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CW 206 Forms Packet: New and Nonce Forms (for 3/5) -Mary Szybist on Visual Poetry (from Graywolf Press) -“How (Not) to Talk of God” by Mary Szybist -“Notes on the Form of “The Blue Rock Collection” by Forrest Gander (from An Exaltation of Forms, edited by Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes) -“Didn’t Old Pharaoh Get Lost in the Red Sea: Theorizing Amnesia in Afro-Diasporic Maritime Literature” by Joshua Bennett -“Duplex” poems by Jericho Brown -“The Golden Shovel” by Terrance Hayes -“we real cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks -“Arbor for Butch” by Terrance Hayes -“Status Update” by Rebecca Lindenberg
Mary Szybist on Visual Poetry The first visual poem I lovedis not really a visual poem—or rather, it was not originally created to be one. Let me explain. I had loved George Herbert’s “Prayer”—intensely, beyond reason—for many years, and from the first moment I turned the page in Helen Vendler’s textbook Poems, Poets, Poetryto see her sunburst rearrangement of the sonnet, I found it deeply satisfying and beautiful.
I stress “from the first moment”; the form made the syntactical structure thrillingly visible, instantly apprehensible. By placing the word “prayer” in the center with all modifying phrases radiating out like spokes on a wheel, the sentence’s symmetry becomes clear: every phrase in the poem is a metaphor for prayer. This visual rendering also enacts the poem’s grammatical incompleteness. By beginning “Prayer the church’s banquet, angels age . . . ,” Herbert drops the expected “is.” Without a main verb, the sonnet is an incomplete sentence, a subject followed by a list of metaphors. The visual rearrangement enacts the suspended, verbless world of the poem.
Everything has equal weight, everything is attached to prayer as if by an equals sign. It was Simone Weil who first inspired me to memorize this poem, knowing that she had memorized and recited it often to herself while standing just outside of the church she was drawn to yet still refused, watching the communion she longed for but of which she would not partake. I understood that. Vendler describes Herbert’s poem as one of “radical amplification”; it makes the concept of prayer larger, stranger, and more inclusive. Her rearrangement makes the poem seem even moreinclusive, makes prayer seem like something open to me, something I could enter. In this version, one need not read in any particular order or even move through the whole poem: land on any “spoke” and it takes you directly to “prayer.” If the sonnet gains a more radical sense of openness through Vendler’s rearrangement, it loses something, too. As Vendler insists, “Because poetry is a temporal art, it has to unfold sequentially, one piece after another. First I say x,then y, then z.” As she notes, the poem may have a radialorder, but it also has a temporal one. In Herbert’s original sonnet, we do not “choose our own adventure” of prayer as we might in the sunburst version; we move through a human