I said “Oracular pear, and they looked startled. “Oracular pear,” I said again. Listen to the words.

Mark Doty’s craft talk at The Dodge Poetry Fest, September, 2008.

Saturday September 27, The Library Tent in Waterloo Villiage, Stanhope New Jersey 9:30-10:45,

A Conversation on Craft.  [This is my all-time favorite craft-talk.]

img_0581 Mark began with the poem “Apparition,” about a peacock named Hommer (with 2 “m”s)

at a garden center. He said, “The cry of a peacock isn’t a sound humans can make. It’s between the police car blast – when he pulls you over – and an axe murderer; not speech we can comprehend… A peacock.

…And then the epic
trombone slide-from-Mars cry
no human throat can mime…

from “Apparition” (fire to fire by Mark Doty)

Mark asks:  And what is that shining for? It stands in contrast with the influence of Modernism, say with the focus on the image, William Carlos Williams “so much depends upon a red wheel barrow…” What depends on that? Seems like everything in the perceptual world. Ezra Pound’s poem: “In a Station of the Metro,” the entire poem reads: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; petals on a wet, black bough.” The haunted faces, all at once part of something but they have come apart.  You don’t get done with thatpoetry.

Show don’t tell. Prune back rhetoric and abstraction. Let the image do the work! But the peacock poem is about extravagance vs. necessity. Leonardo da Vinci said, “Nature never does anything unnecessary.” Hommer – a Chinese drag queen looking like a fish. How did those eyes in the peacock’s tail help it survive? If it looks like a divinity, what a nutty thing for natural selection to do! Is the peahen that difficult to attract?

The poem wants you to be involved with a person thinking about a peacock. Then there is the musicality of the poem.  Oracular pear. That’s not conversational. o-ra-cu-lar – music!  The poem wants you to experience it in a tactile way, that phrase announces musicality and complexity. Oracular pear. That’s elevated speech to ordinary discourse. Fussy language attends to the imperious, metallic topknot. This is a perennial part of the poetic impulse.  We want to have language that rises to the occasion.

He checks if anyone has a question, so I raise my hand, “What is the middle part of the process of crafting a poem?” He replies:

1. You start with a description.

2. You ask yourself, what is it that makes me want to talk about Hommer; sort of – so what?

3. What matters to me now? These are questions about the nature of being here. I remembered a comment from Darwin that those eyes in the feathers were too much. Then something began to happen, to respond to the strangeness. This is the territory for the poem to enter. I like the process of mediation between us and the world – phenomenology, where life meets between there and here. What is the splendor for? So we investigate the given.

We revise and work with poems to train and condition for inspiration.  You are teaching yourself, and that may allow something later to come together.  That will not last, but struggles are hinges that let you get to what you don’t know yet.

For the last draft, I grounded this poem by putting it at the garden center. That brings it more down to earth.

Mark’s book fire to fire, New York, Harper Collins, 2008 was the National Book Award winner for poetry in 2008. Here is an excerpt from this glorious book:

from  “Apparition” by Mark Doty

Oracular pear,
this peacock
perched in  a plywood roost
at the garden center,
magnificent behind a wire fence
marked with his name:
without the extra m),
and hand-lettered instructions:
He’s the provocation:
of what use
the wroght extravagance
he’s not just now displaying?
Darwin: “The sight of a feather
in a peacock’s tail,
whenever I gaze at it,
makes me sick!”
No reason on earth
even eons of increments
would conspire to this,
and is the peahen
that hard to attract,
requiring an arc of nervous gleams,
a hundred shining animals
symmetrically peering
from the dim
primeval woods?
But if Hommer argues
by his mere presence
for creation, his deity’s
a little hysteric,
rampant attitude
contained in all that glory…
…And then the epic
trombone slide-from-Mars cry
no human throat can mime…

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More Suggestions from Mark at Dodge:

Write a long poem. Separate the “expansive process” from the “contractive.” After you have over-written your poem, then begin to reign it back in.

Rewrite your poem backward line by line (exercise Mark got from CD Wright). It frees up the poem.

On titles: get a title that doesn’t do the poem any damage. Best is a title that does work. “Apparition” provokes the reader. It is a door into the poem.

Read passionately. seek that work with which we can fall in love. Take from that influence. Style is made out of influence. Poetry is the place where your life still matters. You are on the line, putting your heart and soul on the page.

Rilke talks about making doubt your friend. What you don’t know how to say will propel you further. Then turn to artists who say so much that is unsayable.

I love the word “entirely.” Forbid yourself those words, they make easy habits. Break patterns. Confound your usual means, it will confuse and reward you. There are always new discoveries to be made when you pay attention to the world.


Comments are appreciated!

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