Poetry, Chapter 1

Let’s talk about reframing.

Poetry might be overused as a term.  It seems to mean everything from “beautiful” to “meaningless”, plus the undefinable literary form of poetry which then gives rise to its prose definition…  The point is, ask most people and they won’t be able to tell you exactly what poetry is.  Of course there’s the dictionary definition— but how do you pin down poetry?  How do you pin down what’s poetic and what’s not, and what makes a good poem different from a bad one, and what lets some writers get away without capitalizing entire paragraphs while other writers get trashed for it?

I’m not going to try.

Well, I lie.  I am going to try.  But I’ll tell you now, poetry is so much more than I can ever tell you it should be.  If you think I’m wrong, good.  I’m wrong.  Give me a better definition.

Poetry, to me, is a reframing of one situation into terms of another.  It takes the present— yours, the author’s, the character’s— and reimagines it in terms of something completely unconnected, or refocuses it on the tiniest possible detail, or steps back to look at the picture as a whole.  It’s a reframing from the way we approached the situation.

Chicago happened slowly, like a migraine.
(Neil Gaiman, American Gods, GoodReads)

The above stuck out to me from the many pages of the book in which it was couched.  It’s poetic, it’s something that makes you stop and think, “Huh.  Never thought of it that way.”  The characters are on a car trip, and, well, yes— Chicago would arrive pretty slowly if you’re driving toward it for a long time.

But why this exact phrasing?  It happened “like a migraine”.  That’s structured as a simple simile, but it’s a strange one.  Why not “like a cloud on the horizon”?  Why say Chicago “happened”, instead of “arrived” or “grew closer”?  (I’m intentionally being dull here.  We all know Gaiman’s sentence is probably the best version of that sentence we could ever get.)  What makes this sentence poetic?

I believe it’s the explanation of one concept by the introduction of something completely different.  It sheds new light on the subject and makes a person think, but simultaneously sparks the exact reaction the writer planned to spark.  In other words, it’s showing, not telling, but showing so creatively and elegantly that we can’t help but call it “beautiful” or “poetic”.

But this is just a single aspect of poetry (reframing a situation via simile).  Poetry is obviously more than just that.  We could discuss a verb intriguingly applied to a cloud, or understatement as a tool.  How about another style of poetry that I mentioned, refocusing on a tiny detail?  Maggie Stiefvater has something to say about that:

So remember, it’s not that the parking lot is lonely. It’s that it’s empty, and there’s one seagull picking at an abandoned bag of cold French Fries next to an old Escort with a dent in the door and a dirty, crumpled battle of the bands poster.

(Maggie Stiefvater, Dissecting Pages for Mood)

Or how about the final one I mentioned, zooming out to look at the big picture?  Here’s some Leo Tolstoy:

There was nothing over him now except the sky—the lofty sky, not clear, but still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds slowly creeping across it. “How quiet, calm, and solemn, not at all like when I was running,” thought Prince Andrei, “not like when we were running, shouting, and fighting; not at all like when the Frenchman and the artillerist, with angry and frightened faces, were pulling at the swab—it’s quite different the way the clouds creep across this lofty, infinite sky. How is it I haven’t seen this lofty sky before? And how happy I am that I’ve finally come to know it. Yes! everything is empty, everything is a deception, except this infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing except that. But there is not even that, there is nothing except silence, tranquility. And thank God! …”

(Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Schmoop)

And this, also from War and Peace:

Looking down over the railing, Prince Nesvitsky saw the swift, noisy, low waves of the Enns, which, merging, rippling, and swirling around the pilings of the bridge, drove on one after the other. Looking at the bridge, he saw the same monotonous living waves of soldiers, shoulder braids, shakos with dustcovers, packs, bayonets, long muskets, and under the shakos faces with wide cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and carefree, weary faces, and feet moving over the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge. Occasionally, amidst the monotonous waves of soldiers, like a spray of white foam on the waves of the Enns, an officer pushed his way through, in a cape, with his physiognomy distinct from the soldiers’; occasionally, like a chip of wood swirled along by the river, a dismounted hussar, an orderly, or a local inhabitant was borne across the bridge by the waves of infantry; occasionally, like a log floating down the river, a company’s or an officer’s cart floated across the bridge, surrounded on all sides, loaded to the top, and covered with leather.

(Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Schmoop)

Of course, you could argue that the two above quotes are not actually a zooming out at all, but a focus in on the clouds, or the river, or the artillerist, or the column of men, or the officer in his cape, or Prince Andrei, or Prince Nesvitsky— and within the many facets of the second quote, a likening to the motion of a river.  And you’d be correct.  I think this final quote exhibits all three techniques in one.

But they’re all reframings.  The Maggie Stiefvater quote takes an empty parking lot and turns it into a seagull and a dented car, things we don’t associate with every lonely parking lot— but if we hear about those things, we can picture it all the better.  The first War and Peace quote is, I believe, moments after the narrator got either stabbed or blown up or had something violent happen to him while he was fighting the French, and he dramatically sets it all aside for a breath of tranquility.   The final War and Peace moment is possibly the most blatant reframe, where the soldiers become the river, a cart becomes a log, an officer becomes a spray of white foam.

Poetry is reframing.  The picture twists and changes into something completely different in our minds, whether through simile, detail, or generalization.

Further Reading:

  • Any of the books I quoted or mentioned in this post are worth the time.
  • If you’d like to browse through some literary devices, feel free.

Exercises:

  • Pick one of your favorite books or movies.  Find a moment that strikes you as poetic.  What techniques does the author or director use in that moment?  What kind of words, what kind of rhythm, what kind of imagery?
  • Write something poetic.  It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to reframe something.  Try to reframe in a way that hasn’t been done before.
  • Describe your house by picking on a single detail.  Now describe it by generalizing.  Now describe it by simile.  See if you can blend all three.
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