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New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Characters in Poetry by Michael A. Griffith.

Michael A. Griffith is working on his first chapbook and lives and teaches near Princeton, NJ.

 

 

 

 

I want to preface this essay by saying that I am firstly writing about my own poetry, but I strongly suspect my opinions and ideas can be applied to a good deal of poetry written in the past 100 or so years. (I am not well-read enough in poetry from before the early 1900s to give any account for it.)
To begin, I will point to a poem of mine published online in the February issue of PPP Ezine, “Glass Woman’s House.” (https://poetrypoeticspleasureezine.wordpress.com/2018/02/27/poetrypoeticspleasure-ezine-volume-2-issue-2-february-2018/#_Toc507512979)

Glass Woman’s House

The glass woman,
seen whole only in reflections of others,

there in her glass house of shrinking windows
and growing shoulds,
a stone’s throw away from being revealed.

Shines in her sorrows,
shimmers in her fears,
shakes in her solitude.

Throw that stone, boy,
hurl the brick,
but aim away from the glass woman.

Hit her sorrows and fears,
strike the solitude and break those panes of should;
take up a mallet and ruin her house of oughts and wishes.

Let her shimmer in the light shining from strength she never knew she had. Then help her build a new house that’s not so fragile.

Readers have asked me who is the woman in the poem, who is the real-life inspiration for the central figure in my poem. I admit that yes, there IS a real-life woman who sparked my imagination to write this piece. But in that sense – if I were writing about and to just one woman – I could well have written my poem “Sally’s House” and all the instances of the more anonymous ”her/she” would become some woman named Sally you’ve never met. This poem then becomes of a bit less interest to you and perhaps I look a bit nastier for calling out this poor gal Sally. (I know no one named Sally, by the way.)
On the other hand, what if I wrote my poem like this?

Your House

You,
seen whole only in reflections of others,

there in your glass house of shrinking windows
and growing shoulds,
a stone’s throw away from being revealed.

Shine in your sorrows,
shimmer in your fears,
shake in your solitude.

I will throw that stone,
hurl the brick,
but will aim away from you.

Hit your sorrows and fears,
strike the solitude and break those panes of should;
take up a mallet and ruin your house of oughts and wishes.

Let you shimmer in the light shining from strength you never knew you had. Then help you build a new house that’s not so fragile.

 

This works fine, I think, making it a more direct finger-pointing poem. I bring the piece to the reader’s face and say “are you like this?” and, maybe in doing so, alienate that reader.
But what else does changing the gendered “her/she” words to the neutered words “you/yours” do? It means I can just as easily title this piece “Glass Man’s House” and change the sorrowful, fearfully shaking figure in the poem a man. And, noticing the poet’s name is “Michael,” a reader can now safely assume I am writing about myself in this poem. It can be seen as a plea for someone to come smash my glass house and help me be a braver and more open person.

Not a bad reading of my intent, because while I BEGAN writing this poem sparked by my feelings about a single person, the implications of my poem’s theme apply to all of us, we humans all who feel the world ought to work a certain way, things should feel a certain way to us.

I am certain William Carlos William had a particular old woman in mind when he wrote his famous “To a Poor Old Woman” ( https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51653/to-a-poor-old-woman) and I feel that the figure in the poem works so very well as an old woman. But had he written the poem about a poor old man, would it really have been any different?

To a Poor Old Woman

 
munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand
 
They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her
 
You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand
 
Comforted
a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her

Poetry works best not as reportage of the world but commentary on it. Thus Williams’ repeated insistence on how good those plums taste to this old person.

Reportage is a single line like “these plums taste very good to her” while Williams provides such artful and moving commentary on her enjoyment of the fruit. And reportage insists that the old woman is indeed a woman, cemented forever to the qualities of “poor” and “old” and female. Williams is verbally painting a picture of an instant in life, but he is adding a level of commentary that allows the reader to feel some of the emotion behind the picture.

With a poem focused more on commentary on aspects of humanity like my “Glass Woman’s House” allows some degree of a character to be developed, and since I ascribed that she is a woman, to the reader she IS a woman, most probably a real flesh-and-blood woman. In reality, she is a stand-in for each of us and I hope readers get a sense of that.

In poems that tell vignettes of life or seem focused on the writer’s own experiences and emotions such as “Chartwell” and “Without Child”, respectively, by Fiona Sinclair (Both of which appear in The Blue Nib issue 24 (http://magazine.thebluenib.com/article/3-poems-by-fiona-sinclair/) we fell the “I” is Fiona and that we are being shown episodes of her life, given glimpses of her emotions.

Perhaps this is the case with Fiona’s excellent and evocative pieces, perhaps not. We are tempted to want a connection with the writers we read; we want to feel we are getting to know a bit about them just as we feel we get to know a bit about Robert Downey Jr. when we see him play Tony Stark/Iron Man.
Here we are looking for a mix of reportage (I did this I felt that) and confession. Without knowing the poet’s intent, we should at least be aware that there is a chance that like Robert Downey Jr. is acting when he portrays Tony Stark/Iron Man, Fiona Sinclair may well be writing – artistically creating — scenes and vignettes, not reporting and confessing. The “I” in her fine works could be a portrayal or amalgam, not a recording, a character, not THE Fiona Sinclair who lives in Kent with her husband and an imaginary dog.

 

Chartwell
Despite your bulldog breed admiration for Churchill,
you have never visited Chartwell.
I suggest a day trip, with ulterior motive
to recreate sepia photo on our landing table,
where my father’s gangly body, cancer already ticking down to detonation,
is folded into Churchill’s favourite seat beside koi pond,
my 9-year-old self hovering at his side,
gamine hair making me half the kid he wanted.
Garden first I tramp ahead tutting as prankster sign posts
seem to be in cahoots with your aversion to being photographed.
Internally stamp foot, when we find after years of photo opportunities
the frail chair is now out of bounds, much like my father.
Nevertheless, suborn passing visitor to take make do photo, chair in back ground.
My reasoning behind this determined restaging, obscure to me as objects in a Turner.Afterwards, over thermos and sandwiches in car park,
I’d have liked your dad: yarned for hours no doubt
about cricket you both played to county standard,
but were bowled out of trials by wrong accent.
Both talent for Pythonesque stitch making humour,
your repertoire un PC characters nudge nudging my PC views.
father mowing lawn in mother’s hot pants and a wedding hat.
Your temper at bookies T and Cs, the fucking printer…
sending me scuttling into kitchen until your mood unclenches.
But at 7, could only sob in teeth of father’s rage at
my unruly handwriting, messy room…
Dad blowing earnings on sports car accessory for glamorous mother,
your Treat yourself after Cheltenham windfall.
Both secretive as spies, my father’s colluding chums
You’ve just missed him, unreachable in orchards, fields,
you disappearing into recesses internet, two of you covering
your walk on the wild side tracks with easy black and white lies.Six years ago, when you finally arrived like a parcel lost in the post,
my eleventh-hour sigh of relief saved from spinster shame,
basked in friends’ your blooming testament to novelty feeling loved,
Only after marriage, when best behaviours relaxed,
did I realise that I had text book married my father.
.
.
Without Child
My teenage fantasies gave birth to one of each,
imagination knitting them names and narratives,
until reality full time fostering my own mother.
Foot-loosing from her funeral towards every invitation,
spent my fecundity on degree, profession, books…
Entering last chance 40s husband light, friends unsolicited
examples celebrities who had late cropped,
but whilst they paused in shops crooning over baby grows
I strode straight past to new season’s ladieswear.Now despite my November marriage,
no biblical Sarah shocker for me.
In truth I find nurturing a garden strains my back,
bearing shopping stiffens legs.
But even so, given our combined dead-end families,
sometimes I scroll Facebook feeds like a one- armed bandit
past other people’s beaming full houses.
Yet despite 4 years Maudsley straightening me
from my own parents crooked parenting,
suspect I would either grant offspring every wish,
over seasoned the praise,
or mother’s beauty skipping a generation,
father’s sportiness leap frogging to son or daughter,
would trigger in me, family’s aberrant chromosome, jealousy.But at parties, difficult to ease my way into stranger’s small talk
as they top trump kids’ grades, gap year, graduation,
get away with smiles and nods until ambushed by Do you have kids?
My bullet No discharges accidentally like a gun that kills conversation
Sometimes though yummy mummy’s bold Aw you couldn’t?
wrong foots me and I hide behind shrugged response that
they misinterpret, taking umbrage on behalf sterile sisters,
assuming I would not curtail my travelling for needy toddler,
or suspend my trophy hunt career to taxi teenagers.
Then I am unsexed from proper woman to transvestite, harpy, witch.

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