Cleverness in poetry or writing can be a mixed blessing. While poetry without cleverness can be bland and unexciting, poetry with too much of it can seem a show-offy exercise exhibiting the most exorbitant self in self-expression.
Unlike my pleasant puzzlement with H. D.’s “The Pool” last time, I can speak with authority about the author’s intent on today’s piece “Ruined Refrigerator,” because I wrote this set of words. A short aside for those that are new here: this isn’t the way the Parlando Project generally works, we’re normally about “Other people’s stories,” our audio encounters with other author’s words.
But since I wrote this I can say a bit about how this worked with “Ruined Refrigerator.” This started out as a sonnet I wrote in 1978. I’ve always been attracted to the 14-liner. It’s just about the perfect size to develop a point with a turn or even two, while still asking for concision. The 14 lines can be divided in many eccentric ways into stanzas, sections, and rhyme schemes. And since Shakespeare used it for his best poetry, you have a mighty model to measure up against.
The problem with the sonnet and Shakespeare as a model is that it can fall into clever complexity. Shakespeare was intoxicated with flowery language, language that loves using extra words and similes to express itself. Given the youthful vigor of the mostly modern English of Shakespeare’s day, and Shakespeare’s genius, this is not as tiresome in his best poems as it would too often be in those that were written after him.
Artists already have too much to worry about, but perhaps we should be more careful when we invent something, as any imitators will exploit all the faults in the invention—and so, eventually Shakespeare’s poetics can descend into “poetic language” that violates the call to concision that lyric poetry should heed, and to merely clever works that exercise the skills but not the aims and ends of great poetry.
I can tell you that as an author, writing clever poetry is great fun. Finding what you believe is a new way to say something is wonderful. Engaging in the music of thought where a theme emerges in a surprising and even mysterious way is as great a joy in words as it is when composing music. Fitting the stuff of a poem into the puzzle of meter and rhyme and stanza forms takes effort, but like any number of enjoyable crafts, it’s satisfying. The dance of metaphor as it leaps back and forth from the compared thing to the thing can feel in creation almost God-like.
These things have degrees of difficulty and achievement, yes, but the greater difficulty is engaging an audience for them. What is enjoyable and satisfying to the author is not necessarily the same to the reader or listener. Too little cleverness and the result is bland, too much and the reader will decide: too much effort for too little reward. Or they may read on and decide that it’s much ado about nothing. What the author thinks is clever, based on their effort and self-evaluation, seems mundane to the more sophisticated reader or obtusely obscure to the naïve one. Audiences don’t love or hate cleverness, they just want it to be worth their while.
Subliminal inspiration? Lower section the “We’re Only In It for the Money” album cover
created by Calvin Schenkel, Frank Zappa and Jerry Schatzberg 1967.
“Ruined Refrigerator” may suffer from these issues, from failed attempts at cleverness. I wrote a complete draft around 40 years ago*, and I must have liked the “deep ecology” idea enough that I revised it 15 years ago. So far (small) audiences haven’t cared for it much. Maybe that’s my failing, or maybe it’s the audiences’—though I believe the audiences were good ones. Maybe on the first day of spring in a time when global warming is on more minds this will make more of a connection?
As an artist, you can negotiate a treaty with that failure, knowing that all artists fail—sometimes, depending on the audience. Artists can succeed with some audiences by making the choices that will certainly cause them to fail with others. One can always choose to fail better or differently. The important thing is to try, in the way you think best to try.
Here’s my performance and try of “Ruined Refrigerator.”
4 thoughts on “Ruined Refrigerator”
The universe as rotten food or as a ruined refrigerator is original. The background music is good. I would appreciate seeing the poem written out to make sure I understand all the words. I don’t know whether you are hiding it for copyright reasons or other reasons. I also write sonnets, but I am not musically inclined at all.
I usually don’t print the text of the words because in this Project I want to concentrate on the words being consumed aurally. I do fear that sometimes, particularly with complex imagery, that this makes certain metaphors harder to apprehend. To balance that, I hope that having a music/song approach allows the listener to suspend their immediate need to understand the poem, as the fear of “missing the point” or misunderstanding the poem is a large obstacle to the enjoyment of literary poetry currently.
In some ways, the Parlando Project is an open-ended experiment just to see what can be done, what is gained, and what is lost in combining mostly literary poetry with various music in various ways.
But, since you asked, here it is:
When all the carrots bent, with their strange orange
Prostration in the open refrigerator
Light, it seemed sad to him. Observe the change:
The sunken cheek in the green cucumber,
Crispness to softness. The smells of severe
Fruits moldered through the rind. A grapefruit globe
Mopes. Fallen musks unfold an atmosphere
All sticky and overripe. Expired old
Radish, wound in its beard of roots, has no spells
For his white and open gaze, and spring’s pace
Forgets itself. A sulphurously begotten
Legion of hell-hound eggs, began to leave its case,
As God listened to these mingled prayers of smells,
Then closed the door. A universe was rotten.
Yes, I wanted right off to put the need for a end rhyme to “orange” in there. Hah! How clever I am! I fear no challenge! In the sestet, waiting 5 lines to return the rhyme of spells may have been too long, but though I’ve written sonnets since I was 19 or 20, I almost never stick to traditional forms of the sonnet, rather I mutate the form every time I use it. Like a volta in the last two lines, but 8:6 in the rhyme scheme organization.
Most readers who’ve given me feedback find it of the “clever, but so what” type of poem. I still like it (I like at least a little bit of clever in most post poetry) but feat that the deep ecology theme just gets missed. Edward Thomas, the little known in the US English poet that I’ve used twice this spring, is something of a pioneer in bringing that element to poetry in England. Of course, even before global warming, Chinese poets were doing this back in their classical era.
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Thanks for the words. (I am primarily a visual learner.) I am enjoying your project. I appreciate music, although I cannot make it.
I was planning to write a history of English poetry in heroic couplets, but I only finished the part about the roots of English poetry. I have three books on the history of English poetry, but I’ve only read one so far.
I have written poems for a while now. I didn’t read or write much poetry growing up, but I am reading more now. (Some of the first poetry I read as a child was by Swift.)
I try to make my poetry accessible because dense poetry can be hard to read and understand. However, my poetry is not without difficult words and meanings. Although I write sonnets, I think the couplet is the most versatile rhyme structure, and you don’t have to wait so long to hear the rhyme.
By the way, I cannot access your website on my computer on Firefox, Chrome or Edge (it was difficult on my phone). In Chrome, I got the message “This site can’t provide a secure connection”. You might want to figure out what is wrong so people won’t get an error when trying to visit your site.