Aesthetics and Endings

Author: Laurie Saurborn Young

I think most poets have a poem that first awoke/broke/released them in some way.  That impact tends not to fade.  For me, that poem is “Listening to the Koln Concert” by Robert Bly or maybe “Psalm and Lament” by Donald Justice, which I encountered a few years later.  What was that poem for you, and how did it come to you?

I’m not sure I can point to a single poem, or poet. Books, yes. Sylvia Plath’s “Collected Poems,” Anne Sexton’s “Live or Die,” and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind.” My mom pointed me towards Plath and Sexton, when I was fifteen or so. Ferlinghetti I discovered at a now-defunct Waldenbooks, in the Asheville mall in North Carolina.

But if I had to point to a single poem, what comes to mind is Sexton’s “Pain for A Daughter.” In high school English class I gave a presentation of this poem, and I am sure few of my fellow students were interested in what I had to say. But I was so involved in the poem and excited about its existence, I didn’t care whether anyone shared my enthusiasm. It was the first time I stood up in front of people and did something I loved and talked about something I believed in because I so delighted in it, not because it was an assignment. Who knows what my grade was. Who cares? At the end of that day, I had Anne Sexton. In her work I saw how poets—especially poets who happen to be women—can speak directly about the body, and risk anger and criticism and keep going, imperfectly, regardless of how their work may be perceived.

In the work of Plath I first discovered the electricity of small spaces, the spark that can erupt when words connect in a poem. Juxtaposition drew me into poetry: here was a place, a way, to put words together in new and unexpected manners that could cause a whole unknown and unclaimed world to open. Maybe it was a form of escape? I’m not speaking in terms of narrative worlds, or of living another person’s life, but in the way that the sound and meaning of words combine to usher a reader or listener into a very different mental and emotional space than the one they occupied only minutes before. This experience is very tactile for me—it’s a recognition that occurs in the mind and the body, simultaneously.

One of the greatest strengths of Carnavoria is the incredible endings that close the pieces.  They are poems that resist a totality of closure and often burn down to this incredibly salient images–“a tiger with velvet eyes,” “bed of pomegranate and fire,” “humming into this flock of grackles.” Where does an ending come from for you?  What kind of advice can you offer for younger poets in this regard?

Sound is where I turn. What I trust. Of course, ending can be provided by form—in terms of knowing where to stop. What to stop with, is the poet’s choice. Straight narrative I shy away from, because I worry the story will dictate the end of the poem. Then the direction starts to feel over-determined and when that happens, possibilities are reduced and I’m left with a pot of over-boiled potatoes.

There is the worry that all one’s poems end with the same drum-riff. So I try to be aware of my habits of endings and make efforts to try and break them—while understanding I cannot remove my own particular self from my writing. In every word I put down on the page or screen or wall, my brain is involved in my choices. We do not get a birds’ eye view of ourselves.

So other than cultivating an awareness of one’s own patterns, the best advice I have and follow is this: I think a lot of times we write our ways into the poems and write our way past the endings. I believe (perhaps erroneously) Mary Ruefle said something approximate to this in a workshop at Warren Wilson, at least the part about the endings. So when I’m struggling with a poem, I tend to cut lines. Down and up.

The caveat is of course that sometimes this approach works, and sometimes it kills the poem. Poems have their lives and physicalities. Are they elastic, or brittle? If the poem is elastic, I can work with it. If brittle, into a file it goes. Sometimes with a little time, they can be invigorated, if I let them sit. Usually, though, I couple years later I read them over and think: Nope! Still dead! Every road ends somewhere, some in fireworks and some in wet flannel.

Two more advice-type thoughts: When you’re stuck, close your eyes and write down what you hear—we all have our internal beats and pulses. Our fundamental rhymes. Sound and meaning are ways the brain is touched. The sonic power of a poem can have much to do with the intended meaning of the poem or very little. Currently I lean towards putting sound first and letting meaning follow. But not always.

And: If you feel like you’ve broken something and possibility has erupted from the rift,it’s probably a good sign.

On this same line of questioning (though I swear I’m switching gears after this!), Anne Waldman, after reading some of my work, once asked me how I knew a poem was done.  I think she meant, what was the limiting factor that caused my poems to stop if it wasn’t pure narrative or sonic play.  I never forgot the question because I never know how adequate an answer I can offer to that.  But I’m interested in what you think: how do you know when a poem is done?

What’s the saying? A poem is never finished, just abandoned? Maybe that’s a struggle of free verse. If the poem employs a form—sonnet, ghazal, pantoum, etc—then there’s a container of rhyme or length to operate within. Or if there’s a narrative arc to the poem, then the ending of the story dictates the last line of the poem.

At the time, I do think I just know. Though I have to be open to the idea that as time passes and I re-work the poem, I will just know again and again. But, really, what more can we ask than to just know at this moment? The writing of Alice Munro comes to mind here. When I read her short stories, I always feel they are core samples of a particular moment in her characters’ lives. But not their entire lives. In the same way, I feel that I don’t want to put pressure on my poems to be responsible for covering everything, for knowing everything. It’s an impossible burden. Poems are our attempts to tell our truths—whether lyric, metered, narrative, free verse or prose.

I’m shamelessly borrowing some information from your interview with Justin Bigos here, but I pondered on the role of the small town or ruralness your work.  Perhaps it’s too big an idea to distill here, but how do you think your conception of that world that might lie outside the view of many Americans influenced the way you approach your poetry? 

That is a big question. Urban populations continue to rise while rural populations shrink. Farmers are paid not to farm and the line at McDonald’s wraps around the building. Yet each environment, city or country, has its own values and ways they contribute to poetry, in that poets live in each, or both, or neither. We’re everywhere!

Regardless of whether a poem is located in time or place or mind, what I’m drawn to—what I probably came to poetry for, years ago—are quiet spaces and jarring epiphanies. Turns and couplings and new ways of thinking.

But I do believe that the environment in which one grows up cannot help but play a role in one’s writing, whether the poems are grounded in that particular landscape or attempting to avoid it completely (in which case: good luck). I could base all my poems in NYC but I still grew up in rural North Carolina, and I think that would come through, eventually. No matter how hard I try, I’ll never have O’Hara’s city-ease—but that difference makes his work enticing to me.

Quite a few of the poems in Carnavoria were written when I was living on farmland in upstate New York and commuting into the city for a temporary writing job. At the start of the day there were three other people and four dogs within a mile of me. Three hours later I was sitting on the train from Hoboken, writing poems for grad school and traveling into the rubble and remains of the World Trade Center site, where the station was located. Even though the relationship I was in at the time was a shaky shambles, I would not have been able to work in the city without knowing that hours later I would be back in the shadows of trees and driving along twisting country roads.

There is also a deep concern in my thoughts—and this may come through in my poems, I’m not sure— with living creatures that are not human, and the natural environment, which we did not create but are exploiting in order to continue human existence. To what end we work towards this extinction of non-human life, I cannot really make clear in my mind. Writing and art provide readers with havens for consideration, for pause, for rest and reflection. And for engagement and energy, as well. As our world becomes more crowded and polluted, I think the safe space poetry provides will become even more important.

In truth, I would like to live in a field of cows that is adjacent to the MOMA that is adjacent to a wine bar that is adjacent to a country biscuit kitchen that looks out on mountains and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and is adjacent to the Point Isabel Dog Park that is itself full of many wagging tails.

I always love to know who fellow poets are checking out.  Who’s on your bookshelf now?  What is the book that made your day/month/year?

This summer I found a wonderful & small book by Lydia Davis, titled “The Cows.” It is about cows in a field and so much more.

I want to read books that lead me elsewhere. Maggie Nelson’s “Bluets” lead me to Patricia Alber’s biography of Joan Mitchell. I like intersections and histories, finding how artists and writers lived their lives and careers.

This summer I also read “The Collected Stories of Leonard Michaels,” and Michaels’ collected essays. One line from an essay stuck in my brain: “Transition as transformation.” This advice I am trying to follow in poetry and prose, and I’m finding it difficult to do and nearly impossible to know if I’m doing it at all.

Years ago my aunt gave me a copy of “The Love Letters of Dylan Thomas.” I’m not sure I would call them “love letters”—it seems they are called such because Thomas wrote them to women he was involved with. Throughout the selections, he’s either expounding at length about writing and career or pleading for forgiveness or so manic with love that you just know he was misbehaving the night before.

So, what’s the next big project you’re approaching?  What can we look forward to?

I am working on a piece of short fiction; a new poetry manuscript; a chapbook; a personal essay that is in its thousandth revision; and I’m learning (slowly) what it is to accumulate a cohesive series of photographic work. In the field and chasing the chickens and keeping an eye on a distant tornado and still every day what I learn is writing and art are all about patience. Patience in creating our own work, and patience in considering and appreciating the work of fellow writers and artists. It’s a beautiful circle.