Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Studying "Refusing to Baptize a Son" by Rodney Jones

I've invested the better part of a day studying "Refusing to Baptize a Son" by Rodney Jones, from Elegy for the Southern Drawl (1999). I have found that when you invest that kind of time on a single poem, especially one that you found remarkable and musical on your first read, the technique of the poet becomes more apparent. This is important when you aspire to write poetry of a quality that meets or beats those poets whom you admire.

For years, I have admired Rodney Jones' poetry. It is filled with intricate detail, but in a voice that seems natural and conversational. Jones is a ruthless observer of the actions and ideologies of others and of his own psyche. And while his poetry clearly reflects his own atheism, he often looks closely at Christian culture as he is exposed to it through his extended family. In a way, I read Rodney Jones' poetry as a way of looking into the mind and personality of one who perpetually resists the opportunity and invitation of faith.

This poem, in particular, "Refusing to Baptize a Son" deals with his conflict with his mother-in-law, who is described as "agnostic". One gets the sense from the way in which he describes her, that her quest to see her grandson baptized was mostly one of buying an insurance policy, that he should be baptized just in case there is a God, just in case baptism helps in getting you into heaven, if there is a heaven. The speaker of this poem refuses to play the game of going through the motions of doing a "religious" act, even to placate family. The speaker is a man of integrity, in the sense that he will not fake his way through a religion that he does not believe.

Here's what I came up with in my analysis of sound and structure. Rhymes are color coordinated. Beats (or stressed syllables) are in CAPS. Repeated words are underlined. The repeated motif of words starting with the letter "N" is marked by the first letter in CAPS and BOLD.

Analysis of "Refusing to Baptize a Son" by Rodney Jones

While the third stanza ranges from 3-5 beats per line, the predominant pattern is 4 beats per line throughout the poem. Having only 3 beats in line 13 emphasizes the information that the speaker's mother-in-law has died.

Overall Jones' poems come across as speech, spoken out loud. It is interesting to me to uncover that the lines are controlled through a regular beat pattern, indicating careful attention and craft that still creates the illusion of spontaneous speech.

I love in line 7 how booze only begets more booze, as Jones triggers an association with Jesus turning water to wine. It's as if he is saying that the Biblical story is foolishness, that in the here and now we move from drink to drink, each drink progressively stronger than the last. There's the implication that these two got raging drunk as they argued.

The repeated "N" sounds in the third stanza make for more obvious music. All the appearances of "Not" seem to slow the lines down, like rests in a piece of choral music. These pauses coincide with the pause for thought that occurs after her death and after time has passed. It's as if the speaker now has some distance on the argument and is willing to reflect on the issues anew.

From a structural point of view, it is admirable how each stanza has a strong rhyme or two imbedded in it. Jones allows his lines to be playful enough that he does not root out rhymes entirely, but he does keep them unobtrusive by keeping them away from the ends of lines, as they are more likely to appear in traditional rhyming poetry. This stance keeps the focus on the content of the poem, rather than on the style or music.

I like the narrative flow of this poem from the memory of his conflict with his mother-in-law over baptizing his son, to her death and reevaluation of their disagreement, and finally to his hope that his son will remember the love of his grandmother that triggered her desire to have him baptized. This progression leads naturally to his summing up conclusion. One gets the feeling of having accompanied the speaker through a complete train of thought.

I realize that the conflict in this poem is between atheism and agnosticism; however, the topic of baptism is indicative of the subjects that Jones returns to again and again. This poem, like much of Jones' body of work, reveals the inner struggle of an intellectual man with Christianity, and perhaps all religion. Jones repeatedly comes back to his condemnation of Christian beliefs and those who try to force their belief and or valued traditions on him.

When I read Jones' work, I often think that his criticisms betray a restlessness, potentially a nagging turmoil that he can't ever completely deny the faith of others. I think if he completely had rejected faith in God, he wouldn't have to write so much about his opposition to it. In other words, I don't see why he would invest so much in denying Christianity if he were at peace about his own conclusions.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Quest for the Biggest and Badest Poetry Toolbox: Part 3-Quantitative Meter

quantitative meter: used in "classical poetry". "Quantity refers to the length of a syllable, how long it takes to pronounce it. A line of ancient Greek or Latin poetry was measured by its number of feet."

foot: "a unit of one or several syllables in a set pattern."

dactyl: "in quantitative meter is a unit consisting of a long syllable followed by two short syllables."

This exercise shows my attempts at quantitative meter, specifically dactylic trimeter (three feet), in English:

Fragmentary Lines

Must I go bright as day round the sky?
Ought I go smooth as acrylic in bolts
Beautiful thoughts in the moon lit night
Thoughts of us fruitful and lounging in
spoon after spoon of impossible
sweetness and dreams without coarse reality
Hopes go beyond every womb, every tomb

Keith Badowski

Note to myself: While they did take time to sound out and think up, constructing fragmentary lines in this pattern was not extremely difficult. It would have been very time consuming to develop enough lines in this patter to piece together a unified poem. I suspect that with practice it would get easier. I can see, however, how in English poetry stress would impose itself as the lines are read. I'd like to experiment more with this pattern to the point of writing a entire short poem.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Quest for the Biggest and Badest Poetry Toolbox: Part 2-Cadence & Caesura

There's no telling who exactly convinced me to keep everything I have ever written. Vaguely I recall one of my English teachers counseling the whole class to never throw any writing away. The theory was that writing could always be rewritten, and if you had the proto-writing, you always had a place to begin again. There was also the hint of preserving your work for posterity, if you ever got good enough that anyone else would want to study your crappy, early writings . . . see how far you came. Suffice it to say, I bought the concept and have copies of just about everything I have ever written since middle school, with a few elementary school efforts still lingering in musty folders too.

As I set out to work on these exercises, suggested by Judson Jerome's The Poet's Handbook, it seemed a natural for me to recycle some of my old undergraduate poems. That way I did not have to start from scratch in the creative process. The proto-writing was there ready, willing, and able to serve. I could concentrate more on the skills that need work, like hearing accents and observing new structural possibilities. It saved me the material generating stage. I could re-use some old bricks.

Deep down there was another motivation for reworking old poems: the deep seeded belief that some of these poems actually deserve to grow up and move out some day. Perhaps by reworking them, I might find the inspiration to revise them to the point that I can send them out as more mature work. Perhaps that's a foolish idea. Perhaps I should burn everything and start anew.

Somehow I don't think that's going to happen. Let's see what actually DID happen . . .

Cadence & Caesura

caesura: "a pause in a line of poetry" (28)

balance: the relationship between "the concepts or images on one side of the caesura and those on the other." Sometimes the balance is "like" things, but could also be "contrast or antithesis". (28)

accent: a "strong stress" (28)

cadenced: "Poetry that is organized by balanced phrases and a loose regularity of strong stresses" (28)

Exercise (4-11-05): Lines with rhetorical breaks and definite cadence, using KJV of Psalms as the model.


The spider scrambles to surround the fly floundering for its freedom from wicked webs.
So comes the spider to spin its silk and with soundless ease it weakens the fly's wings.

The SPIder SCRAMbles to surROUND // the fly FLOUNDering for its freeDOM from wicKED webs.
So comes the SPIder to SPIN its SILK // and with SOUNDless ease it WEAKens the fly's WINGS.

--Keith Badowski, reworking lines from "The Prayer", circa 1988.

Note to myself: Reading these lines aloud to determine the accents, I already notice how there is a tendency to impose a metric rhythm overtop the cadence. The way I read the lines leans toward putting heavier stress on some words that should only be lightly stressed. For example, I am tempted to read the second line (above) with a steady regular beat, as follows:

So COMES the SPIder to SPIN its SILK // and with SOUNDless EASE it WEAKens the fly's WINGS.

A Wish for Breath

May you compose your songs out of wind as you soar into canyons and strain
to heights as you blow over cities less ancient then the idea of song
which was pushed into our tribe by mothers unable to wait for TV or sugar.

May your notes ever ping like gravel to beckon the buzzing crowds
to draw them into a hum or maybe a tap, anything to push around their plan for the day
to waft inside their air and be breathed but not consumed by lungs
or by speech so plain as to bore. May you wisp across the gleaming points,
may you spread across glowing hives and return my breath to sing.

May you comPOSE your SONGS out of WIND // as you SOAR into CANyons and STRAIN
to HEIGHTS as you BLOW over CITies // less ANCient then the iDEa of SONG
which was PUSHED into our TRIBE by MOthers // unable to WAIT for TeeVEE or suGAR.

May your NOTES ever PING like GRAVel // to BECKon the BUZZing CROWDS
to DRAW them into a HUM or maybe TAP // anything to PUSH around their PLAN for the DAY
to WAFT inside their AIR and be BREATHED // but NOT conSUMED by LUNGS
or by SPEECH so PLAIN as to BORE. // May you WISP across the GLEAMing POINTS,
may you SPREAD across GLOWing HIVES // and reTURN my BREATH to SING.

--Keith Badowski, entirely reworking "A Wish for Singing Breath", circa 1988.

Note to myself: I ought to do this exercise again, concentrating more on using "balance". A few of the lines in my experiment do seem to have balance, but in several instances I made no attempt to balance the concepts or images on either side of the caesura. The lines that seem most balanced to me are these:

The spider scrambles to surround // the fly floundering for its freedom from wicked webs.
(attacker // prey)

May your notes ever ping like gravel // to beckon the buzzing crowds
(sound // sound)

to waft inside their air and be breathed // but not consumed by lungs
(respiration // respiration)

Monday, April 11, 2005

Quest for the Biggest and Badest Poetry Toolbox: Part 1-Line Breaks

Over the last few months, I have been reading deeply in contemporary poetry. At the same time, I have also been generating pages and pages of raw material for my own poems. Whenever I resume this process of study and creative effort, I have the sense that I am missing some vital ingredient, some secret knowledge that would improve the results of my creative endeavor. So I have also found myself eagerly devouring books on the art of writing poetry.

Most of my previous poetry writing tended toward prose poetry, with some intuitive metrical moments thrown in. Mainly this style was due to my inability to master metrics. Periodically I would give metrics some attention, but usually give up on direct study after a few weeks. I'm feeling a sense of creative pressure right now to finally bear down and figure it out, even it takes a substantial time investment. I would also like to experiment with traditional forms in a much more expansive way then ever before.

Here's where things stand at right this moment: I have decided to take a get-back-to-basics approach. The plan is to see what happens if I start from scratch and act as if I am a beginning poet, asking the real naïve questions, and pushing hard to understand the history, definitions, and skills of writing metrical verse.

By no means, will I be limiting my exploration to metrics alone. It is my goal to be open to experimentation in every area of the poetic toolbox. I hope to acquire wide variety of new options in my writing, opening every opportunity as if for the first time.

As I take this journey, my copious notes, favorite quotes, unearthed definitions, and vigorous exercises will be written down. I plan to keep a running journal of my discoveries and realizations. You are invited to take the journey with me.

Notes and Exercises based on The Poet’s Handbook by Judson Jerome, Writer’s Digest Books (1980)

Line Breaks

Jerome’s commentary: “Rhetorical line breaks generally make for rather dull poetry. If. . . regarded as poetry at all, they would have to be called free verse.” (26) Jerome also noted a trend in early 20th century poetry, written in free-verse, using primarily rhetorical breaks.

Rhetorical: ”Line breaks that coincide with natural pauses or units of meaning--phrases or sentences or single words set off for emphasis.” (26)

Free Verse: ”lines that are of any length the poet chooses, without any set measure (or meter). “ (26)

Closed Lines: lines that have closure and resolve tension. Closed lines break at the end of phrases or complete sentences, making the meaning easily understood. (27)

Exercise (4-10-05): Try using some rhetorical line breaks, using closed lines, not enjambment.


is something that you rise above!

We don’t see things
as they are,
we see them
as we are.

Avoiding danger
is no safer
in the long run.

The fearful
of fate
as often as
the reckless.

--Hogarth, from a Marillion song entitled “Rich” on the album (1999).

Feline Mind

Paw prints lead
out of the house
and disappear
into high grass.

Late at night
head lights reveal
flicker of eyes
reflecting red.

Trying to sleep,
you wake to the sound
of claws clicking on metal,
and think,
How unearthly!

Their words
are wind
rolling in their throats
and they can push that wind
to blow you over
with a hiss.

Their cries
are the sawing
of violin strings
rising and rising
and then
trailing down
to silence.

Try to decipher
the curling
and waving
of their tails
like the wind blown
weeping willow branches.

Stare in their eyes
and search for their souls
and feign exchange
with their alien minds.

--Keith Badowski, reworking lines from a poem dated 1988.

Enjambment: “lines are deliberately broken in such a way as to tug against meaning. They keep jerking your around the corner to complete the phrases rather than letting you rest at the ends of phrases.” ”the use of runover lines.” “Enjambment heightens tension.” (27)

Exercise (4-10-05): Try free-verse lines, using enjambment to create tension.



is something that you rise

we don’t see

things as they
are we see

them as
we are avoiding

danger is no
safer in the long

run the fearful
fall foul

of fate as
often as

the reckless.

--Hogarth, from a Marillion song entitled “Rich” on the album (1999).

Feline Mind

Paw prints lead out
into high
grass. Late at
night, head
lights reveal red

eyes. Trying
to sleep, clicking
claws on metal, raise
the thought,
How unearthly!

Wind in
throats are words
grinding inside where
they can push
wind to blow
you over with
a hiss.

Their cries are sawing
like a violin
bow, such
friction rising and then
down to

Try to decipher the curling
of tails waving
like the wind
blown weeping
willow branches.

Searching for
souls, stare
into silted
orbs, feigning
exchange with their
alien minds.

--Keith Badowski, reworking lines from a poem dated 1988.

Note to myself: I noticed when working with enjambment that it inspired me to change some of the wording, cut unnecessary words, and drop some punctuation. It was as if by attempting to create tension in one way (enjambment), my subconscious discovered other options as well. For example in the last stanza, I changed "eyes" to "silted/orbs". In the Hogarth text, I ran together the words "run the fearful". Whether these changes are improvements is beside the point. I see it as a good reminder that a variety of revision strategies will always reveal new opportunities for innovation.