ABCs of Poetry: P is for Puzzle

Posted by on May 26, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: P is for Puzzle

Reading poetry sometimes involves a degree of puzzlement. How are we to make sense of the abstractions and ambiguities of figurative language? How are we to comprehend the ways in which the sounds and rhythms of a poem create emotion beyond the words themselves? When one image is placed next to another in a surprising way, how are we to move past that delightful shock into understanding and even revelation?

Writing poetry, however, does not always involve the same kind of puzzlement that reading does. As we write, we usually come to a clearer and clearer understanding about what and how we hope to communicate. Instead of being puzzling, writing a poem, becomes a puzzle: the challenging, sometimes frustrating, often highly pleasurable process of fitting the parts of the poem together so that all of the poet’s tools (language, sound, rhythm, trope, form) work together to create a meaningful, though perhaps at times puzzling, experience for the reader.

Puzzles and the Pleasure of Revision

Helen Vendler once famously said of the Roman poet Horace that he “made every word count.” In fact, the best poems make everything count. Ideally a finished poem, like a finished puzzle, is unified and elegant: each word is in place; every line contributes to the poem’s total meaning; and every image, trope, and sound device works in the service of the whole.

Nevertheless, the process of revising a poem and the trial and error that leads to the finished piece is rarely straightforward, elegant or easy. Since each part of a poem interlocks with and affects every other, if a poet adds, drops or shifts something during the writing process, the entire poem will need to be re-examined in light of what we have just revised. Imagine a fantastic puzzle in which the pieces themselves seem to change shape, grow legs, hair, and begin to stoop just when you thought they might be captured and defined!

Puzzling Yourself: Writing with Constraints

Sometimes, even if we begin a poem with a good idea about what we want to say, it’s hard to know exactly how to go about saying it. To give our writing form and to make writing more fun and/or challenging, it can be useful to set the terms of a poetic puzzle by defining in advance the rules for how the poem should look, sound, and/or be presented on the page. These constraints could include the challenges of writing in a fixed rhyme and meter or in the form of a sonnet, ballad, or villanelle, but a poet can also devise constraints, or puzzles, for writing that offer a wide variety of options for poetic playfulness.

The French Oulipo group (a name that stands for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or “workshop of potential literature”) worked within a variety of whimsical constraints including writing entire novels without the use of the letter “e” and writing in palindrome. However, less radical constraints might take the form of limiting the number of syllables in a line or requiring the poem to use a certain trope, image pattern, or type of language. Other self-imposed constraints could include deciding in advance to include, say, an insect, a hairnet and a reference to a television program, to make use of dialogue, a pattern of internal rhyme, or to repeat the same word once, or ten times, in every stanza.

The result of puzzling a poem within the confines of constraints is often surprising since the restrictions work against our instincts, forcing us, in an effort to complete the puzzle we have set for ourselves, to reach beyond the easy word or well-trodden image. In this way constraints can inspire a poet to incorporate new ideas and innovative forms of expression. Like the tension between nature and nurture, a constrained poem is shaped not just by the poet, but by the structural “DNA” of the poem itself, so that the very puzzle of the poem becomes a poet when the poet becomes a puzzler.

Abra Bertman lives in Amsterdam where she teaches English literature at the International School of Amsterdam. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Beloit Poetry Journal, The Citron Review, Rust + Moth, and Slipstream Poetry Magazine, among others. Abra was nominated for the Best of the Net in 2016. Her poem “When the World Comes Home,” a collaboration with jazz pianist Franz Von Chossy, appears in the liner notes of the CD of the same name.