Friday, November 13, 2009

Alice's Workshop

I’ve published some poems, but I’m not really a poet. What I mean by that is, I might write a decent poem, but I couldn’t explain why it’s decent. If a poem is seriously flawed, I generally can’t identify the source of the flaw; thus, I have no idea how to fix it. I can’t take apart a poem, like I can take apart a story or a novel to see how it “works.”

Still, there’s something so satisfying about writing a poem—a moment caught and saved forever or a thought made visible in images.

The poet Alice Friman says that writing a poem is like trying to capture a ghost. Imagine that someone gives you a sheet and says, ‘Find the Ghost.’ So you go around the room throwing the sheet into the air until, suddenly, there’s form beneath it—and that’s how you know where the ghost is.

“The poem is the ghost,” Alice says. “The words, the sheet that gives it form.”

I treated myself to a poetry workshop at the Writers’ Center of Indiana with Alice last Sunday afternoon—several delicious hours of considering one poems-in-progress from each of eight participants. Alice is a marvelous teacher, smart, practical, passionate about poetry. She sees what you’re trying to do and is able to make you see what’s actually there. (As opposed to what you thought, hoped was there.)

“What if?” she says. “What if?” Thinking out loud about strategies and solutions, surprising herself with her own ideas along the way, which is a pleasure to observe. But it’s your poem,” she always concludes. And it is—though always better once you apply whatever she had to say about it.

Here’s the poem I submitted—improved by the cuts that Alice and the group suggested. But I’m still not sure about the last stanza. I like it, but do I need it? Alice said, “I can live with it. But it’s your poem.”

What do you think? Keep? Cut?



I worked a whole year in this museum
and never saw the painting until that summer
you nearly died. The year of the drought,
the whole world burned brown,
so that sometimes, outside,
away from where you lay in the hospital bed,
the air seemed more alive than anything else, pressed
against me until I thought I could not breathe.

I came alone one afternoon, while you slept,
wandered the galleries, hoping
to find sadness larger than my own, made beautiful
and saw this painting
I had passed a hundred times, saw the care
with which Canaletto had rendered the architecture:
the precision of the domes and arches,
the perfect regularity of the windows,
the long balustrade above the promenade,
the repeating diamond design on the face
of the Doges’ Palace.

I saw the luminous pink of that building.
I saw the blue sky.
I saw people: quick, curved colors, sometimes
no more than dots on a balcony,
half-hidden by pillars--
like ghosts
like the second thoughts they were.

He had made the world first, I saw that
in the way the stones of the piazzetta bled
right through the men and women there.


Five years pass. It is November: cold,
clear, and I come back because I am happy,
because I think I know what this poem will be.
I will sit before the “View of the Piazzetta
San Marco Looking South,” paint
with words what I remember.

But the bench where I sat before is gone,
the walls are pink, the painting hangs
near the doorway to a room flooded
with sunlight, and the Doges’ Palace
dissolves into it, all the lovely verticals
collapse, leaving a clutter
of shacks at the base of the campanile,
hungry dogs, children at play, ladies gossiping,
tradesmen leaning into secrets--
in the far corner, a solitary figure
in a black cloak with red cuffs, vivid
as the bells that announce themselves
in the long shadow of the tower falling
across the square.

And I see
that I know nothing, I am prepared
for nothing. Each painting, each sadness
and happiness will yield to me
what and when it chooses.


andystardust said...

It's a lovely poem, but I think you can do without the last stanza. It's enough to know that what you see in the painting that November (presumably for the first time) demonstrates that the painting knows more than you do.

(I love that, for the first time in my life, I'm advising *you* on *your* writing.)

Barbara Shoup said...

I love that you're advising me,too!
Especially since I think you're right!

Betsy said...

I like it. To me, the first 2 big chunks make me sit and look in the direction you are looking. Like you're an actor gesturing yonder... showing me something I didn't know, something I might not understand. But then that last little bit zooms my attention right back on to you. I realize, in that instant, that you're talking about yourself. (even though I knew that - er... Ok, try this: For me, the voice goes from you addressing the public at large, to talking directly to me. Little ol me. It touches me that you'd speak so openly - to me - it catches me a little off guard and makes me go back and read the whole thing again, because you almost caught me not paying good-enough attention.
Does that make sense?

Barbara Shoup said...

Yep. Makes sense to me. But so does what Andy said. This is what drives me crazy about poetry. I don't KNOW. With a story, I know. Poems are a mystery to me. Still, they're such a pleasure to write.