Friday, June 11, 2010

Let's All Write an Abstract Poem

Well, I start this project in alphabetical order and already Mr. Padgett is pulling no punches in his Handbook of Poetic Forms.

Abstract poems, in the words of Edith Sitwell, are experiments in "patterns of sound."  The consensus meaning of the words in our shared language is unimportant or at the very least peripheral in favor of the sound, the feel of the words, the composition on the tongue.

The painting above is by Mark Rothko.  I saw a Rothko at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and it took my breath away.  Any scans or prints do not do the work justice.  First of all, if you walk into a room with this on a plain wall in front of you something like eight foot by ten foot, it demands your attention.  The brushwork breathes.  As a print, it looks kind of like a paint swatch you get at the hardware store.  In reality, it is an abyss of color into which you could fall screaming.  The point of a work like this is not that it is secretly about something, like a Magic Eye trick, that only very intelligent people can pick up on.  The point is what happens to you when you are before this magnificent thing.

In high school, I had a tremendous crush on a certain girl who did not reciprocate those feelings.  I was quiet and goofy looking, but given her apparent desire to project the image of an intellectual without taking any actual steps toward being one, I think she must have thought associating with me was a necessary evil. I read Somerset Maugham of my own free will and used words like "ameliorate" in casual conversation. So, she organized a tea party/poetry reading to take place in the backyard of her parent's large house by the beach. I had never written poetry before and had no idea what I was doing. I sat down and wrote what I thought poetry must be like. It turned out, assessing with the benefit of hindsight, I was, in fact, writing abstract poetry, stringing words together for the love of the sound of them. I remember the girl scolding me after the poetry reading about what she called "trap poetry" which was poetry that was written to sound like it was about something, but really wasn't about anything at all. I have no idea where she got that although there was precedent that would suggest she was making something up to appear smarter than me. In other words, I had to be carefully taught NOT to do this form of poetry naturally.

What fools these mortals be. It's not up to the gods to bake bricks. And several other quotations hastily swished around my palette to remove the flavor of that unfortunate trip down Regrettery Lane.

Padgett recommends a few possible ways to explore. He recommends replacing the words of an existing poem with other words or saying a word over and over until it loses its meaning and then stringing other words around it in like manner. He mentions the Dadaist sound poetry, which I would also recommend looking up.

I, on the other hand, decided to just jump right in. I'm going with rhymed couplets because I am most comfortable in life shut into a prison cell while holding my own key to the lock. Seeing as to how it's abstract, I start free associating about Ionesco and away I go.

Wensleydale Rhinoceros,
great aireydales and phosphorous.
Bleeding mead and stark repast.
Bold blue air at mooring mast.

Gingham robes flop up the stern.
Mark the tortoise tries to learn.
Here I strain my yellow tweezer.
Great bear gains his lalochezia.

Shovel covens in the eye.
Counting ounce florescent dye.
Hoping opals on the mend.
Rubble couplet to abend.


  1. Well, I tried the meter but not the "abstract" part of it. I must say, my poem was abysmal. lol

  2. I'm glad that "Mark the tortoise" made an appearance in this one.

    I suppose I'll attempt one myself. (Ed. note: This proved more difficult than one might think, as every time I tried to free-associate or throw out an abstract phrase, my interpretive inclinations kicked in and began to steer me in the direction of a topic. A hundred near-metaphors later... Gah!) I'm going to stick with a rhyme scheme as well, for the same reason you did... Though I will "mix it up" all crazy-like and switch from AABB to ABAB.

    The kitten rears electric blue
    Dark portraits in the mirrors made
    A dance to trot in brilliant hue
    The tired sun; the cavalcade

    The din of grated cheeses balks
    At photon clouds and ceiling fans
    Of candied shoes and pastel chalks
    Aglow, awash in crumpled cans

    Long, savory speeches in the grass
    Frustration spins a graceful sight
    Neglected trail through psychic pass
    An aural scape by firelight

  3. Yes, that was my exact experience. It was a far more difficult form to work in than I would have expected, but also far more fun.

    Well done, Kevin, and thanks for sharing.

    Judy, if it's any help, I'm horribly dissatisfied with most of my own output here. Thanks for reading and joining in. It's always good to hear from you.