Thursday, June 28, 2007


I'm stranded in the living room, mesmerized by television. The dogs are curled together on the corner of the sofa sleeping off a frenzy play inspired by my imitation of a chimpanzee. Michelle is sitting on the porch swing outside, reading a science-fiction novel.

It has been a good day. For no particular reason.

On such a day, when an early morning thunderstorm ebbed into a sun-filled day and a two-hour nap capped the day's work, could you imagine yourself sinking into blissful sloth with the merest whisper of conscience being squelched by the notion that nothing worth writing about crossed your path for the entire day? Nothing inspired you?

Once, in a graduate poetry workshop, a peer, who happened to be far more fit than the majority of students in that class, turned in a poem straight from the weight room, about a dumbbell. Now, I can't remember the poem itself or comment it on its quality. I do, however, remember that someone in class thought such content was not the purview of poetry—as though only love, death, and getting laid were acceptable. In retrospect, it seems entirely possible that the poem was, through indirection, about such themes. I don’t know.

Regardless, I remember becoming vaguely irate. Who, after all, were they to tell me what poetry could be? What I could write about? I defended the poem's right to exist and will continue to do so.

The subjects for poetry, you see, are like oxygen. They are everywhere and they, in some way, sustain us. If you can find such inspiration in a gym, a rumpus room, an electronics store, or even a launderette, brilliant!

Of course, if you believe that, you have to question the notion that an average day could bring no inspiration. Think, for example, of oatmeal. What could be more boring? Nevertheless, I've read two poems that use the image of that bland, clumpy substance to marvelous effect.

Consider the poem "Unfolding" by Jim Daniels. To summarize badly, the poem is about a relationship that's destined to break up and, incidentally, the loss of pet. Of course, that summary does no justice to the poem. Imagine for a moment if you decided to write a poem encompassing those subjects. Thinking about how I would fare is worse than listening to Radiohead without a handful of Prozac handy. As I've mentioned before, everyone writes about their pets and some point, typically leaving behind a few trite lines mired in uncommunicative bathos.

Yet Daniels knows this. In the second stanza, he suggests why: "You can't explain about your pets. / People just nod and change the subject." With this acknowledgement, which follows a terse, matter-a-fact description of the speaker's reaction to his dog's dying, the speaker also seemingly changes the subject, offering other ways to describe the relationship:

What country were we living in,
hacking through the tangle of phone lines
and junk mail? We kept our hands in our pockets.
We wore each other's faces on our watches.

and continues on to gloss the inevitable reunion and break up. The poem is an excellent example of a simultaneous narrative at work. Rather than simply describing the turns of the speaker's relationship with a girlfriend, Daniels also focuses our attention, ever so briefly, on another relationship, letting us, as readers, draw our own conclusions about how those two narratives inform each other.

In the final three lines of the fourth stanza, we have three staccato-like sentences. The narrative about the dog re-emerges with the speaker implying, but never directly making, a comparison between the keepsakes. Here, proximity works as a kind of figurative language:

Five shoeboxes full of letters.
I kept them under my bed.
I still have my dog's collar.

Now, look at the penultimate stanza:

Listen, all I can say is
she had oatmeal for breakfast!
Oatmeal! I could almost taste it.

I've carried this image with me for a while now, going so far as to prevent my wife, Michelle, from throwing away a packet of instant oatmeal because it reminded me of this poem. The final line seems to me a perfect execution (and perhaps a simultaneous rebuke) of T.S. Eliot's notion of the objective correlative.

Indeed, in the context of the poem, "Oatmeal!" does fulfill Eliot's criteria that "when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked." As readers, we could almost taste the oatmeal ourselves. More, we can sense the impulsiveness, delight, and apparent intimacy engendered by that young love. Oatmeal, of all things, becomes more than a simple, warm, and hearty meal to start your day (though I suspect Daniels would like us to keep such associations we might have with oatmeal in mind). It becomes a sort of symbol of both age and, well, love.

Nevertheless, don't think that it's necessary to utterly transform the way a reader thinks about a typical object in order to write about it. Consider, for example, the poem "Oatmeal" by Galway Kinnell. Like the poem discussed above, the theme involves loneliness. However, unlike Jim Daniels' "Unfolding," Kinnell uses the image of oatmeal in a manner more consistent with our expectations of that breakfast with a ". . . gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness to disintegrate . . . ."

From that banal beginning (gorgeously described), Kinnell takes us on a flight of whimsy, imagining himself dining with John Keats because ". . . it is not good to eat oatmeal alone." Yes. That John Keats.

I'll not take you through a close reading of "Oatmeal" as I did with "Unfolding," but take the time to read the poem closely on your own. Enjoy the appropriate little jab at Wordsworth and the close contemplation of poetry itself that Kinnell brings to this imagined dialog. Note the long, flowing lines that evoke the rhythms of the Bible, and finally notice how, from something as simple as a bowl of oatmeal with skim milk, Kinnell manages to work his way to a discussion of the sublime.

Something worth writing about, it seems, crosses our paths every day. To celebrate this fact, I'm planning to write my own "oatmeal" poem over the next week, and I'd like to encourage you to do the same. When I have what I think is a competent draft, I'll post it here, sacrificing notions of publication in a little magazine some day to let you see a brief glimpse of process at work. I can't promise that the poem will be good—only that I'll try.

I hope, if you want to write, you'll do the same.

For now, all the sentient beings in the house, except me, are sleeping. I'll join them shortly. Outside, a bank of cumulonimbus clouds blows in from Indiana. Perhaps my dreams will be thick and lumpy, too.

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Blogger Les said...

In the interest of full disclosure, Jim Daniels was one of my teachers at college and someone I consider a friend.

Hopefully, this does not interfere horribly with my reading of his poem or my suggestions.

1:29 AM  

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