Friday, February 8, 2013

How to Deliver Your Message, Part 4: Coming out of Nowhere

      One way to convey your theme to readers is not to lead up to it, as in The Big Moment, but to surprise the reader. At least, not to lead up to the message in an obvious way, but in a subliminal way. The surprise sneaks in and then leaps out in the final lines or sentences of a poem or story or essay.
A writer can spend most of a poem or essay or story describing one thing, and that thing can be only distantly or obliquely related to the theme. Then at the very end, BOOM! The writer suddenly says what he or she wants to communicate, but in such a way that it doesn’t feel predictable or heavy-handed.
One famous example of this is Rainer Maria Rilke’s great poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” I’ve translated and written about this poem in another blog, but the ending is worth mentioning again in this context. The poem seems to be a description of an ancient and broken statue. Pretty boring, right? Except that Rilke makes that statue emanate light and sensuality by comparing it to a glowing lamp and to a wild animal’s pelt, among other things. He also uses a tightly constructed sonnet to call attention to the poem itself, rather than where it is heading. Then in the poem’s last five words (in the German original), he clobbers the reader with a message so didactic, so strong, that it is unforgettable. He gets away with this sententiousness by catching the reader unawares, only leading up to the end in the reader’s unconscious, never showing that the poem is headed in that direction.
Another great example of this strategy is one of my favorite poems, Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods.” You might want to read the poem first, so I don’t spoil the ending. Emily Dickinson once said, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

                                                                     Emily Dickinson

Mary Oliver's "In Blackwater Woods" never fails to blow the top of my head off.
But “In Blackwater Woods”actually starts out as though it’s only going to be just a nature poem about the beauty of fall foliage:

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,

How trite can you get? Except that Oliver starts with the imperative, “Look,” giving us a clue right from the start that something is going on in this poem that requires our rapt attention. And surprisingly, the trees not only have bodies of light, they are redolent of cinnamon and “fulfillment.” Already the poem is subtly conveying that something is undulating beneath the surface of this landscape:

and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.

Notice the peculiar repetition and setting apart of the word “is,” strangely unliterary, prefiguring the diction of the poem’s last two lines. But why are the ponds nameless? I don’t really know, but I’m guessing it’s because they are so sublime in their own right that they are beyond any name that humans place on a signpost or a map.
Then Oliver kicks it into gear: “Every year/everything/I have ever learned…leads back to this”. So now we know we are in the realm of revelation, and what we are about to learn transcends the everyday.
Her reference to “the black river of loss” suggests Lethe, the river in Greek mythology that the dead must cross to the Underworld, the river that erases all memory. But instead of the other side being the kingdom of the dead, in Oliver’s personal myth the other bank of the river is “salvation.” Salvation is a familiar idea in this Christian culture, but Oliver’s idea of salvation is one with a meaning “none of us will ever know.” These are powerful and absolute statements by Oliver, but they are so unexpected, and so different from the usual homilies about being saved, that they arrest us. We realize this is not going to be any kind of sermon we’ve ever heard.
Then Mary Oliver delivers the final pronouncement, again addressing the reader directly, as she did in the poem’s first word: “To live in this world//you must be able/to do three things...” Why is she speaking so directly to us, and what are those three things she’s talking about? We immediately want to know. It turns out they are actually very down-to-earth, and so desperately and beautifully and simply expressed:

to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it…

Then the final imperative, with its oddly repetitious phrasing:

and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Those lines are a kind of “letting go” on the poet’s part as well. She is no longer adorning her poem in literary devices and sparkling originality. Mary Oliver just lays it on the line. And she does, she does.
Other recent posts about writing topics:
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

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