|Gilbert Lewis, Swimmer|
I've occasionally wondered how I would more clearly articulate my own definition of "poetry" rather than rely on Jay Parini's "language that is adequate to our experience." Any way in which I would describe what poetry is and what poetry does would have to make mention of its deliberate use of narrative negative space.
Reading an early draft of The Zeroes, a friend of mine criticized what he felt was an insufficient degree of physical description where the characters were concerned. Reading an early draft of All the Lonely People (next novel), another friend felt that the descriptions of places didn't go far enough: "they're in a restaurant; you need to tell me what the inside of the restaurant is like." When I was working on "The Fighting Game," there were some scenes during which I struggled with the logistics of sequence. "He brought in a backpack; we need to know he was wearing it when he came in. He brought in some cables in the backpack; we need to explain that they were extended, and why and how he extended them. There's a TV in the room; that needs to be established in advance, and we need to know where the TV is situated."
A straightforward prosaic narrative usually needs to be fairly contiguous in order to be effective. When someone is acting, we need to know who they are, what they look like, what they're doing, and how they're doing it. We need to know where they are. Often we need to know what they were doing before what they're doing now, and we need to know the antecedent events of the present action.
The evocative and penetrative power of poetry often comes from stripping away of the journalistic facts of the event and leaving only sensory and emotional imprints. Unless you has a photographic memory, your personal recollections are not the preservation of various narratives, but disparate somatic germs. We remember just enough. Maybe only almost enough.
When you read this poem, for instance, consider how much information of the event Vuong excludes, and take note of what he chooses to include. Go back and read a few other poems, here or elsewhere, and make a similar inquiry of them.
Ocean Vuong (1988 – )
Because we were boys,
I could only touch you in the dark.
Where we pretended the sins
promised by our fathers
could not find us.
In the path of trembling hands,
the hair on our thighs rose
against the night, and I dreamed
the extraordinary things
light would do to the parts I touched:
tuft of hair, silk of foreskin, the wet pearl
emerging from its sheath.
As I tasted myself inside your mouth,
the breath's warm blooming,
as those fig leaves lay torn by our feet,
somewhere, someone was beginning to sing.
I had to touch my lips
to know that hymn was mine.