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Not "Write What You Know" But "Know What You Write"
– originally posted to the PDC June 7, 2013
A 'Best Of' post from the Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page.
"For the Next Task I Turn from the Bench" by Matthew Nienow — Poetry Daily, 6/5/2013
from Southwest Review (98.2)
poem found here
with one hundred bronze clench nails
exploring "write what you know," the info dump, and other bits
There's things I like about this poem; some things I don't like. I do like that it does not pause to overtly state what is going on — the building of a small boat — but only gives you sufficient clues: specifically, "clench nail," and "strakes." You will see a phrase in fiction writing circles, especially imaginative fiction: the "info dump." An info dump is a moment where the action of a narrative comes to a stop so that the writer can give the reader information on elements of what is going on. You see this very frequently in science fiction, in TV and film as much as in books, and you can understand why, when much of the reality in the text is fictional. You can't, for example, continually use the phrase "dilithium crystals" without at some point clueing the reader in on what it means. More often than not, the writers try to conceal the dump through dialogue. And, far too often, it results in a moment where the characters are suddenly in the shadow of a stupid cloud: "So, you gonna use that hammer, Jim?" "Yeah, Jack. I'm going to use it to force nails into wood." "Cool." Usually, it's about that dumb, once you think about it, and once you start paying attention. And just because it is two starship engineers talking about the plastofisten microcomodumaker doesn't mean they are not speaking, in context, the blatantly obvious to each other. (Once you start watching for them, it becomes quite funny to see the info dumps: all the actors are forced to stand still in an absurd game of Red Light/Green Light waiting for the explanatory exposition to end.)
Which is why, in fiction, an info dump is a bad thing.[FN] And so also in poetry. And yet it happens all the time: a full stop in the poem to tell the reader what is going on. Had "For the Next Task" stopped to tell the reader it was a boat, it would have been an info dump. And unnecessay, as the center of action here is quite clear. All you need is a little dictionary work.
[FN] Curiously, it is usually the fact that info dumps are unnecessary to the poem. Great writing recognizes the reader should almost never need an info dump: they usually can get the information they need in context. If they can't (and need to), that's a problem.
Indeed, you will find most of the time info dumps are far less about the text than they are about one of two things: (1) the writer hand feeding readers too lazy to make the effort (which is a bad thing); and (2) a writer showing off their own imagination/knowledge (which is also a bad thing, when the text comes to a stop for it to happen).
As I've said before: you are allowed to demand effort on the part of the reader. More importantly, you are expected to demand effort on the part of the reader. Because if you poem takes no effort to read, there really is nothing to be gained in the reading, is there? (And "effort," here, does not mean only looking things up: it means actively reading.)
Another like: I really like the phrase "wide mouth mason." (Though, it probably should be "wide-mouth" or "wide-mouthed.")
But now, some of what I don't like. And it may seem I am being a bit overly nit-picky at points; but, to be honest, a great poem could take it.
I don't like that the poem is written as a single sentence broken up only by commas. It is such a long sentence it rather loses control of itself. It ends very far away from where it begins, grammatically speaking. Unfortunately, to be honest, I'm having a very difficult time putting into typed words the wobblies I see, so let me just set out the sentence like this:
For the next task,|
I turn from the bench
with one hundred bronze clench nails in a wide mouth mason,
the bucking iron's finger gap smooth upon my hand,
the ball-peen longing for its sway,
to meet each nail's head gently,
to send the slender tooth into its bread,
whereupon the head is backed by weighted hand,
that the tapered spike may be driven in reverse,
the soft-tapping slow dance of the working bend,
that the golden nail may re-enter the wood from which it came,
& holdfast two strakes together,
that the many may share a single name.
Hopefully you can hear how by about the appearance of "soft-tapping" the sentence has begun to lose control of itelf. Some of the problem lies in that there is very little parallelism in the lists. Throw upon that the not always tight syntax and semantics (I'm not saying non-standard, I'm saying wobbly), and you have a rather unwieldy thing. Stepping outside of the specific issues, my question is: if you are writing poetry, why not use lines to help the reader manage that sentence? (Or different punctuation?) For me, this poem hides an unwieldy sentence in its arbitrary line breaks, and, by making it hard to read smoothly because of the line breaks, it makes it easier to hide its unwieldiness. Which is so often the case with contemporary free verse: the poet thinks they are writing lines, but they are not paying attention to how the lines work with (or against) the flow of words, and not always at all paying attention to that flow of words. So you end up with a lot of clumsiness created (and then hidden) by the free verse inattentiveness.
A lot of my other issues with this poem lie in its wording. Perhaps some of them are more influenced by taste than by poetics, but it might be worth pointing them out just to talk about them, to let you weigh them for yourself within your own poetic ear. There's a lot to be gained in trying things out.
I don't much like the title. "For the Next Task" sounds too much like "For My Next Trick," and carries a similar nuance. Neither fit the tone of the poem. Perhaps, simply, "Next"? (Or anything at all? Is it important to the poem that it is "next"?)
I very much don't like the missing commas in such as the first line: "with one hundred bronze clench nails" which should be "with one hundred, bronze clench nails." That seems like a little thing, but stringing out adjectives like that only creates difficulties in the reading (unless, you are very carefully crafting), especially when the poem is a long sentence.
I don't like the misuse of words and the resulting clashes in ideation like when "to send the slender tooth into its bread" is followed up on the next line with "that tapered spike." "Bread" is going for gentle, "spike" is rather quite the opposite. This one isn't taste: it's poor form. You have to be careful of this in your writing. When you create a clash between two ideas, the reader has only three paths: ignore one, ignore the other, ignore them both. Your ideation should build up, not be a series of independent moments. When it's the latter, that's when you are in threat of clashes like this one. And you can't generate depth when your words are at odds.
Another spot of this is the word "reverse." When you clench a nail, you are not driving it back, in "reverse" direction. You're more bending it over. The phrase "driving it in reverse" very much more sounds like you're hammering the nail back through so that you can pull it out. Another is that the nail begins as "bronze" and ends as "golden." You can't use a metallic color to describe a metal that is already identified as another metal. Just can't. The colors are too tied to the names of the metal.
Is "re-enter the wood from which it came" redundant?
I don't like the ampersand in the third to last line, but I've discussed that just a couple posts ago (here).
I like "sway," in that there is the idea that a hammer has sway over a nail. But it doesn't work in this context, because "swaying" is very much something a hammer should not be doing. If you are wielding a hammer and it is swaying, you're doing it wrong. (Or you need to stop because you are tired.)
Which leads us, first to "strakes," which I think is being misused here; and then, finally, to "ball-peen" and "write what you know." (Note that I am going to be making hypotheticals about the author in this bit.)
Here's the problem: a ball-been hammer is used in metalworking. You don't use a ball-peen to drive in nails: it's not made to do that, and if you do use it you're increasing the chance of screwing things up by quite a bit.
That said, we bring in "write what you know," one of the many workshopisms you hear in creative writing discussion, one of the many I have come to dislike. And why do I dislike it? Because it's bumper-sticker creative writing, and, bumper-sticker anything is almost always misused, ill-used, bad-habit-forming, badly-conceived, or otherwise detrimental to developing sophistication. Bizarrely, "write what you know" has somehow become a restrictive dicta of workshop mentality. "To write successfully, you must write from out of who you are. You must write what you know." Which means that if the origin of this little poem was listening to a friend of a friend talk about small ship-building, or reading a scene in a novel, or some such, and Nienow knew nothing about small ship-building when he got the idea, then he should not have written the poem, because he would not be writing "what he knew."
Which is, on its face, nonsense. Rather, what "write what you know" should tell you is that if you want to write about something outside your wheelhouse, then learn about it first. If you don't learn about it, you write superficially, and your text ends up superficial and shallow (if not flat out silly). Depth comes out of knowledge. It doesn't equal knowledge, but it definitely comes out of it.
Now, I, myself, take this to extremes, perhaps; but it works very well for me. For example, say I have decided to write a Keats-like, formally stanzaed poem about Hansel and Gretel. If it is the first time I had tried to write a Keats-like, formallly stanzaed poem, I would definitily (1) read, many times, some of Keats's own poetry of the nature, and study what he does with stanzas. I would also very likely (2) see if I can find a book that talks about Keats's use of stanzas: after all, the easiest way to learn about something is to ask someone who knows about that something.
Finally, (3) I will hunt down everything I can about Hansel and Gretel, including versions of the tale, other poems about the tale, and even the libretto of Englebert Humperdinck's opera. I want to see what other people have done. I want to see variations. I also want to see how they did it so I can learn from those people who have walked this path before.
Another peculiar thing that shows up in writing circles, though not so overtly: the idea that if I am writing about X, I am supposed to do it wholly on my own. Looking at what other people did is cheating. Which is complete and utter nonsense. If I am going to write a scene of, say, a ship leaving a dry-dock, I am, yes, going to research the practical aspects of it. But I am also going to see if I can find other people who have written about the same thing, so I can learn from them . . . . and do it better than they did.
Now, like I said, I tend to do far more research than I need, but I really enjoy researching. But, in truth, the number of times I have discovered some little gem of knowledge that just makes the work is more than enough to justify the effort. You can't be a good writer without knowing: both about your subject, about writing about your subject, and about the form in which you are writing.
But I digress.
So. "Ball-peen" here is a mistake, and a big one, because we are supposed to be accepting that the person in this poem knows what they are doing.
But let's flip it about. Let's suppose that the origin of this poem is someone Nienow knows personally — or, even, is about Nienow himself — and they do in fact use a ball-peen hammer.
It doesn't change anything. The claim "but that is really what they do" is justification for nothing in a text that is not reportage. You still have to "write what you know": which is to say, in this instance, learn enough about the subject so you know when elements in the real-life source are idiosyncratic — or, even, wrongly done. So then you can be writing to what the reader is going to read, not to what "is really real." And you can avoid what unavoidably comes off as an error. You still have to know that a ball-peen hammer is meant to be used with metalworking, not for driving nails. And you should know that a reader that knows anything about hammers is going to know that: using "ball-peen" in your poem is going to look wrong, look like a mistake on the writer's part, and decrease greatly the reader's faith in the writer's abilities.
So maybe not "write what you know"? Maybe instead know what you write.
One final note: what I absolutely hate about this poem: the word my (and the "I" in the title). It is an absolutely unnecessary element to the poem. And the presence of it actually changes the ideation of the poem in a detrimental way. The primary energies of the poem — even the extended sentence nature of it — points the reader to the last phrase: "that the many may share a single name" (and to the "holdfast" that sets up that phrase). By adding the first person to the poem, the poem becomes no longer about that final phrase, but about the person building the ship. Why? Because there is no reason for the first person to be in the poem in the first place. So when the first person shows up (primarily through the "my") it demands and gathers a huge share of the energies that should be being channeled to that summing phrase. With the "my" the poem is now divided in its purposes and aims, and loses for it.
I would argue this point is not one of taste, but one of poetics and semantics; and that the poem would be far better if rewritten without that first person.