How Poets Figure Out What Comes Next

From a New York Times story by Elisa Gabbert headlined “The Lyric Decision: How Poets Figure Out What Comes Next”:

The poet Andrew Weatherhead once tweeted, “The best way to read a poem is to pretend each line is the name of a horse; so the poem is just a list of horses.” This joke says something serious about poetry. It calls attention to the line as a fundamental unit, which in some sense always stands alone — the next line could always be anything.

When I’m writing a poem, and I get stuck, it’s often because I’ve forgotten this principle: The next line could always be anything. The poem has free will; the future in the poem is not beholden to its past. This is true for any piece of writing, but poetry seems to foreground those choices, those leaps outside logic or predictability, as if the possibilities of what comes next are more infinite in a poem.

I’ve started thinking of this moment, this chess move where the poet breaks a line and almost resets the game, as the lyric decision. How do poets decide what comes next? How do they make us want to read another line, and another? There has to be a system of coherence to the poem — even a list of random horses has coherence, via theme — but it can’t be unsurprising either. A series of lyric decisions is how we write something between order and chaos.

I’ve noticed a formal trend in poetry toward the double break, creating white space around each line, as though the line were its own stanza. You can see examples of this in Jackie Wang’s “The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us From the Void,” Sandra Lim’s “The Curious Thing” and Melissa Broder’s “Superdoom,” among other recent books. This treatment on the page makes the line more quantized. The poem can feel mosaic-like, an arrangement of lines with implied contingency — it might have been otherwise.

Take the poem “Qualm,” from A SYMMETRY by Ari Banias:

Patience. Rage and being told “be patient.”

The birds with orange heads and dust-colored bodies bob on the power lines.

The poet explains a patient is “one who suffers.

”Beneath the highway underpass, a chair overturned in the fenced-in weeds

toward which a misplaced tenderness arises.

There’s reliable pleasure in establishing a pattern and then breaking it, the way Banias follows three end-stopped lines with a sentence enjambed over two. But the extra gap remains. The gaps suggest that connections between observations and feelings are tenuous — there’s a kind of Humean doubt in the poem with respect to causation. That misplaced tenderness is not necessarily caused by the overturned chair.

The poem continues to collage and accrue impressions, juxtaposing image (“Where one bright aperture in the cloud has closed up / inner tubes and shoes and life vests flare on the shore”) and statements of fact (“My mother lives above this beach. She watches them.”) and the poet’s thinking (“Four old paint drips / on the windowpane I look / at, not through” … “The day opens like a compact, / mirror on one side / powder on the other.”). I love how this method imitates memory and evokes both scene and mood — a mind in space-time, a person moving through the day.

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

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

“As if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. … Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty — describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that 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 think, too, and furnish it with Things. The particular mix of objects, ideas and emotions that make up a poem is the readout of all of one’s lyric decisions.

I thought of Rilke’s advice while reading Chelsea B. DesAutels’s A DANGEROUS PLACE and watching her make these decisions. Take the poem “Ghost Child,” which begins with setting and a belief in beauty: “All day the sun moved over the rock I sat on. / All day I tried to think like an elk. / I’d been drinking bad wine / from a thermos and counting the blades / on little bluestem.” The poem snakes between interior and exterior landscape. “And there’s the bull— / disappearing into the blackening sky. / Why did I come here, to get drunk among / the glade moss and deer flies?” The breaks in this poem are real ruptures: “What kind of body prefers cancer to a child? / But I did not want that baby. / The bull has already shed his velvet.” The past interrupts the present, then life re-interrupts — we can’t leave the present for long.

If any word can come next, any reality can, and a poem is a site for reversals of expectation, as in “Four Years Later”: “you’d think almost dying / would make every minute count. It doesn’t.” Or in “Broken Portrait”: “During cancer I pray to an unfamiliar God. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.” And later in the same poem: “I married a good man. He loves me and irons his own shirts. I’m spoiled. / I mean I am rotting.” I feel battered around by this poem, in a good way. I sometimes want a poem to abuse me a little, abuse my trust and shock me, to be quiet and then suddenly loud. In a poem, as DesAutels writes, there’s “no threshold between threat and tranquility”; “everything is actually / everything else, the stone just kicked / and whatever comes next are the same.”

Elisa Gabbert is the author of five collections of poetry, essays and criticism, most recently “The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays.” Her On Poetry columns appear four times a year.


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