ABCs of Poetry: K is for Kite

Posted by on May 21, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: K is for Kite

I grew up at the base of the Wasatch mountain range in Layton, Utah. On windy days, anything that wasn’t tacked down would take flight: Empty five-gallon buckets, drying laundry, trampolines–if wind could get under it, the thing would go. On less violent days, we would fly kites in the backyard or out in the cul-de-sac. These kites were usually cheap, bought from the Dollar Store or the Summer section at Walmart. After a few flights, they were broken. Eventually, my brothers, sister, and I started making our own kites, which were sometimes better, though the quality was inconsistent.

Here’s what we found through several tests: A good kite requires a light frame that forms the basic shape for the kite that the rest of the parts can connect to. This structure can be hard plastic rods, kebab skewers, spare chopsticks, really anything light and rigid. It also requires material that can be lifted by the breeze, typically a plastic or paper “wing” that connects to the structure and can bend upward to create a pocket for the air to stay in. This pocket allows the kite some balance as it rises. A tail, while not necessary, makes for a fun accessory, contrasting the kite which hangs in the air and stays relatively flat with the wild whipping motions of this dangling piece. Finally, there is the string and handle. The kite flyer holds the handle and slowly lets out the string, giving him or her some sense that they are in control; that they are, in fact, masters of the wind. There are more complicated kites in the world, ones shaped like boats or dragons, ones with propellers, ones that mice use for air travel (I don’t have proof of that last one, but it’s plausible). However, I find that a simple kite can do everything I need it to, which is to fly in the air while I lord over the wind on the ground with my string and captain’s hat.

But what does this have to do with poetry? Check this out:

Drivers leant over the rail. One seized my luggage
off the porter’s cart. The rest burst into patois,
with gestures of despair at the lost privilege

of driving me, then turned to other customers.
In the evening pastures horses grazed, their hides wet
with light that shot its lances over the combers.

That’s Walcott, from Omeros. This one is from Rossetti’s “Remember”:

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land,
When you can no more hold me by the hand,Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Finally, something a little more modern. This is from James O’Bannon’s poem “Watching fireworks at Kings Island Amusement Park, I cover my ears

in issue 10 of Spry:

I am just a black boy on the back
of a burgundy QX4 watching
lights burn holes into the sky
their booms eating deep
into my chest and my hands
are over my ears as if to say
I can’t stand this noise anymore.

The forms for all three are different. Walcott uses a variation of the terza rima made popular with Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Rossetti writes a fairly straightforward Petrarchan sonnet. Since I lack the deep knowledge of forms necessary to nail down O’Bannon’s structure, let’s call it free verse prose poem, with some interesting line shaping and rhyme scheme (QX4/anymore, et cetera). We can consider each of these structures as analogues to the kite’s rods, the bones of the piece. The structure is rigid, giving the poem some cohesiveness. Without the terza rima, Omeros is just a novel with poetic ambition. Without the sonnet form, we miss that image of the permanence of death juxtaposed against the fleeting nature of life. If O’Bannon had not given himself the freedom to start new thoughts in the middle of old ones we would miss the dual usage of “my hands,” serving both as the end of, “their booms eating deep into my chest and my hands,” and the beginning of “my hands are over my ears as if to say I can’t stand this noise anymore.” In all these examples, the frame keeps the poem in place, allowing the poet to build off of something.

In each too is the wing, that fabric that takes the air and rises up, those powerful passages that stick in our minds, that final striking word that ties every previous thought together. Because these wings are connected to the frame, they can look however the poet wants. I have seen homemade kites, however, with papier mache additions that unbalance them, making them either unable to fly or unable to stay straight. The same is true for the poet who wants to show off their fancy words or make too complicated a point or, as is in fashion, write some inspirational poem that, when read backward, has a completely different message than when read forward. This may get you a viral post, but it is hardly a poem. Remember that the wind does not serve the kite; the kite is subject to the wind. If not for the person on the ground holding the string, the wind would take the kite wherever it blew.

If we want to show off in our poetry, consider investing in a tail. This is a small doodad that differentiates one poem of a given form from others: Walcott’s not-quite ABA rhyme scheme, Rossetti’s deviation from Long-Short-Short-Long lines, O’Bannon’s abandonment of punctuation in his final stanza. Each is a great poem because the poet built onto the frame then added a tail that would not unbalance the kite, but enhance it.

Finally, there is the poet on the ground, flying her kite. Watch as she expertly dips and darts her kite across the sky. See her tilt the handle and the kite whips around in great loops overhead. Or, more likely, watch as the poet struggles at first to get the thing up to where the wind will even take it, and then, when the kite is up, she stands very still, grateful and terrified.

When we try to force a poem, like a kite, it nosedives. When we do the important work of building a frame, covering it with a windcatching wing, tying on an unimposing tail, and connecting some string to hold onto, with some effort, we can get the thing to do the work for us. A poet is nothing more than someone who has prepared by thinking about words, considering their sound, investigating their meaning, who then waits for the wind to pick up. We’ve built our kite and now we throw it in the air and run until it catches wind, then we stand back and watch what the wind can do. We have only enough control over the kite not to lose it. Everything else is up to the wind. And even then, the string may snap and the kite may be lost; we might lose the poem in the wind of creative thought. If that happens, we build another kite and try again.

Kendall Pack is an adjunct professor in Mesa, Arizona, who prays daily for a full-time gig. He graduated from Utah State University in 2013 with a Bachelor’s and in 2015 with a Master’s in literature and writing before realizing that there were other universities in the world. He has been published in The Disconnect and Superstition Review and is a former contributor to Utah Stories. He lives with his wife, Emily, a musician with far too much talent.