Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Poetry - Conscious or Emotional?

I went to a poetry workshop today. So you are probably thinking that I had lots of fun and felt extremely inspired and excited that I did. But I'll be frank and tell you that I didn't.

The workshop was very strange. I found myself surrounded by a lot of older women - upper-class, judging from their clothing, though that isn't to say there were no other guys. The poet who led the workshop, while nice, did not really have the same mentality to me towards poetry. She encouraged us to do exercises in free-writing and to not think about anything: we were to just tap into the energy of the words.

Now, I do agree that words have different types of energy. A word can have specific or variable rhythms, pitches, and sound; it
brings with it particular connotations, histories, and associations. However, that is precisely my problem with free-writing. I can't not think when I write poetry because I need to consider all these sounds and meanings and associations.

In my opinion, poetry needs to reveal itself to be conscious. If I just took a bunch of words, and slapped them into lines, I would not be able to say that I'm writing poetry. Perhaps it is just me, by the word "poetry" implies some sort of deliberateness, some sort of awareness in the sounds and the ways to play with words, and what I was doing today was just breaking things up into lines. (I guess you could do that if you were William Carlos Williams, but you could say interesting things about his use of meter). Honestly, I have enough of a problem calling a few of my works 'poems' because I don't feel like my use of language in those works is quite conscious enough.

Perhaps that is why I like rhyme so much -- because it gives the sense that the poet is aware of the sound, and that the poet is skilled enough to weave the rhymes into a meaningful pattern. Maybe I'm just more of a technical writer, and I don't mean I'm a science/engineering writer: I mean I enjoy using analyzing and using rhetorical techniques. Without rhyme, I feel lost. In fact, since I started writing again, all of my poems contain rhyme to varying degrees.

I think that "freewriting" just totally ignores the techniques that great poets have used in the past. I honestly don't think Shakespeare freewrote his sonnets; his metre is too regular for that. In the workshop, some of the women kept smiling serenely and nodding their head to everything the poet said, and in the back of my mind I just kept thinking "no... I don't really agree."

The workshop was just geared more towards people who wanted to open up their emotions and express themselves through an unfamiliar literary form. I don't have a problem with that. I did though start to feel sick in that room. The combination of the heat and the blatant emotionalism was getting to me. One of the upper-class women actually cried because she got so emotional. I didn't notice until she made a comment about how emotional the workshop was, and said "You guys saw me crying". Apparently she had transformed a line about life into a line about death. I know, I'm being really insensitive and cynical here. But I can't help it. I myself was starting to feel strangely emotional about nothing whatsoever and I just wanted to leave the room.

Is the role of poetry to capture overflowing emotions? Perhaps it can be. But at the same time, I also believe that the emotion in poetry has to be somehow controlled and reined in. There has to be enough skill present in the poem that I can believe that the poet is someone who I can trust knew what he or she was doing. Furthermore, everyone gets emotional at times, but I believe we have a responsibility to put that emotion to use. If we all just spewed out emotions and arranged them in lines and published them... then what good are poems? What is the poem's function in the world if it can't persuade, if it doesn't consider that there will be an audience, if it does not alter societal discourse in any way? What is the point of writing another poem when there are so many out there already?

I really don't think emotionalism and consciousness necessarily exist as two separate spheres. Indeed, I think the times at which I feel the most inspired to and capable of writing are when they act in tandem with each other: when I am consciously using metre, sound, language to express emotions, and when simultaneously I'm vividly emotional about this conscious experience. When I'm solely emotional, I don't write poems; I write diary entries. When I'm solely conscious, I don't write poems; I write flat, uninteresting lines.

I realize I do sound cynical, insensitive, and perhaps a bit judgmental and defensive. Also I do not want to deter or intimidate anyone from writing or enjoying poetry; however, in my opinion, there is a difference between being knowledgeable and humble about the techniques of poetry and completely ignoring them in favour of unbounded emotion. It is like saying anyone could paint a picture if they "looked to their heart for inspiration" - yes, everyone can do that, but it takes years, talent, effort, and luck to internalize an understanding of the elements of visual art and more to develop the technique and vision to employ them. To use another analogy, i could of course say that "everyone can do physics" but it takes years and years to get an intuition for the field so that one can make educated, well-supported hypotheses and create precise, accurate experiments.

Someone please comment and challenge my beliefs: I need an outside opinion. As for now, this is where my argument stands.

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Time for a poem, I think. It's a little raunchy, though (but you can skip over it if you find it is not to your taste).

Shove my face
Against your groin.
Grind it in.
I want to
Taste mouthfuls
Of that coarse hair,
Breathe nothing
But your body

scent. Pungent
Yet warm, like
Incense, incense.
Your body is my
Altar; here I'll
Kneel, please,

Please: drag my skin
Onto your flesh
Those rippling
Flanks and muscles.
Drown me in
Your dew, that cocktail
Of spit and sweet sweet sweat.
Wipe my tongue
Across the trunk
Of your hardened thigh,
Tense in its release.

Pin my
beneath my back.
Thrust my
against your chest.

Intimacy isn't a held hand
or a hug or a kiss.
is what it is:
Power. Control.
What you
(in a white dress shirt, tight trousers, a gold-clasped belt, standing upright. the spitting
image of politeness: as not to offend others.

pretending to be the same so they don't doubt that you're sane. your friend sits across the
table. he's wearing a nice shirt and sweater and an eighty-dollar scarf. you give him a hug
but you barely touch. there is idle talk, trite laughter. the only things you touch are the
stainless steel forks and the droplets that have condensed on your glass of iced water.

you pay the bill. another forty off your till. the bills, the bills. you have no will. you catch a
headline. the government adding a stupid law. you have no power, control, nothing raw.
Don't normally have.
in history, have men ever been so isolated, so powerless
so controlled, so bound
so false?
But I will Offer
You these.

Shove it in then.
Don't kid. Don't lie.
You and I both know.
That love's not real.
This is.

~Me, Nov. 18. Poem inspired by Equus (the play).
EDIT on Nov. 20: Added some lines at the end and shifted around some lines.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


There are some days when I look at the things I've written and go "oh my god, that's so crappy. That's an awkward sentence. This sounds like shit. This is so cheesy. What the heck was I thinking?" And today is one of those days.

During these times... I feel very powerless and frustrated. Writing is the easiest and best way for me to express myself. I can't really speak well - even in regular speech I stutter - so I turn to writing. When I feel like I can't write, then what am I left with? I am consistently amazed at artists' abilities to share their emotions with the world: they are so brave. How do they do it? How did Dido feel releasing songs about her father's death?

Just writing this blog already feels so draining, and not a lot of people even read it. I secretly do think of deleting what I've written here sometimes, or fantasize (with pleasure) about ripping the sheets I've printed my poems on.

But perhaps what keeps people like Dido going is their belief that sincere emotion can and must be a powerful persuader in a logic-and-rationalism-obsessed world like today's.

I guess one thing I've always liked about my science courses is that there is no swoop of the heart when I realize your problem sets are being read, no tug of emotions when you deliberate whether or not a line you've written is sound. In a problem set, you are not expressing your own opinions, but your understanding of and your own slant on what the professor wants you to learn. But as I grow older, I realize that even science doesn't quite work this way at higher levels of study. When one moves on to a PhD thesis, one's research project does require a lot of intuition, and creativity, and personal thought; hence, it probably does become a self-conscious and emotional affair. The grad students I've met have been wholeheartedly immersed in their experiments, frustrated when a setback occurs, and delighted when they make progress. Moreover, one's thesis would be read by people experienced in the field and the scientific community is probably as harsh a judge as its literary counterpart.

No matter what field I pursue, people are going to be judging my work: so I mustn't use these feelings of self-consciousness and embarrassment and excuses for not following my dream. Undoubtedly I'm going to write some crappy poems or some laughable articles sometime in my life. I will just have to remember that one criticism or one bad piece does not make or break a writer. These feelings will have to be overcome and ignored in order to generate discourse in society. Unfortunately, there is no undo button in real life (at least not until Staples invents one), but if I'm too obsessed with perfection or pleasing other people, I won't get anywhere at all.

EDIT: Just got my first piece of feedback from another writer, ever. Wow, it really is quite unnerving. This is the first time I have gotten affirmation that I have some (no matter how little) kind of talent, at least, and am not blindly reaching for a finish line that I don't have the physical constitution to reach.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Song Analysis: Dido's "Grafton Street"

While listening to Dido's "Grafton Street" for the hundredth time on my way to school this week, I got the, uh, brilliant idea to try my hand at a song analysis, reflection, interpretation, and review. A true songwriter, Dido's lips are closed when it comes to her songs - she's stated that she doesn't want to rob her listeners of the opportunity to interpret her songs. Also, I've mentioned her songs before, but I don't feel like I've done them justice. So she is the perfect person to interpret.

Dido's Safe Trip Home is one of my favourite albums of all time. I have never heard a collection of songs so poignant, moving, and well-crafted. The first thing that might strike you about it is the cover - which depicts, in freefall over the earth, an astronaut: a white speck among the boundless black. I feel like this image was perfect for the album (though the person in the image is allegedly suing her for it). In this song, many of Dido's songs draw details from everyday mundane life, and her lyrics often find her forgoing an ambitious life for the comfort and joy of home and hearth ("I might have been a poet / who walked upon the moon / a scientist who would tell the world / I discovered something new / [...] / but among your books / among your clothes / among the noise and thoughts / I've let it go.") The other theme that runs through her album is death of a loved one - specifically, her father's death. The cover is ambiguous. It suggests that the astronaut is leaving the planet and departing into the emptiness of space... yet, simultaneously, it also suggests that the astronaut is approaching the blue, glowing Earth, and that he is on his Safe Trip Home.

Anyway, that's enough about the cover. Let's get into the song! (note that I am really bad at recognizing instruments, so you'll have to bear with me if I make a mistake :( )

Here's a video of her song:

The song opens a soft, chime-like melody, which is quickly joined by the drums. The timpani repeating a subtle, low-pitched motif (B - D - B - D - E, though sometimes the notes switch up) which gives the song a tribal ambiance. Over the beat and this motif, Dido's voice glides and we hear a Celtic-influenced melody in the natural E minor scale. The song title, "Grafton Street", is in fact one of the main shopping streets of Dublin (Dido's father was Irish). The absence of a leading tone in the scale means that the melody does not generally have an obvious direction to resolve in. This helps to establish a subdued, elegaic mood.

The first two stanzas of the song have the same syntactical structure, as well as the same melody (with slight variations):
No more trips to Grafton Street,
No more going there,

To see you lying still while we all come and go.

No more watching sunsets, it seems
Like summer’s holding on.
And no more standing quietly at your window.
The third line evokes the image of a person (who we can infer, quite confidently, is her father) not being able to move from a bed. The speaker is reminiscing about the things she used to do with her father - having trips to Grafton Street, seeing the sunset together, watching him from his window. The rhyme between go and window is subtle but effective.
No more driving down your road
Wondering when you’ll be home.
And no more peace when they all leave and leave us two alone.
The initial downward arc of the melody changes in the 3rd stanza. Instead, the melody rises upwards. This change is accompanied by crescendoing strings in the background; both evoke a sense of swelling emotion. In the lyrics, Dido continues her use of the anaphora, starting her lines with "No more...". This suggests an insistent, grieving pattern of thought; it also underscores the swelling in the music. The image created by the last two lines feels haunting and real: the image of other people ("they") leaving Dido and her father alone so that they can share a heartfelt, father-to-daughter moment.
And time we always lose... is finally found here with you.
My love, I know we’re losing, but I will stand here by you.
These two lines form the chorus. The first line, I think, shows us that the speaker feels that any time spent with her father is infinitely worthwhile. The next line, "My love, I know we're losing, but I will stand here by you" has got to be one of the strongest declarations of loyalty and love that I've ever heard sung in music. These powerful lyrics and joined by vocal harmony, more powerful strings, and - softly, in the background - the meandering, wandering melody of a recorder.
No more calling friends from the car
saying “I don’t know when
I’ll be there but I’ll do my best to come.”

No more letting you warm my hands,
No more trying to take it in.
And no more saying goodbye for the last time again,
And no more saying goodbye for the last time again.
The verse's melody returns, accompanied by an insistent rhythmic figure in the double bass. The strings also feature in this section, creating smooth, swelling harmonies. In the lyrics, the use of the anaphora continues as the speaker reminisces about forgoing meetings with friends so that she could take care of her dad (the first three lines). She also tells us that she is unable to say goodbye again for the last time to her father - as he has already passed away. Yet, "goodbye for the last time again" is the only line in the song that she sings twice consecutively. The juxtaposition of this repetition with her inability to repeat this line to her father this intensifies the feeling of pain and loss in the song.
And time we always lose... is finally found here with you.
My love, I know we’re losing, but I will stand here by you.
The chorus returns, along with the vocal harmonies and the recorder. After this, an instrumental interlude follows, made up of an agitated, rhythmic woodwind melody. After several bars, the recorder joins the woodwinds, its high melody soars over the other instruments. The interlude reaches a cadence on the dominant (a minor chord, since we are in the natural minor scale).
No more trips to Grafton Street,
No more going there,
No more sitting up all night, waiting for any word.

Nothing’s left that’s safe here now,

Nothing will bring you home
Nothing can bring us the peace we had in Grafton Street.
The first line and the verse melody returns, punctuated by loud plucked notes on the strings. The absence of the drums evokes a feeling of sparseness. On the third line the drums return as she tells us about "sitting up all night, waiting for any word", which means perhaps she was not able to sleep at nighttime because she was waiting for the hospital's call.

On the last verse the anaphora changes. The beginnings of the phrases morph from "No more..." to the more absolute "Nothing...". "Nothing's left that's safe here now / Nothing can bring you home", the speaker says. The speaker now feels afraid and alone in the world; she knows that she is now powerless in providing her father comfort and love. The speaker concludes the vocal portion of the song with one last reminiscence of the trips she spent with her father on Grafton Street.

A long instrumental passage follows. At first, only strings and the drums can be heard, playing harmonies that reach lower and lower pitches. Then the recorder once again repeats its wandering melody, as the strings swell in response to it. Eventually, the drum fades. The strings and the recorder play together for a while; then the the strings die out one by one, leaving the recorder to play its final, haunting E.

One cannot help but think that had her father heard this wonderful and heartfelt tribute to him, he would've had the utmost pride in his daughter. This is without doubt one of the most poignant, poetic, and personal songs I have ever heard and I will carry its wisdom and sentiment with me when I grow up and inevitably experience some losses of my own.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

I met a poet

On a whim I went
to the lit committee's
event tonight.
I met a poet.

He started in science. Like me.
He took ENG201
with Professor Reibetanz
"Don't rush." This was
Professor Reibetanz's advice, to him.
and loved it. Like me.
Of course, it was a whim
so I was wearing a shirt
with some dirt on it.
But then he arrived late,
so I felt a bit better
about the stain.

He read from his poems.
I was intrigued.
There were a lot of
Hello? Can you hear me?
interruptions. And lot of
play on the words
you and I.
There is no synonym for you.
I looked at his book.
He wrote a sonnet
with computer loading symbols
interspersed between
words and sometimes syllables.
I wanted to read it.

I talked to him then.
He asked if I wrote.
I said I stopped for a while
but started again.

In his poetry book was
a poem called Etude in E Major
(the one by Chopin).
I told him I just played it last summer.
Anyway this can hardly be
called a poem. I'm en-
jambing lines when-
ever I feel like it. But forget
that all. I met I met

I met a poet.


Living in a media-saturated world is just so exhausting. Honestly. Sometimes, when I read TheStar or The Globe and Mail, I am amazed at the amount of stupidity that exists. I remember coming across an article on the G&M about a new research study that came out that "discovered" that television was making kids more distracted. Why stupid studies such as these ones exist is beyond me. Then there are the exercise more/lose weight articles. Reading Men's Health depresses me because of all the "Get abs!" articles they recycle. Reading many women's magazines depresses me because of all the shallow advice they give... as well as all the make-up advertisements. The world is superficial enough.

And the relationship columns. Today someone asked a column writer on the the G&M whether or not they should consider having a threesome. They both wanted to try it, but they were probably just insecure. The column writer was like "Well, I can't control what you do it in the end, but just be careful, it might ruin your relationship". Or that was the gist of it, anyway.

You know what that means! Time for Timmy to go off on a tangent about sex for the millionth time on this blog! I don't really think a threesome that all parties want ruins a relationship. I think what it can do, if it goes wrong, is bring issues such as lack of trust, respect, and communication into attention. Because if respect and openness were deeply entrenched relationship in the first place, there's no reason why having a threesome would change that. It is not as if your life undergoes such a drastic change that it can be divided up into "before threesome" and "after threesome" portions. If only one person in the relationship wanted to try a threesome and were trying to persuade/manipulate the other person into going for it, that would be a different story. There is so much irrational sex-negativity in the media.

I did, though, see a comment that said, "Life is too short to let fear and insecurity get in the way of exploring your desires. Have fun tell us how it goes." So I guess there is some hope. But mostly, there's a lot of group-thinking going on in the comments and it makes me kind of sad because I feel like the media kind of enforces this conformist world. The media shapes the subjects we think and talk about, and frames the ways we think about them.

In contrast, the arts, in which free expression is encouraged, is not really noticed by a lot of people. There seems to a decline in the appreciation of literature (especially poetry) and music in favour of (often shallow) radio-ready pop music, which is worrying. I try to be open to different modes of expression, and different genres of literature and music; I wish that others would do the same.

Which is not to say that "art" does not have its problems. "Classical music" and "literature" and "art" can seem like ivory tower categories--only accessible and enjoyable to the people who are privileged (i.e. rich and snobby) enough to have learned about their nuances. I get that. But at the same time, it is important to have an open mind to them. and not judge it by its genre.

Anyway I enjoy many other "common" (or considered less "artful" the academic world) genres ranging from country music to electronic/dance to pop to Pokemon music and I can see their merits all the same. Not to sing my own praises, but the important thing is not to limit oneself by saying "I don't listen to anything other than pop", and to judge a piece of music not by its genre but by its technique (whether musical or rhetorical), innovation, intent, and emotional intensity.

Come on world, stop this closed-mindedness, stop this group-thinking! (Though you can keep having group sex if you want *ahem*)