An essay on craft

How We Are Changed by the Rhythms of Poetry, published in The Writer’s Chronicle (9-09)

The most powerful poems take hold of our bodies.  They move us physically.  We find ourselves embodying the emotion, the way an actor does, not just observing it or thinking it.  For example, a poem designed to evoke anger does much more than give us information about the triggering event; it shapes our energy into the very rhythms of anger.  A series of words is chosen because it literally causes us to sputter and spit, stirring up memories and experiences from our personal past, reviving the emotion itself.

Even when we read a poem in silence, it is given voice.  Sensors attached to the throat reveal that the musculature is stimulated as if the words were actually spoken.  Thus, whether read aloud or not, poems are made of sound, and this sound manipulates us on the inside.  We are—quite literally—moved.   Muscles fed by the meal we ate a few hours earlier, by the oxygen we take in continuously, flex according to specific instructions.  Physical energy is harnessed by the poem and carefully, exquisitely expressed.

How is the energy inside of us made to ebb or surge, to keep building or burst out, to rush and then catch, as the voice does when it’s caught in a sob?  Clearly, the flow is shaped by the sequence of words we’re made to speak.  I want to show how we’re turned into puppets (willing and grateful).  Our limbs are left alone, but inside where our vocal chords move, we’re dangled and swung.  We’re made to dance—for grief, for joy…

You’ve probably heard this bit of advice:  smile in order to stimulate the joy.  Perhaps the idea was slightly repellent.  Twisting your mouth into the shape of a smile felt awkward and false; shouldn’t the feeling be spontaneous?  Shouldn’t real joy trigger the expression?  Apparently, the reverse is possible.  That’s why all over the world, people kneel or bow their heads in order to pray.  In a spontaneous access of humility and awe, one might find oneself dropping to one’s knees, but if reverence isn’t the starting point, then going through the motions, conforming one’s body to the shape of humility, can trigger the feeling.

Yoga and other movement arts exploit this phenomenon.  So does poetry.  The voice is made to recreate the patterns of specific emotions and states of being, and the feeling —whether of anger or depression, exhilaration or anxiety, confusion or expansion—is generated.  The movement is of energy through the body, not ideas through the mind.   Associations are made not via thought and logic but via the body and its kinesthetic experience.               more

To watch a video of the craft talk which led to this article, please click here.

And if you like this kind of analysis, let me know.  I’ll be putting out a newsletter soon, with craft tools and tips.  I can put you on the list…