Take the poem ‘Qualm’ from A SYMMETRY (Norton, 97 pp., $26.95), by Ari Banias:
Patience. Anger and being told “be patient”.
The birds with orange heads and dust-colored bodies bob on the power lines.
The poet explains a patient is ‘one who suffers’.
Under the highway underpass, a chair fell over in the fenced-in weeds
against which a misplaced tenderness arises.
There’s reliable fun in establishing a pattern and then breaking it, the way Banias follows three end-stopped lines with a sentence between two. But the extra hole remains. The gaps suggest that connections between perceptions and feelings are weak – there is a sort of Humean doubt in the poem as to causation. That misplaced tenderness isn’t necessarily caused by the overturned chair.
The poem continues to collage and collect impressions, alongside image (“Where a clear opening in the cloud has closed / Inner tubes and shoes and life jackets flicker on the shore”) and statements of fact (“My mother lives above this beach. She watches them .”) and the poet’s thinking (“Four old paint drips / on the window pane I look at / at, not through” … “The day opens up like a compact, / mirror on one side / powder on the other .”) I love how this method imitates memory and evokes both scene and mood – a ghost in space-time, a person moving through the day.
In “Fountain”, composed in the same style, Banias describes the vague, not quite unpleasant alienation of an unknown place: “A motorcycle passes, a French police siren / You say sounds innocent, then we both laugh sourly. / I had for a while not to see a woman hit a child. / A truck reversing and the alarm going off for hours one morning. / Porn on a mobile device, its tinny echo in a room / With bare floors and very little furniture.” Again there is a pattern, and a pattern-breaking one: images flow and then the poet’s consciousness intervenes, with a startling insight or question: “Do you just know how to love another person / Like someone knew to turn those window frames red? painting?” “I don’t know the word for because. / So each act is disconnected from another.”
There is a passage in Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” that I have often thought of since reading it. In his first letter to the student who had written him for guidance, Rilke gives the most extraordinarily direct instructions for writing a poem:
“As if no one has ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. … Describe your worries and desires, the thoughts that go through your head and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all this with sincere quiet, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images of your dreams and the objects you remember.”
There are endless ways to write a poem, but this formula is timeless and infallible – describe your worries and desires, of course, but let the poem to think, too, and provide it with Stuff. The extraordinary mix of objects, ideas and emotions that make up a poem is the readout of all your lyrical decisions.