A Poem Is What It Eats

I.

I spent the greater part of the last two days watching nature films about mammals. I learned that the pika (the inspiration for Pikachu) is, in fact, the cutest animal on the face of this burning earth, that the African Crested Porcupine is as terrifying as it sounds, and that beavers not only make dams; they construct their own refrigerators and lodges with heating and ventilation systems. The most important lesson, however, was that animals are shaped by what they eat. The diet of a particular animal will — over an extensive evolution — determine the form of that animal. Take the impala, for example, which — like most most grazers on the African plains — has its eyes on the side of its head, not the front. These eyes are designed in such a way that while grazing, the impala can see everything beside and behind it. A crucial detail if you have to worry about being stalked by hyenas. This alteration in form occurred because impalas needed to have their head down in the grass to eat without being entirely blind to their surroundings. They are what they eat. They are what they need.

II.

At this HS in Newark where I teach English, I share a classroom with a biology teacher who recently posted a sign at the front of the room that declares FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION. Though this statement is intended to remind AP Biology of students of a fundamental principle of science, I wrote it in my notebook as a reminder that the form of poems follows their function as well. Poems, too, are what they eat. In order to live beyond the drafting process, a poem must become what it needs.

III.

Consider “Motown Crown” a crown of sonnets by Patricia Smith. The form of a crown is that the last line of the preceding sonnet becomes the first line of the following sonnet. The crown is completed by a final sonnet made entirely of those crucial last lines. Quite a feat indeed which, I imagine, many poets would be happy to pull of just for the sake of.. well, crowning their mastery of the form. Smith however, building on the formal prowess (and purpose) demonstrated throughout Blood Dazzler shows how a poem’s purpose (I’ll call it a poem’s hunger) can and, in fact, should dictate its form. Since the poem is about the experience of young black women who grew up with Motown music and learned for better or worse from the music as they themselves evolved, Smith’s choice of a crown is something Darwin himself would laud. As the speakers change from girls to teens to reflective women, the repetition of end lines illustrates the way music and its meaning is refracted, cut open, and spliced together again by our memory. For example, a stanza about Marvin Gaye that concludes “We hungered for the anguished screech of Please / inside our chests—relentless, booming bass.” becomes “Inside our chests, relentless booming bass /softened to the turn of Smokey’s key.” in the following stanza. The pained longing of Marvin Gaye still resonates with the speaker but it is now heard through the influence of Smokey Robinson’s croon. The poem IS exactly what it hungers to express.

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4 responses to “A Poem Is What It Eats

  1. thanks for the link to patricia smith’s crown of sonnets. do you know “A Wreath for Emmett Till, ” a crown of sonnets by Marilyn Nelson that’s a picture book?

  2. What an awesome post! Patricia (and Marilyn) are both phenomenal poets, and that’s a great insight about the seemingly evolutionary nature of poems. (Though whether a poem evolves in a Lamarckian or Darwinian fashion depends greatly on how many edits you have to do. In other words, whether the poem is pulled towards what it needs to be, or pushed away from what it can’t be.)

  3. even after all this time, i am so jealous of that motown crown!

    is the bio teacher a former/wannabe architect? that was THE catchphrase back when i was studying architecture. i’m pretty sure an architect coined it. though it’s probably more true of science and nature than most design.

  4. We dfienteily need more smart people like you around.

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