What Makes a Poem Great? by Gretchen Primack

(Gretchen Primack’s chapbook is The Slow Creaking of Planets. She’ll teach a workshop at the Woodstock Writers Festival next April. Here’s her guest blog.)

It’s all well and good that Emily Dickinson describes great poetry as the kind that makes you feel like your head’s exploding, but how often does that actually happen? For me it’s far too rare. But ah, when it happens….

A while back, my friend Celia Bland gave me a copy of The Breath of Parted Lips: Voices from the Robert Frost Place Vol. II. I started paging through a few weeks ago and made my usual, “Gee, that’s pretty good” and “Meh” and “Nice images, but why the weak ending?” kind of mental notes. Then I turned to page 40, where the poem “Still Life” by William Carpenter waited for me.

I’m playing my videotape again of the beach scene:
Surf crashes, couple of girls walk by, palm trees
shake out their dreadlocks in the tropical breeze.

Right away I was struck. Casual but crafted; sense of place, both in the speaker’s house and in the vacation scene; lots of energy; apt and useful and pleasurable image—where’s this going? I wanted to keep reading.

The lens zooms in on a man in his mid-seventies,
who looks like me in the future. I pause him. I
study the image to see what I’ll become.

In three lines, a sense of time, mortality, family, distance yet intimacy. And that “I pause him”: That’s when I felt my first physical tug. He’s pausing time and memory and his father. He’s giving us enough information but not too much that we readers can’t participate, always such a challenging balance to obtain. I loved the language and syntax—he wasn’t being “poetic” in that way that makes poems distant, inaccessible, false. Instead, his diction and sentence structure felt careful and lovely and accurate.

the man waves, hitches his trunks up, wades out
into the deepening water and dives right in.

So the speaker pushes play because he wants to see this man live. And what a touching, tender detail about the trunks—even the word “trunks” touched me—that lends such vulnerability and intimacy to the video and the viewing of it, and also to the poem. And these little lines say so much about the character and situation of the man plunging into deepening water.

Now we see only his head in a wave trough, after-
wards he’s gone. I put the videocamera down and yell,
but there’s no response.

Well, there was a response here! I felt my stomach crinkle into a ball of tin foil. Ten and a half lines into a poem by a stranger, I wanted to climb into the poem and then into its video so I could run to the beach and hold the cameraman—cameraboy? cameraman who felt like a boy?—and splash into the waves to find the “gone” man. A few lines later, after the lens swept over an ocean that was “what anything looks like after a meal,/full and serene,” the speaker pushes rewind and

……………………………………………….…he reappears,
the top of his head first, then the whole body,
which swims for a moment in reverse—quite a trick
at that age—then backs just like a stunt man out
of a breaking wave.

I love poems that discover and reveal, poems in which I can feel the writer and speaker discovering and revealing. I want to open the gift of a poem, becoming more and more in the know of its world as I read. I could feel that—and I mean feel that—in “Still Life.” I was discovering what was happening in the video and to the person watching the video, and then another piece of wrapping paper was shed:

…………………………………………………….I do this
every evening after the six-thirty news, and if I
rewind further, he turns around, smiles and waves,
keeps walking backwards right to the chair beside me
and sits down.

The speaker was letting me in on this obsessive, quiet moment, but he’s doing so with no syrup, just truth. I could feel the integrity and the pathos in my core. I could feel him bring back what had been utterly lost in the only way he could, feel the legitimacy and impossibility of that just as he did.

….And all those questions I never quite got to
ask him, where are they? I can’t find the words for them,
as I could never find the words when he was here; so we sit
here together with the sound off, father and son….

The relationship is revealed, all the more lovely for being intimated but not stated until we are sitting in the room (that repeated here, which reverberates on so many levels) with him. And again, here is tenderness without cloying. And what is more vulnerable than a writer saying he can’t find words? We know he isn’t lying, though we also know he is able to find words that help us see what it would be like to be speechless with a parent, a parent who will one day die and haunt those left behind, relationships never fully clarified.

By this point in my reading, I was uttering involuntary sounds, sure. But it was the ending that made me let out an audible groan of pain and pleasure:

…We get five minutes, which is as long as
the pause lasts, then he must go, as the instructions say,
or permanent damage may result. I push the play button
and he starts away again, hitches his trunks up, turns
around, waves once for the camera, and walks back in.

Yep: there went the top of my head.

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