The Lyrical Decision: How Poets Determine What Comes Next

Take the poem “Qualm”, from A SYMMETRY (Norton, 97 pp., $26.95)by Ari Banias:

Patience. Rage and being told “be patient”.

Birds with orange heads and bodies the color of dust dance on the power lines.

The poet explains a patient is “he who suffers”.

Under the highway underpass, a chair overturned in the fenced weeds

towards which a misplaced tenderness rises.

There’s a dependable delight in establishing a pattern and then breaking it, as Banias follows three set lines with one sentence out of two strides. But the additional gap remains. The gaps suggest that the connections between observations and feelings are tenuous – there is a kind of Humean doubt in the poem regarding causation. This misplaced tenderness is not necessarily caused by the overturned chair.

The poem continues to stick and accumulate impressions, juxtaposing images (“Where a luminous opening in the cloud has closed / inner tubes, shoes and lifejackets blaze on the shore”) and statements facts (“My mother lives above this beach. She looks at them.”) and the thought of the poet (“Four old drops of paint / on the glass that I am looking at /, not through”… “The day opens like a powder compact, / mirror on one side / powder on the other.”) I love how this method mimics memory and evokes both scene and mood – a spirit in space -time, a person moving during the day.

In “Fontaine”, composed in the same style, Banias describes the vague, not entirely unpleasant alienation of an unknown place: “A motorbike passes, a French police siren / you say sounds innocuous then we all laugh sourly both. / I hadn’t seen a woman slap a child in a while. / A truck in reverse, and the alarm that lasts for hours one morning. / Porn on a portable device, its tinny echoing in a room / with bare floors and very little furniture. Again there is a pattern, and a pattern break: streams of images, then the poet’s consciousness interjecting, with a startling insight or question: “Do you just know how to love another person / like anyone knew how to paint those window frames red?” “I don’t know the word because. / So each act is disconnected from another.

There is a passage in Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” that I have often thought about since reading it. In his first letter to the student who had written to him for advice, Rilke provides the most extraordinarily direct instructions on how to write a poem:

“As if no one has ever tried before, try to say what you see, feel, love and lose. … Describe your sorrows and longings, the thoughts that cross your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all of this with sincere, silent and humble sincerity and, when speaking, use the things around you, the images of your dreams and the objects you remember.

There are endless ways to write a poem, but this formula is timeless and foolproof – describe your sorrows and desires, of course, but let the poem thinktoo, and furnish it with Things. The particular mixture of objects, ideas and emotions that make up a poem is the reading of all its lyrical decisions.

About Christopher Rodgers

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