Tuesday, November 01, 2005


I've been thinking about poems that use well-worn words like heart, soul, moon etc and why some work and some don't, and haven't really found any answers. Perhaps some poems work and some don't and if you have a poem that works and these words work within it, then you're onto a winner.

Carol Ann Duffy's new collection of love poems, Rapture, is full of these words, over and over again, and the repitition throughout the collection takes on an intensity that a single poem from it can't quite show. Of course, some people found the book dull. I read a review by someone who liked Duffy's first three collections but hated this new one. Other critics loved it.

One thought I had is that using language that borders on cliche shows a lack of artifice on the part of the writer, and that approach gives a love poem the impression of being genuine. Whereas a love poem full of fresh, original imagery looks more planned out, as though the heart had less to do with it.

On the other hand, I hasten to add that Duffy handles her poems with a skill most of us can only dream at. Handled with less skill, the poems could all have come over as stale and cliched, which is the way most love poetry comes over.

This is a poem I wrote a few years back:


The mind a drill ..... the heart
a lawnmower ..... the tools we use to make
ourselves heard by one another above all other voices .....
save them .....from rust
even if there is no garden..... no need to screw
holes in concrete walls to beautify a barren landscape ..... our inner
appliances crave more than appearances ..... what’s on paper
..... the IKEA kit for the soul ..... the how-to book of how
things work ..... the dry formulae of mathematics
and magic portions
..... permanent
as technology
..... silent as a star’s knowing
wink ..... so give us noise and bustle ..... the clang
of hammer on scaffold ..... last century’s kettles
snarling on the stove ..... the electric
hum of the washing machine..... its stagger between cycles
..... a lawnmower ..... a drill
to snow imaginary whitewash on the courtyard below
..... where grass has never grown.

- first published in Stride magazine.


Scavella said...

Maybe it has to do with understanding what those words actually mean and using them profitably. It's a bit like learning how to use certain kinds of spice. Or rather, how to cook specific kinds of meat (or unusual vegetables for all you veggies out there).

Rob Mackenzie said...

Yes, I'm sure that's a good part of it. if you know the meanings of words with precision, then you can use their properties in ways that bring familiar concepts alive.

I'm sure that Bill's comments in my "Poem of the Day" post three down from this one are also part of it - the idea of a "poetic rhetoric" distinct from cliché. That really would make for an interesting discussion.

Heather O'Neill said...

I liked your poem, and particularly enjoyed some of the linebreaks that you used within it. Thanks.

I agree. Craft and use of original language, and scenerio (not sure if that's the right word choice) can make tired words fresh.

Love, soul, and the other near blacklisted words are not banned from language. They only wait for someone with skill to come and revive them. Stick them with other words they've never been close to, or with, and they no longer sleep.

Heather O'Neill said...

heh. I think we're all kinda saying the same thing.

Good cooks don't drown mushrooms in chervil. They know how much chervil to use, and in which recipes to use it in.

Good food sells itself. Usually. It needs to be placed in the proper restaurant to be appreciated fully.

David said...


Go back to the poems that you are thinking about and compare and contrast them.

I bet you’ll find that WHY some of the poems work is related to HOW they work. In other words, the nebulous, metaphysical question of WHY a poem works can be found (at least to some extent) in the more concrete demonstrability of HOW it works.

You’ll probably find that the poems that work will withstand much greater analytical and critical scrutiny than the poems that don’t work. The simplicity of the poemS that don’t work will
be revealed as being simplistic. The simplicity of the poem that does work will be shown to be a well-crafted, complex illusion which is masquerading as Simplicity.



Rob Mackenzie said...

Heather - I like the cooking metaphor. Especially the idea of being placed in the proper restaurant to begin with.

David - The how undoubtably relates to the why. I'm not sure a poem always has to lend itself to critical scrutiny - it might work because it illuminates something in a surprising way, even if it wouldn't pass as critic-fodder. But yes, in most cases I agree with you.