Works and Days

President's Summer Fellowship 2015: Nathan Martin - Part 2

An image of a tent and hammock set up in a clearing on a trail in Bryce Canyon.

My gloriously lazy hammock camp on a backpacking trip in Bryce Canyon - Riggs Spring Loop Trail.

Nate Martin '16, English Literature, is a President's Summer Fellow on a trip through the American Southwest with the goal of rewriting his connection to poetry by visiting areas where he first established that connection.

I was thinking about Sylvia Plath. I was reading The Colossus, and briefly read a poem called “Mushrooms.” I didn't like it much, and I started to wonder why. Why did Plath like it enough to include it in her collection? Does anyone like it? What makes one poem better than another? Why is one good, and another bad? Is it just relative, subjective? Is it about connections? Complexity? Simplicity? My mildly negative reaction to one poem brought me to questions about aesthetics, and, as sometimes happens when questions are piled up, I came up with some answers. But first I decided to try to write a really bad poem. Here it is:

This tree is like my heart.

I love mother nature,

And the sun is nice.

I'm happy,

Under this tree.

Is this a bad poem? Some people, perhaps my mother, would say it's sweet. It's nice. These comments are also ways of saying that something is safe. It doesn't challenge the comfort zone. Something else that makes this a bad poem is the opening simile. It's not explored. It takes up space and does little work. I want to see connections within a piece to itself, and I also want to see it connect to wider ideas. I also want to have to work to get to these connections. If they are too plainly laid out, then the poem is boring, preachy, pedantic. I want subtlety. This doesn't mean all good poems have to seem subtle. A piece can be loud, in-your-face, bold. The subtlety is in the form. A bold poem can have a subtle form. I realized that I used three qualities as markers of good poetry: interior coherence, exterior coherence, and subtlety. My little poem's greatest crime is a lack of subtlety, followed by scattered interior coherence.

Interior coherence is, in part, form. Meter, lines, stanzas. It's also in the content. Similes and metaphors within the same poem should have some sort of connection between them. Some restraint here is good. Too much of any one thing can be unintentionally overwhelming and incoherent.

Exterior coherence is best described as resonance. A poem might resonate with the poet's mind, but does it resonate with anyone or anything else? This is where engagement with others happens. It's the second hardest of these three qualities to work with. Interior coherence is easier to teach and learn.

Subtlety is the hardest. A strong grasp of subtlety may be what people call talent. But subtlety can be learned. It can be taught. Just not easily. One reason subtlety is so important is because a lack of it offends those who are sensitive to subtlety. This can be a problem because those people make up much of the audience for poetry.

When I came up with these thoughts, I considered them as axioms for a night. Then I remembered reading Atlas Shrugged, the book that taught me about axioms. I remembered how true that book seemed when I was twenty, and I remembered shrugging it off later.

So no, these aren't axioms. They're hypotheses. Maybe I'll shrug them off. Maybe I'll be muttering about coherence on my death bed. More likely I'll complicate them as I learn more about theory and experiment with piles and lines of words. I'm leaving it open.

Tags: presidents summer fellowship, PSF, poetry, desert, writing, travel, outdoors