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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Taking Risks

I'm not a big risk-taker. That's what I say, it's how I feel. But if you look at my life, you will see all kinds of crazy risks that I've taken again and again, big ones. I went to a grad school that far outstripped the preparation I had from my undergrad school, went directly into competition with other students who had highly priveleged private school educations from preschool through Ivy League colleges. And I went head-to-head with them. And did alright. One of them one day said, "You're not much of a risk-taker, are you?" and I answered, "Well, I'm here, aren't I?" And he answered, "Yeah, seriously. I hadn't thought about it that way." What was for him a given next step was for me a huge risk.

And I live abroad, in an international family, we just opened a small business last month, we have serious health issues that are life-altering, and we face risk after risk. And sometimes I'm pretty tired.

But this sense of being on the edge (as well as just plain being on edge) all the time is good for something: poetry. Jeffrey Levine discusses how risk-taking and the willingness to put danger on the page is often the difference in the diction between an almost-finished poem and a successful poem here.

Here's a quote: "It takes a special sort of nerve to spell (just enough) the connection between the imagery (symbols) of the outer world and what the poet wants us to take from that imagery about how that imagery enhances, reflects, refracts and intensifies the poet’s inner landscape./ How overtly drawn does this correspondence have to be? I think the answer is: just overt enough so that readers can feel the risk taken. Whether or not a reader actually feels the danger on the page depends entirely upon whether the poet has provided us with sufficient correspondence between description and metaphor on one hand, and what’s human, on the other. There must be that ineluctable tension between what we understand abstractly and what we feel concretely. Without that kind of correspondence (and corresponding tension) there’s no felt urgency. Without those risks, the description and metaphor, no matter how well turned, turn merely symbolic. Without sufficient evidence of that correspondence, a symbol is just a symbol, stripped, then, of its power, like an electric circuit whose wiring reaches a dead end: the light won’t go on. Sound and fury are fine, so long as they signify something. Within this correspondence—this levering—the real work of the poem gets done."

Read the entire piece to see an analysis of Louise Gluck's poem "Mock Orange" and its use of urgent diction to draw a correspondence between its metaphors and its emotional content.

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