Monday, December 12, 2005

A Cloud in Trousers

Many poems can seem clever on first read. I read a few poems at an online poetry workshop (not PFFA) the other day and they were well written, rhythmic, even intelligent. But all four of them had the same major flaw in that they skirted around the surface of human emotion without really connecting to anything urgent. They played clever verbal games, but studiously avoided striking an emotional core.

I recognise the same tendency in some of my own poems as well – the ones I eventually grow dissatisfied with.

Then I read Larry’s thread in PFFA’s Voyages of Discovery Forum about Kenneth Koch and remembered this passage from Koch’s book Making Your Own Days:

“Putting inspiration to the best possible use is something one learns to do…Suppose the line comes to you,

I’m like a cloud in trousers

The least productive use of it, aside from simply forgetting it, is to throw it away in conversation… But supposing you recognise its possibilities for poetry; you write it down. One minimal use of the statement might be to make it part of a clever list:

Or like a night in gloves
A hurricane in a hat

Such a solution may seem superficial: one may want to be brought to something important – a strong emotion, a strong view of life. How could “a cloud in trousers” connect with anything like that? Mayakovsky finally used it as part of a long poem, of which one main theme is his strongly desiring, strongly suffering, wildly variable character - “I feel/My ‘I’/is too small./ Someone stubbornly bursts out of me,” he says of himself. And,

If you want –
I’ll rage on a raw meat
or, changing tones like the sky –
if you want –
I’ll be irreproachably gentle,
Not a man, but a cloud in trousers…

(Kenneth Koch, Making Your Own Days, Touchstone Books, New York, 1998 pp. 87-88)

It seems to me there’s a lot to learn from that little example. The four poems I read at that online workshop all fell within Koch's "minimal use". Getting to the heart of the matter is more difficult, but a poem won't succeed unless it does that.

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