Big thanks to Samuel Peralta for bringing us today’s Meeting the Bar article..
A recent article on Imagism got me thinking of some of the other influences on my craft and technique.
In a bookstore in the U.K., ages ago now, I found a poetry book by Craig Raine. It was called “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home”. I didn’t know that, years earlier, this book had launched what would be known as the Martian school of poetry, a movement much like Imagism.
The title poem was a blank verse composition of seventeen couplets, with the first three as follows:
from A Martian Sends a Postcard Home
by Craig Raine
Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings–
they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.
I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.
I was intrigued by the title, and the cryptic words, so familiar and yet saying something so alien. That first word, “caxtons” mystified me – but being in a bookstore, a dictionary was close at hand:
Caxton, n [kak’-stuhn] 1. William (1422—91) English printer who published the first book printed in English (1475); he also established the first printing press in England (1477). 2. A book, especially of the type printed by William Caxton. 3. A style of type, style used by William Caxton used in his books
That second definition leaped out at me, like the answer to a riddle – a book – and everything in those six lines was instantly illuminated.
The wings are pages, the markings are words… I bought the book, devoured it. I was breathless, I read through the rest of the poem, thinking “Cars, wristwatches…” The strangeness of looking at the world through Martian eyes underscored its unique clarity, and gave me one more weapon in my arsenal of poetic craft.
You know how it is – when writing, it isn’t difficult to fall into cliché, to use timeworn metaphors and descriptions, especially when writing about ordinary objects and experiences that everyone is familiar with, for example:
The sun shines on the clouds.
From my verse “Not Play”
…The intonation of sun across the clouds…
This Martian sees with his ears! Suddenly that interplay of sunlight across higher and lower elevations of clouds becomes almost a musical scale.
Granted, fully embracing the Martian philosophy – trying to look at things through alien eyes – might be difficult (especially since those aliens may have multifaceted compound non-carbon-based eyes). It may not even be appropriate for all types of poetry.
But it’s an excellent exercise while sifting through ideas, writing first drafts, and it’s that fresh perspective that can lift your writing to another level. You’d be amazed at what comes out of that.
My sonnet “How to Sharpen a Knife” – came out of one such Martian exercise: Despite the title, the poem is actually an ars poetica, (“Your metaphor is your whetstone”), and poetry itself is the knife:
from How to Sharpen a Knife
by Samuel Peralta
Tendered thus, when you thrust the sharpened
blade between unwary ribs, it should rend
as if through parchment, shearing burnished art
past muscle, sinew, deep into the heart.
Go on – sharpen your knife. Come up with the unexpected metaphor, present the alien vision.
You’ll see that, with this technique, you can awaken in readers an immediate sense of wonder and revelation – the same jump of the heart I experienced, in that bookstore, when I first opened the Martian caxton.