Artisanship: The Power of Distance and Detail

Joseph Millar

In my MFA program, I have been studying how to give detail without giving too much. Many of my classmates call the act of giving too much information “word vomit” as if to explain is a regurgitation of distrust on behalf of the reader. This wouldn’t be so far fetched, in fact, due to the large amount of expounding I have to get out of me in order to get a poem to form. I envy people who can write a large poem with exquisite detail that appears that it came with ease. One of these said models that I envy, is a friend and on and off mentor I’ve had, Joseph Millar. Take this poem, “Dark Harvest,” as an example:


You can come to me in the evening,
            with the fingers of former lovers
fastened in your hair and their ghost lips
            opening over your body,
They can be philosophers or musicians in long coats and colored shoes
and they can be smarter than I am,
            whispering to each other
                        when they look at us.
You can come walking toward my window after dusk
            when I can’t see past the lamplight in the glass,
when the chipped plates rattle on the counter
            and the cinders
dance on the cross-ties under the wheels of southbound freights.
Bring children if you want, and the long wounds of sisters
            branching away
                        behind you toward the sea.
Bring your mother’s tense distracted face
                        and the shoulders of plane mechanics
slumped in the Naugahyde booths of the airport diner,
            waiting for you to bring their eggs.
I’ll bring all the bottles of gin I drank by myself
            and my cracked mouth opened partway
as I slept in the back of my blue Impala
                                                          dreaming of spiders.
I won’t forget the lines running deeply
            in the cheeks of the Polish landlady
who wouldn’t let the cops upstairs,
            the missing ring finger of the machinist from Spenard
whose money I stole after he passed out to go downtown in a cab
and look for whores,
            or the trembling lower jaw of my son, watching me
back my motorcycle from his mother’s driveway one last time,
            the ribbons and cone-shaped birthday hats
scattered on the lawn,
                                  the rain coming down like broken glass.
We’ll go out under the stars and sit together on the ground
            and there will be enough to eat for everybody.
They can sleep on my couches and rug,
                                                         and the next day
I’ll go to work, stepping easily across the scaffolding, feeding
the cable gently into the new pipes on the roof,
                                                                  and dreaming
like St Francis of the still dark rocks
that disappear under the morning tide,
                                             only to climb back into the light,
sea-rimed, salt-blotched, their patched webs of algae

blazing with flies in the sun.


The previous poem uses a keen eye but keeps a cold distance at first. The reader can feel the hurt, the pain, through the distance but even more so through the extravagant details employed by the poem itself. We can feel the chipped plates rattle on the table near the train yard. We can feel the weariness in the speaker’s voice. The distance, despite the pronoun I, is kept to where the reader can feel their own relationship to the poem and not feel like they are intruding on someone’s personal problems.

Another way to cause a discretionary distance between the poet and the reader is to accuse the reader themselves, or, in other words, utilize the pronoun “you”. The late Mark Strand has several poems that do this remarkably well. Here is an appropriate poem for the season, one of my favorites of his work, “Lines for Winter”:


Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself—
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

This poem speaks to me, as the reader, because it is directed at me. The shiver that coincides with the last line is effective, it would seem, every time. By giving himself the distance by using the pronoun you, and the details of a winter night, we receive a truth, a suggestion of it at least, that we could have searched our whole lives for. In reading this poem, we must acknowledge our self-loathing, which seems always right in the dead of winter, and embrace it only to turn from it. The power of distance and detail is that both are pivotal for the effect of the reader receiving the poem not out of pity, nor out of amusement, but urgency. The reader doesn’t hear the personal in the voice of the poet, but feels their own person drawn to the poem because it speaks of the universal.

mark-strand

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