Who’s Living in Your Poem? Frank’s Letter to the Workshop


Frank Rubino’s letter of invitation and inspiration to the weekly Red Wheelbarrow Poet’s Workshop of December 15

Hi Everybody-

I looked at the batch of poems we talked about last week and noticed a couple that got energy from biographies. I’m being purposeful about the word biographies because it conveys the ‘lifespan’ scope the poems work with. Mark Fogarty layers Mark Twain’s bio, Twain’s daughter, Susy Clemens, and his own life to create a stratified model of identity with a few links between the strata, such as the concept of “empty house”; Susy haunted an empty house, and the poem’s narrator returns to one, linked to the circumstances of his life by parallels in hers: the poem reverses the link, “I was thinking of Susy” to “Susy spawned thoughts of me” by presenting Susy’s facts first. 

Shane Wagner also creates a stratified biography, where the sub-basement is the narrator’s entire past, and the link to it is a feeling of regretful weariness in the present moment. 

It’s important to think about what the links are in these poems, how they’re made. Poetry can make links with proximity, vowel sounds, metrics. In Shane’s, the action of extruding the link like a vector, in a direction, from one layer to another is made by the verb in the first line “ I go back..” 

In computer science there’s a concept of rich linking called the semantic triple. The semantic triple has three parts, the subject, the predicate, and the object. Predicates link subjects to objects : “another child” “dreaming of” “a former me”; “a former me” “exists in” “a different now.” 

I see linked biography poems as graphs, with the biographical layers having connection points. There is an empty house in one biography, and there’s an empty house in the other. There’s a child in the past, and a child in the now.
Another concisely-modeled example of linked, multilayered biography, is Lan Chi’s death-bed Rashomon where the poem’s links are discrete family interactions bound to different family members’ lifelong relationships with the father.

Going back to last week’s essays from Rosanna Warren’s book, Fables of the Self (https://www.amazon.com/Fables-Self-Studies-Lyric-Poetry/dp/0393066134) In her writing on Geoffrey Hill she cites the linguist Emil Benveniste who says that language provides in the first person “I’ a reference to “no fixed or objective notion” Each I “corresponds each time” to “the person who is uttering the present instance of the discourse containing ‘I’” “It has no value except in the instance in which it is produced”
Each time time a poem creates one of those links between biographies, it creates a brand new I.

(It must say something that I keep coming back to issues of constructing the first person self with poetry.)

What links you to another life?

How many other connection points does that life have to yours? Does it connect like a bridge to yet another life?

How permanent are the links? Are they soluble in water (tears, the family pool)? Or can they withstand fire wind and seismic shifts? (Mine are stubborn cats) What happens when biographies become unlinked? Can you think of any other information models that poetry can benefit from?

Author: dzirilli

poet, cartoonist, editor of Now Culture

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