ABCs of Poetry: G is for Gesture

Posted by on May 17, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: G is for Gesture

suzy lafoletteAs poets we work on descriptions, on noticing the world around us and coming up with creative ways to share with our readers. How many sunsets can we read about and feel as if it’s the first time?

In Mark Doty’s Book, The Art of Description: World into Word, he writes, “Description is an art to the degree that it gives us not just the world but the inner life of the witness,” (p.65). In every scene of our lives, there are thousands of details. Every moment could be described down the the lint ball in the corner of the room, but as writers, we chose the most important details. We need to give our readers the information they need to imagine and feel the moment.

In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Fish” she examines the fish with a poet’s eye and the details of a learned fisher, as she describes the fish outside and in. As poets we are accustomed to this. We describe things, places, people. But what about movement? What about people and the way they move in our poems?

We are well versed at describing people, from head to toe. We share details about their hair and clothing, we give them words to speak in our poems, but what about their movements? What about gesture? This may seem like a concern for prose writers, not poets, but let’s take a look at what we, as poets, can gain from the prose world. In Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, she defines gesture as, “small physical actions, often unconscious or semi reflexive, including what is called body language, and excluding larger more definite or momentous actions. I would not call picking up a gun and shooting someone a gesture,” (p. 210).

Francine Prose claims there is no reason to give details like a racing heart, or sweaty palms when a character is arrested for murder. The event itself gives us that information. As readers we know that your average person is going to be stressed out as handcuffs are placed on them and the words “murder” and “miranda rights” are forced into the air. The interesting gesture in this moment would be if the character smiled in reaction to the arrest. According to Prose, that gesture changes the story, therefore it’s worth telling. How can you incorporate this kind of storytelling in poetry? Well, poems don’t always tell stories, or do they?

Prose’s essay on gesture includes a great deal of examples. I compiled a list of what she would classify as physical cliches and stock gestures:

Clenching fists=angry

Biting lip=nervous

Adjusting hat=wary

Sweet breath warm on the back of her neck=intimate

Her heart pounded=nervous

He wrung his hands=anxious

Some of my favorite poets have written entire books of poetry without a single description of a gesture that fits Prose’s definition. This may be because poets often use metaphor instead, branching off into a fantastical world where the character isn’t gesturing, per say, but rather transcending our world into something much more lyrical. In Laurie Anne Guerrero’s poem, “One Man’s Name: Colonization of the Poetic” she describes herself as a mother who “Walks the land. With these hands, I straighten/The spines of my children.” She turns, what would be an ordinary gesture of a mother straightening up the pillows on the couch into something much greater, the raising of her children.

Another difference between prose and poetry when regarding gesture is that the poet often writes in first person and doesn’t incorporate any other characters in the poem. In that case, the gestures are all described from the speaker’s voice. This highlights what the speaker wants you to know, in their own motion, rather than the third person onlooker, noticing that a character did something odd in reaction to a plot twist. In Marylin Hacker’s “Runaways Cafe II” her first person narration of a lunch she had with a young woman hightens when the woman’s thigh touches hers under the table and this was our narrator’s reaction, “My elbow twitched like jumping beans; sweat ran/ into my shirtsleeves.” Not only are these visual and concrete images, but they exceed the standard stock gestures and bring us closer to Mark Doty’s “inner life of the witness.”

In Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s, A Year of No Mistakes she weaves an incredible narrative throughout the entire book, using the first person experience of a woman who left New York City for Austin, Texas and shortly thereafter, her long term relationship falls apart. In the poem “33 + ⅓” she writes the words “LET IT GO on her hand in thick, black ink.” This movement creates a visual significance, but later in the poem she brings a greater weight to the narrator’s action when another character responds to the words she sees on her hands. “The barista…says nothing, but gives me my change with two palms: one reaching towards me from above, the other holding me from below.” This simple example of gesture, noticing a small and significant movement from a human being illustrates Prose’s explanation of, “descriptions of an individual’s very particular response to a very particular event,” (p. 210).

What are gestures in your life that have had significance to you? Make a list of 10 of them, write them out. I recall a moment when I sat next to a lover on a bench and she instinctively slid a few inches away from me. Significant, because a few minutes later, she told me she had been seeing someone else, was cheating with me, and couldn’t continue our relationship. What a significant scoot backward on a bench! Not the greeting I expected. This gesture was the first thing I noticed, the first sign of the change of our relationship. These are important moments we can capture as poets. Just as we may write about the beach, the sand, the sun sinking into the ocean. Don’t forget the people in our poems, ourselves, our movements. How much more life can we bring to a poem? How much more action?

Suzy La Follette is a master of telling stories because Antioch University gave her a paper that says so. She’s done some slam poetry stuff and won a few things. She’s published poems and stories with publications like Sinister Wisdom and Write
Bloody. She works as a firefighter, teaches cardio kickboxing classes in Austin, Tx and has a roast in the crockpot as we