Writers on Writing #111: Michael Hurley
On Expansiveness and Depth in Poetry
At the heart of poetry is imagination. This is the truest essence, its boiled-down bits, in that this is perhaps its most perceptible, identifiable, and able to pin-down quality. The rest is sort of floating in the air, and part of imagination is, of course, just that. Imagination, in this sense, and if we are being empirical about it, can be further defined by its two elements, both in equal parts: Familiarity, and surprise. Familiarity is that which is thoroughly of the world; the domestic, or the social, the urban, and perhaps to a fewer number of us, the natural. It can be in a nearby landscape, some long-stretch of road. Which is not to say the familiar must, as a rule, have been explored by the writer, “in-person,” as we call it, which is to say “in real life,” which we are careful to separate from the imaginative one. Even so. It can be a distant landscape, of course, or one that’s only been heard about; indeed, it can be an imaginary landscape, and a house you’ve never been to. But! That landscape will have rocks in it you’ve seen before; a sign you remember a tree growing over, trapping it there like slow goo. There is the overgrown part the crickets spring from. Or perhaps not; perhaps it is a wholly new place, an intricately rendered, unprecedented world, in which all things are new, and the names themselves are make-believe. Even so: I bet the feet on the path sound awfully familiar, I bet when the characters touch they feel something like something we’ve felt before, that the stones themselves, though they may be from something different than stars in this world, may be be called something else altogether, I bet they feel the same to the rubbing thumb, skip across the river exactly the same, regardless of its color and what strange beasts swim there.
Familiarity, maybe, from another angle, is the inherent limit of imagination; we are tied to our world, as if with rope, and the only new ideas are recombinations and recontextualizations of our plain old same ones, the same ones we’ve been having since fire. This could be discouraging, but let us not lose sight of the sheer largeness of the world; the recombinations are limitless, the source being our endless world, endless reiterations of the same things. We never make, but remake, and can go on doing so endlessly. But in that remaking, we make new. That car has four wheels, every car basically has four wheels, but what is that? Is that broken window patched with a tattered baby blanket? Or is the duct tape printed with tartan bands in the color of Easter cotton candy? Maybe we have something here; it’s starting to sound familiar. This could also fall in to a common precept, which I think is paradoxical in a way that has never, perhaps can never, be explained; the specific leads to the universal; the more detailed, the more specific, then, the more familiar, the more relatable, the more able-to-connect-with it becomes. It is something like, I think, lying with numbers.
Say you’ve got to lie about a number. I swear I did [this required thing] with this many [things]. It’s got to sound real, right? We’re not going to say 10. Or 100. Hell, we won’t even say 60, and even 65 has a repelling roundness. These numbers seem dull; too common; unbelievable; the smooth values of currency. Practically cliché. Who would trust you? But maybe someone says you’re late to some function, some work responsibility. You’re right, I wasn’t on time, you write, perhaps by terse email, because I was early. No one believes you Pinocchio; your desk was empty. We need some specifics. In fact you go on, starting a new line, I was there at 5:57. This is important. Yes, 5:55 would have been a whole 5 minutes early (assuming this job at the factory begins with the whistle promptly at 6.) 5 minutes early; admirable indeed! But no one trusts a rounder; 5:55 is the time you tell someone it is when you checked your watch awhile ago and don’t want to check again. 5:55 implies an around. I don’t know, it’s around 5:55. In fact, I got to work at (around) 5:55! No you didn’t. You were late, and it would do you a dignified service to simply admit it. No one likes a scoundrel. You tap backspace, maybe try again. 5:57. So specific. One thinks of times when one has been late, sweating still from the stairs, sitting down before squirming out of the winter coat--it is winter in this world, which we’ve all seen before, whether it was cold where we were or not; we can fill in what the windows look like, if there are any, on our own--and first thing, sitting down, and checking one’s watch. You don’t forget a time like 5:57. In fact, I got here at 5:57. My, he must have rushed in; what a punctual person! 3 minutes early! I like the cut of his jib! Hey man, you owe me twenty bucks; No, tell him the truth; You owe me 19.63. Because you can’t make that up. Who would do that? (This is how you want it to seem.)
This is the specificity necessary to the familiar; without that specificity, we encounter the white bread poem, the McPoem, the poem that may feel familiar, but is unmemorable; perhaps too familiar. Our most familiar parts, the most familiar bits of our lives, impress the deepest memories. Because the things of our lives, though largely mass-produced and identical as they may be between our many houses, the same pencil on every desk, these familiar things gain specificity in our lives due to an our-ness we bestow upon them when we incorporate them, in whatever way, into our daily doings. Once we bring them into our homes. The toolsets stacked high at Christmas time at Home Depot, perhaps thousands of them in the store’s entire stock; one of them, just one, a specific one, gains a me-ness when my father gives it to me. When he mentions he’d like just to give me his, but that he still needs them, and probably always will, the house always falling apart in one way or another. Things always needing fixing, and he’s not a man that would ever buy himself new tools. Any hammer can pound a nail; you can even use a rock. But the hammer my father gave me, as cliché a father-son gesture as that may be, the hammer in that set identical to so many others; I bet I could pick it out of a line up. I bet, at the risk of casting too wide a net, we all have a hammer like that, hammer here, being, of course, a clumsy metaphor for the objects in our lives that only mean something to us because of what they mean to us. My father is not one who gives gifts often; the scarcity of his gifts packs each one, no matter how seemingly practical they may be, with a unique specificity, that me-ness, which endows even the tackiest beer cozy with an elevated importance. My father is talented with making objects important in this way; making them specific. Another time at a garage sale, he bought me the contents of a hook machine arcade game, just the prizes, mostly pro-wrestling based; embroidered patches of Goldberg (the same one over and over) and key-chains of cartoon Goldberg flexing (two different ones, but lots of them). I think too a crappy plastic watch. He brought me just the prizes. Which is to say sometimes the things he gives have stories before they get to me; the same is true with thrift-stores. We all bring associations to the things we encounter. We make them specific, and we make them familiar, through this very interaction.
Let me try again: When my mother visited my grandfather, basically dying in Florida (I will do my best to point out clichés when I see them), he wasn’t too great at moving around anymore. His was an eventful life; the ex-cop klepto-maniac, coming off of planes with coats he didn’t board with, strolling out of the Dollar General with a carton of AA batteries he stole from an unattended stocking cart, saying to my mom Hey sis, Hey sis, which is what he called her, flashing the box from under the cave-flap of his coat. When she got there, to Florida, she had her grudges, and he had his. I want to get you something he told her, implying before, as in before I die.. And they walked two slow blocks to Walgreen’s, and he bought her an eight dollar casio watch, turning gently on a little lit pillar. He paid for it. My mom showed it to me. I’m sorry I can’t do more she said he said, and by can’t he meant didn’t, because that’s what we always mean when we say that. She loves that watch, even though it broke when she tried to set it. She could have taken it back; Walgreen’s are everywhere. But she wants that one.
Imagination requires the familiar in the same way a dream does; it is where the parts come from. When we think about it long enough, we can attach each strange detail, each bizarre juxtaposition, to a kind of logic; we can tie it to the “real life” things, places, and people of our lives. Everything, in this way, is familiar. Or, this way, we make everything familiar. It wasn’t you, it was this kid that sat behind me. But it was you. And it was our old house, but reversed with different rooms. But the same house, same you.And I’ve just been so stressed about working so much lately, is all. We remember, if only because we can. I know a girl who needs to care for everyone; her dreams are filled with baby animals.
Specificity, as luck would have it, also fuels surprise; specifically, specificity of use. If the familiar is made of things and their stories, their histories, the feelings people fill them with, surprise is how, where, and with what they are used, employed, and described. Your apartment is always dark when you get home, (this is familiar) but this time it’s full of people in hats making loud noises; a surprise party! All your friends are here. The only time I’ve been thrown a surprise party, I had a numb sort of panic attack. My brain couldn’t make it all fit together. My girlfriend’s parents’ house, filled with friends from school, on a summer night with plans to watch a movie. Still full from dinner. Open the fence to the backyard, and the familiar, specific parts of my life clashed together, creating a blunt sort of force that can knock you on the ass. This is an effective surprise. I felt like I was in a dream. But you’d grow suspicious if it happened every year. Don’t overdo it: Electric fences, like those used for horses, do not continuously send a current through their wires; they pulse. You can touch one for about a second, and it just feels like thick wire, thick wire like any fence you’ve touched before, a familiar sort of fence; you get comfortable, keep holding it. Think of something else, some previous fence. Not so bad is it? Surprise. Pick yourself up; wipe your knees off; someone just cut the grass.
Which is to say, for the surprise to work, you’ve got to be a good host; you’ve got to let your guests get comfortable, you’ve got to flaunt familiarity; you’ve got to let the party move into the kitchen, because it always does for some reason, no matter how small the kitchen is, and how big the rest of the house is. Maybe something primal about the hunt and the meal. But. You’ve got to let the guests have some freedom, you’ve got to let them feel safe, feel like they can wander to the bathroom without needing to ask for direction, much less permission; feel the walls, push a door open. No, that’s the host’s room; but you look a little longer. You look at the brands of soap while you’re in there, the various stains from life. This host is clean. I feel comfortable here. This place (and this is what you’re going for) reminds me of my place. It’s like you don’t know how your house smells until you leave it for awhile then come back. You’ve got to let your guests forget the strange new smells and awkward entrances; whether or not to remove their shoes. Immerse them in it all. It’s like they live here. Booze can help, and some guests may break away for cigarettes a few times before they really settle in. But those are often the last ones to leave.
Now we’re having fun. Now we’re speaking off the cuff. Now we can admire specifics, now we can toast the universal. We can start shooting the shit. We are all familiar here, or at least we feel like it. This reminds us of something; maybe that surprise party from before. My mom had this couch! Does that gas-mask say Pittsburgh? Why do you have a cross-bow? Maybe the popcorn catches fire; surprise! Gotcha. Haunted houses make you wait in line for lots of reasons. But one of the most important ones is getting you to put your guard down. Lines are boring. Get comfortable. Make up an alphabet game. Stare into your phone. Boo.
Surprise can get away from us though, as it seems it has. Surprise, for example, when improperly handled, can be all shock-factor: Most c-words in poems feel this way, the same way they do when people use them “in real-life.” Or just ignorant. Anyone can whip out their dick on a stage. This kind of surprise, the sudden gratuity (sex and violence work similarly here) in a place you least expect it, basically work like dirty jokes; Can you believe I just said that?! always being the real punchline. This is surprise gone awry; hollow surprise, surprise for the sake of it. A surprise that does nothing, gets nothing done. The surprise party where people get bored waiting too long for the person that it’s for; when you walk in, it just seems like a bunch of people are at your house. And one of them has his dick out. Happy birthday to you. This effect, when surprise is combined with the wrong kind of familiarity, has relations to a type of surrealism, which we distinguish here as well. Surrealism, here, is somewhat derogatory, in the vein of “shock-factor”; by which I mean it as a placeholder, implying not just surrealism, but surrealism done poorly; that is, the merely surreal. A kind of stereotypical surreal; pink elephants and the like. Superficially strange. The surreal exists solely in service of surprise, at the expense of familiarity, which it uses only in one way: juxtaposition. The surreal, at its core, is just the everyday made to mean different things. Things in different order. Things surrounded by different things than they usually are. I’ve known clocks, and I’ve known melting, but clocks that melt!. One is reminded of the old wisdom for hackney inventors: When in doubt, add a clock, and call it something different. The surreal makes a career out of adding clocks; yes, adding clocks, with chickens, with a huge fudgesicle that melts into rivers big enough to kayak through. All things we know, just in different order, different proportions. One is also reminded of the old bartender wisdom: When in doubt, make it pink. Different ingredients, sure, but in the end, they’re all pink; all the hollow surreal. Just a splash of cran. The surreal gets off on surprising the familiar by rearrangement; the cat in a blender, the egg made of cheese in the peacock made of cat hair. The parts of our life mixed with other parts of our life, all in mixed up places. Indeed, the things of dreams, which are really just scrambled deja vus.
To be clear, the difference between this derogatory surrealism and the authentic surprise is their differing implementation of and relationship to the familiar; where surrealism simply seeks to rearrange the familiar like so many brands of shampoo on a long store-shelf (though, it’s true, select shampoos may be made from the yolks of ostrich eggs, others from horses dressed like chandeliers), the authentic surprise seeks to truly connect, through the universality of its specificity: like that lady with the tuna breath in the shampoo aisle at the store you bought that pregnancy test that made the rest of the trip okay. Afterwards, corndogs. What was it, a Circle K, or the one with the dinosaur logo? The derogatory surreal is remembered for its strangeness. The authentic surprise is remembered for its evocation of memory; the surprise, itself, making us remember something familiar differently.
The most resonant manifestation of surprise, the most oft-used lego, is the image. The effective image is made inherently of surprise, due to the focus it attracts and requires. The isolated mind-picture. The surprise attention to a piece of stillness. The image, when properly employed, surprises us with the connection we make to it; we are not used, “in real-life,” to looking at things quite this closely. The next thing is always upon us. The effective image, even the most seemingly mundane, is surprising because of the focus we apply to it; it surprises us, over and over again, every time, that words can make us feel this way, make us remember the familiar, make us focus like this on the parts that make up our world, and inspire them to make them in our minds when they are not present. We are constantly surprised by our capacity to do just this. The trick of the image is not to ruin that surprise with an overdose of the familiar; this is where cliché becomes an issue. Surely, not all suns burn like fire, not all rains include house-pets. This becomes more complex considering what is known ominously as the tradition; the seemingly unfamiliar can seem awfully familiar when viewed through the lens of the tradition. Yes, flowers are beautiful. Yes. Love hurts. Everybody hurts. Your eyes are diamonds. I’m so sad I can’t breathe. There are three sets of footprints on a beach. Imagination is the heart of poetry. Eyes, soul-windows. Is that a bird you’ve hung around your neck? This is the wrong kind of familiar; any familiar that reminds us of the tradition is the wrong kind of familiar, unless that is exactly what’s intended, and nothing more.
The tradition, in this view, can be seen as having two sides in which to divide its makers: those of craft, and those of art. Important to note is that these can be within the same person; perhaps that is most ideal. Important to note also that just as the familiar and the surprise must combine, and in specific doses and fashions, in order to effectively render the truly imaginative, those of the craft and those of the art must do just the same in order to truly embody the tradition; which is to say, both are “equal” (a semi-hollow word when speaking of figurative things), or to be more practical, required. Necessary. The craft, and the art. Those of the craft know poems by heart. They have a tidiness to them. Know the names of syllabic pieces of words. Can rattle off a list of favorites. Their poems are like small machines. Those of the craft are more humble, more disciplined. They write every morning. Sometimes they go for runs. They are like astronomers, counting the stars, and never becoming overwhelmed; it is the counting, the learning of the names others have given, that makes the stars so beautiful. I would eat one if I could they say, reaching skyward. Get one of those of the craft talking about poetry; people are beautiful to watch when they talk about their favorite things. It’s really something.
Those of the art take showers sitting down. They chain-smoke like stereotypes. Sometimes they die too early. They are just trying to rest their busy minds; there is a neurosis here. Their poems are often blasphemous, smeared across the walls. The more stable ones realize late the shit they were working out. Some of them get over it. They are led by the kind of passion and fire that makes clichés worthwhile; they are responsible for much of the aforementioned shock-factor, in their early, loudest look-at-me stages (one of the biggest pitfalls on this side of things), and are responsible for most of the whiskey bottles and cigarettes that gesture so unauthentically in every bad rambling road poem (but damned if they aren’t romantic). Those of the craft do their own dishes, and sometimes yours too. Those of the art can be messy people. Bad roommates. There is blood everywhere. They can be, quite simply, bad people; mean and drunk. This is when it helps to have both in the same person; those of the craft make better friends, and most often, better poems. You can rely on them. Those of the art feel more, but it’s all trapped in their heads. Those of the art, the bad ones at least, always write like someone’s watching; look at this thing and then, more so, and more truthfully, look at me. Who is the real star here? They’re the ones who call themselves artists; ack. Those of the art are bad fortune-tellers, dealing bad horoscopes in the shadiest corner of Jackson Square; the guy standing next to you might be cahoots. Watch your pockets. You can’t trust these people. But you should know: the astronomer is also charging to look into his telescope. Which do you think will make the better story?
Who is the star here? It is a dangerous game to draw attention to the self. The political poem, or the too-dramatic reading performance, can suffer here from “look at me” syndrome. It works like red carpet award shows. My name is (look at me). I believe in (this ethical thing). I believe in (look at me). Aren’t I a good (look at me), with of course the ever-current undercurrent of hollow spectacle and consumerism. Look-at-me. It’s too post-modern now not to kill the messenger, especially one making a spectacle of itself at the expense of the message. Who is the star here? Recontextualizing the domestic must have bodies in the kitchen, and someone must have written these words. Of course. But this is the wrong kind of surprise: that the poem was just a vehicle for a showboat; was just a truck with a hitch, as it were. And one could be cheeky and say this is becoming too familiar. Maybe it’s a kind of self-branding, maybe it’s keeping up with the times, the bizz. But I’ve never seen a writer make a poem better. I’ve only seen a writer let a poem be great. Who is the star here? Those of the art have trouble getting out of the way. Those of the craft have trouble getting things to write about, in the shadow of the greats. Those of the art can always talk about death and themselves; it is their self-absorption that is tragic. Those of the craft can always talk about poems. Really, you want to be both of them. But everyone is always more one than the other. That’s where practice comes in. Most of this, I should have said by now, is compensation, which is the other word for balance. That which is compensated is balanced; we seek balance in order to compensate for a lack thereof. It’s really good if you have a bit of both in you. Which would you rather be? It’s normal to feel like it’s a burden either way. The grass is always greener. That might be the biggest similarity.
Once the work of the truly imaginative, the essence, the pure material of poetry, is fully and uninhibitedly in motion, we can get to world-building, which is that material’s only true purpose. If imagination is the soccer cleat of poetry, world-building is the slip it prevents; it is the goal it earns, somewhat vicariously, and almost always unnoticeably. Like this analogy, each world has its own rules; its own logic. These rules, as a rule, must be made apparent to the reader; these are your guests after all. The world without rules (or predicated on breaking them) is simply another version of the derogatory surreal from earlier. We can only do so much of the Sure, okay then, that’s just how it is. You’ve got to walk us through. We are your guests after all. To build a poem, if clichés can be used once they’re apologized for, is to build a world; familiar, surprising. Our imaginations are made of our worlds; they are direct descendants, perhaps more so than we are. And they are big. And they should be treated as such. There’s no such thing as unfamiliar. There’s no such thing as a small surprise.
Michael Hurley is from Pittsburgh. His work has appeared in Sycamore Review, New Delta Review, Fourteen Hills, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Mid-American Review. His chapbook, Wooden Boys, is available from Seven Kitchens Press.