might you write if you immerse yourself in the Telephone Directory Directory?  (If you’ll recall, in old-timey times, people would refer to the first two numbers as letters.  KL5-1234.  Go ahead and steal this idea.  What can you do with these prefixes and the words people assigned to them?)

Okay, so let’s talk about the way Mr. Adkisson arranges the lines on the page (or the screen).  To the layman, it might seem as though he’s just plopping lines around.  A good reader or good poet can see some of the advanced technique involved in the composition of the poem.  Here’s a comparison.  I like tennis, but I don’t understand it on a very complicated level.  When I see the ball come to Chris Evert, I’m just thinking she’ll hit it back over the net, or maybe to the part of the court opposite to the part occupied by Martina.

Chris Evert’s advanced skill and understanding of the game, however, allows her to think about a very precise ball placement, the amount of spin she wants to put on the ball, the speed she wants the ball to have, foot placement that will allow her to most easily move to where she thinks Martina will return the ball…

So what advanced ideas did Mr. Adkisson have in mind while he composed?  I think he was considering the movement of the reader’s eye.  Isn’t a bad relationship like a maze?  Your eyes aren’t moving in regular patterns when you read the poem, trapping you in the same kind of confusion as a bad romantic situation.

And that orphaned last line, of course, has no friends, it seems to me, because the line packs more of a punch on its own.  I suppose it can be intimidating to observe the craft of someone who is REALLY GOOD at something you can’t do very well…ask anyone who is good at anything; you can’t dismiss what you don’t understand.  Instead, you must admit that you have something to learn and, in this case, take out a pen and mark up the poem until you get some ideas.

What Should We Steal?

  • Sublimate emotion when doing so will benefit your work.  Put aside your lower, more primal tendencies in order to free your analytical mind and advanced facility with language.
  • Play with lists and compilations and other kinds of fun documents.  What kind of poem could you write if you think about the top 100 singles of 1984?
  • Study the technique of other great writers and try to emulate what they do.  It’s the same idea that you find in sports; a great hitter must watch a lot of tape to see what great pitchers and writers do.  Then they must allow that information to percolate and become internalized.