The Issue To Create: Debunking a Helen Vendler Myth With (Good) Poetry

Stylized photo of Helen Vendler next to a checkmate chess board.

“The issue of a good poem must be urgent to the poet.”  The Art of Shakespeare Sonnets by Helen Vendler

…and the issue of literary critics is how they make banalities or bullshit sound pithy. Thus we have the above statement, which, in essence, translates to: “Poets make good shit when they care about their shit”. Contextually, this is excerpted from Helen Vendler’s analysis of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 01, where she makes the case that the sonnet is more limited than Shakespeare’s No. 17, because 17 deals with “issues of mortality and corruption”, which Shakespeare gave more of a damn about, as opposed to the “dynastic question” of 01. Well, Helen is half-right. Sonnet 01 is worse than Sonnet 17. Only, the mechanism is less a matter of the shit Shakespeare cared about, than that, simply, Sonnet 01 was made when Shakespeare’s mind was snoozing, and 17 when that same mind was musing. Having reached the stage where I can call myself a poet who has written a couple good poems, or better, two of which you can see over at Cosmoetica’s Vers Magnifique section, I now have the privilege of saying: Helen, YOU’RE FULL OF SHIT.

Let me clarify a couple things. This article serves as a poetic self-evaluation of my current scant successes in the realm of poesizing. What it isn’t, though, is a step-by-step guide for other amateur poets. Maybe you’ll find clues, a couple of useful hints here and there. What I’ll be focusing on is what didn’t matter. Some myth-busting to prevent the Helen Vendler types from clogging things up with distractions. With the biographical fluff, in other words. Stuff like whether you should write by hand or type. Whether extensive research helps. Whether having a strong stance about your subject really matters. And, unlike other writers who tend to be coy and mysterious about their actual craft, I intend to be thorough and lay it all out, to the best of my memory.

Let’s start with circumstances. The first poem, “Chess Against Engine”, I wrote around June of last year. The internet was experiencing a Chess resurgence thanks to GM Hikaru Nakamura and the Pogchamps tournament on Twitch. One day, I watched a couple of clips, especially the funny one where livestreamer xQc gets mated in 6 moves. Then, after watching a few chess analysis videos by agadmator, I thought: “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to write a Chess A.I. poem?” Then, I wrote that poem. Then, I mulled over it, decided it was pretty neat but maybe too unmusical, and forgot about it until almost a year later. At that stage of the draft, the poem was in rhyming couplets. Somehow, lines from the poem stuck in my head and resurfaced. I showed it to a friend who was interested in poetry and chess. He suggested formatting it like actual chess notation, with numbered columns. So I did. And that’s how the poem came to be:

Chess Against Engine

  1. Darren Zhang activates                           the machine, imitates
  2. a line pondered in a book,                      soon regrets the pawn he took
  3. to mean nothing. The machine                 suprises with the living thing
  4. arranged discreetly. Zhang was not          aware of when the beast was wrought
  5. against his odds. It calculates                   what, in Zhang, was inculcate
  6. by means of man. It overthinks                 its maker. Zhang is at the brink
  7. of knowledge. The machine provides        a newer line unfettered, eyes
  8. Zhang’s short circuit. As its pate              steels reflect, it finds a mate.

 

The second poem, “The Scent of the Rafflesia”, was written with an even more arbitrary consideration of subject. One of the things I’ve been knocked for with my previous poems was how I always kept writing about subjects, aping Western poets, which had little to do with my immediate milieu. I decided to focus on a historical poem set in colonial Southeast Asia as practice. I chose to write a poem about the Rafflesia, one of the flowers Singapore is known for, a pretty ugly flower that smells like a corpse. I went to Wikipedia, skimmed the page on Rafflesia and some of its linked sources, saw it was discovered in 1818 by Joseph Arnold, skimmed his page, saw he was a physician who sailed in a female convict vessel before, and decided that was a nice ‘in’ to the poem. Then I wrote it with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness on my mind, thought the end result was pretty nice, made a few edits to word choices, and shelved it. The ending was originally different (“and wished I had uncovered less…!”), but Dan Schneider advised it would be stronger if it left off in media res to deepen the mystery. So, the final form was decided:

The Scent Of The Rafflesia
*1818

Pushing against the dark exterior
of the jungle, Elang’s finger broadened
the nuances maps could not encompass.
“A flower.” he answered to our question
of what our search was to unriddle
and I thought of Suffolk’s fields
I had forgotten in prison ships.

Yet all left again within the red
formations of its spotted interior,
the pungence between flower and fungi,
the chilling piety left within
that God’s designing palms still hid
its matters, and how a body could crumble,
as mine did, when, cutting Jenny open,
I saw the unmoving smile of her baby
and wished I had-

Were the subjects of both poems issues I felt ‘urgent’ about? The first, somewhat, because while the impetus was a Twitch chess tournament, the idea of writing a poem about A.I. was bouncing around in my mind since the advent of AlphaGo back in 2016, as well as general interest from reading Science Fiction. I remember writing a bad lengthy poem about it back then. Only now I happened to find a better form to fit the theme, and had the skills to play around with the doubling of meanings. That the Rafflesia poem was rated so highly, though, was unexpected to me, given its provenance as more or less a ‘practice sonnet’. Urgency of issue? No way. But I can say I had fun trying to shift around the tropes and ideas, playing them off one another. And I can say that I wrote it when my mind was freshest in the day. Perhaps urgency will matter with capital-G Greatness; I’ll tell you (and Helen Vendler, if she’s still around) if I get there.

Let’s talk about method. Both poems were written on computer, which felt more natural to me. I wrote “Chess Against Engine” without voicing the lines to myself, only subvocalizing them in my head, but I wrote the Rafflesia one voicing out each line before I placed it into text. Although the former poem came out well, I still think vocalizing helps a lot. I wrote both poems in about an hour, if I recall, although I didn’t check the time. Perhaps I’ll video my screen next time I write for the sake of posterity. As you can tell from the above account, both poems were very scantly researched; I am no chess expert nor did I dive too deep in reading up on colonial or botanic history. I merely read up until I felt I had enough leeway to maneuver within the narrative of the poem. What I also had was a strong image of a previous literary work in mind when writing both poems: some of Stevens’ couplet poems for the first, and Heart of Darkness for the second.

Taking all that into account, did any of the above biographical and process-related information contribute to the quality of both poems? The answer is a lot of ‘depends’. Imagination worked more than research here, but you’d be pretty silly to try and write Hart Crane’s “The Bridge” with only a Wikipedia scroll’s worth of historical research. Then again, you could be a scholar and be no closer to writing it either. Typing worked for me, but maybe juices flow better when you feel words etched in ink or graphite. I spent about an hour on both poems, but that was enough time for me to think through the words pretty thoroughly. I’ve definitely spent longer staring at worse poems in the past, when my pattern recognition was worse. Still, if you’re the type whose brain can eke out greatness after hours of visual meditation, I can’t say anything against that if it gets results. And this doesn’t count the previous hours I spent thinking about, say, the implications of A.I. when reading Science Fiction or seeing news about AlphaGo. Did those add up? Who knows. The one thing I KNOW contributed, though, was the simple fact that I had read more poems, analyzed more poetic techniques, and practiced writing more; in other words, became more skillful at poetry. Words came more naturally. It was easier for me to sift out the associations between things, rope them into coherence, and make phonetic links too. I don’t want to say I’ve become a cliche-killing machine (I almost ruined the Rafflesia poem with a hasty edit which was called out by Dan), but I can spot them way better than before. So, since we’ve cleared all that fluff out of the way, let’s actually talk and analyze the poems themselves. I won’t provide a full analysis since I still want mysteries left for the readers to untangle themselves. If you’re the type who thinks it’s gauche for a writer to critique his own poems, pretend I’m a critic from Hong Kong with the same name as that poet from Singapore, that just happens to know some biographical information about the creation of the text, and is writing in his voice as a part of an elaborate practical joke. For the rest- let’s dive in!

A photograph of the rafflesia flower

‘Chess Against Engine’ is, as the title suggests, a poem about a chess player playing against a chess engine and, at the end, being beaten by it. Originally, the title of the Chess poem was ‘Against The Engine’. I didn’t want to specify any deeper what type of engine it was because the entire thrust of the poem is questioning whether man or machine comes off as more machinistic in the end, facilitated by the doubling of meanings through enjambment. I chose to add ‘Chess’ in front because, being rather abstracted, the only blatant indication that chess was being discussed is ‘pawn’ in line 2-2. I thought it would be much safer than having the reader use that lone word to connect to the entire subject of the poem. The name of the chess player, ‘Darren Zhang’, was rather arbitrarily chosen, a generic Singaporean name that combines a Christian name and a Chinese surname. I decided I wanted the overall style to be lean but abstract, mirroring the pure intellectual mechanics of a game of chess, so few of the lexical choices in the poem are heavily visual or sensual. A lot of the narrative is driven by grammatical ‘optical illusions’. The couplet form was chosen to mirror the 1v1 of a chess match. I didn’t have a clear idea of how the narrative would end but I knew that I wanted it to feel like a move being made by the human, then one made by the machine. Although, by the end, I wanted to mingle both sides together into a stew.

Grammatical play is immediate from the first line, since the verb ‘activates’ functions as both transitive and intransitive thanks to the enjambment. Either Darren is activating the machine or he is activated himself. Line 1-2 continues this, with enjambment allowing it to be read transitively with ‘the machine’ as agent, although in the larger syntax of the sentence it’s a transitive with Darren as the agent. What the machine ‘imitates’ is left open, but more important is that it opens the question of whether A.I. is merely being imitative of humans in the first place. Of course, by the next line this is subverted since it turns out the one imitating is Darren, who makes his move following a (chess opening) line “pondered in a book”, thus imitating human culture. 2-4’s enjambment was initially conceived more as a joke; it seems like Darren is regretting ‘taking’ a pawn from the board when the next line reveals rather he is regretting underestimating (‘took to mean nothing’) a pawn on the board, presumably on the machine’s side. Like one of those board positions where a pawn that was lying dormant the whole game suddenly becomes essential in attacking or defending. Later I realized that there was the more general meaning of Darren underestimating the machine as a ‘pawn’ to humans. This is one of those instances where a word chosen based on intuition surprises with associations previously unthought of. I could have used any other piece but ‘pawn’ seemed a better phonetic fit since it rhymes internally with ‘pondered’; lucky me that music unwittingly aided meaning.

Halfway while writing the poem, I realized the power of ‘mate’ as a pun and how perfectly it would tie every single element together. At that moment, the direction of the poem crystalized. I knew I had to maneuver the words towards that ending. Add to that an image of the head of the player being reflected within the metal frame of the machine: ‘pate’ that rhymes with ‘mate’, the potential of ‘steel’ as a verb and noun, as well as ‘reflect’. Man merging with machine. The rest of the creative process was more or less knitting those double meanings on every line. It involved looking at the previous line(s) and thinking of a natural grammatical or semantic outgrowth which would lend itself to multiplicities: e.g. playing machine off ‘living’ in 3-2; enjambing ‘mean nothing’ and ‘machine’ in 3-1; ‘brink/of knowledge’ and knowledge provided by the machine in 6-2 to 7-1 etc… ‘Play’ is the important verb here because that’s what I did, had fun with it, enjoying the twists and turns. And the faith that those twists and turns would come was built on the knowledge gleaned from analyzing and being inspired by (stealing from) other poems. So, no, Helen, I cared less about the issue of the poem than I cared about its expression, on the level of word. Anyway, I think the main mechanisms of the poem are mostly elucidated, so you can figure the rest out yourself. On to the next poem!

A historical sonnet is one that requires a bit of prep, since finding an idea that’s interesting determines the scope of execution. Writing about any subject might be possible if you’re great and have an overpowering style, but it’s better to avoid the most conspicuous stuff which a lot of other writers have written about anyway. The narrative thrust I chose was to play off the discovery a wild exotic plant, against a more internal act of discovery, or remembrance, on the part of the explorer. Sifting through Arnold’s biography, his role as a physician on a female convict vessel, I imagined a traumatic event finding the flower might remind him of: say, performing a caesarean on one of the convicts and finding a dead baby. On hindsight, that event might be kind of melodramatic, but the melodrama was mitigated in the poem by leaving the reveal up till the very end, as well as describing it in Arnold’s tone, which I imagined as a somewhat distanced formal British. And, to emphasize the point that, in a poem, being imaginative is way more important than representing reality, here is an excerpt of the actual letter Arnold wrote to Raffles about his discovery:

“I had ventured some way from the party, when one of the Malay servants came running to me with wonder in his eyes, and said, “Come with me, Sir, come! a flower, very large, beautiful, wonderful!” I immediately went with the man about a hundred yards in the jungle and he pointed to a flower growing close to the ground under the bushes, which was truly astonishing. My first impulse was to cut it up and carry it to the hut. I therefore seized the Malay’s parang (a sort of instrument like a woodman’s chopping-hook), and finding that it sprang from a small root which ran horizontally (about as large as two fingers, or a little more), I soon detached it and removed it to our hut. To tell you the truth, had I been alone, and had there been no witnesses, I should think I have been fearful of mentioning the dimensions of this flower, so much does it exceed every flower I have ever seen or heard of; but I had Sir Stamford and Lady Raffles with me, and a Mr. Palsgrave, a respectable man residing at Manna, who, though equally astonished with myself, yet are able to testify as to the truth.”

None of the existential fear I injected into my version of the narrative is present here. In fact, he seems pretty happy about it. Truth, it ain’t! On the other hand, if you’ve read the poem you’ll know, while it lies about facts, it expresses poetically the feeling of coming across something outside the limits of your knowledge; a fiction more potent than factual recount. But too much of that talk and I’ll start sounding like a lit critic, so let’s get into details.

The first line is a blatant subversion of a cliche, the ‘heart of darkness’ or ‘dark interior’; to push against a dark exterior is a far more intriguing description of exploration. Shifting ‘of the jungle’ to the next line also allows the sentiment to hang without attaching it to a physical location. Next, taking the idea of the Malay servant who led Arnold to the flower, I focused on his finger pointing the way as an image, but used the verb ‘broadened’ to play off the digit’s smallness. By enjambing at the verb it also forces ‘the jungle’ of the previous clause into the object of broadening. A finger broadening ‘the nuances maps could not encompass’ is a fancy way of describing the guide being able to venture into areas not yet covered on British maps. At this point, the narrator asks the guide the purpose of the exploration, and this is where the sudden biographical leap comes into play when he thinks about the fields of Suffolk. Because the memory is decontextualized, it leaves a mystery of what the narrator might feel about his past, and what is his relation to the ‘prison ships’. Right here you might have noticed that though I call this a sonnet, it clearly goes beyond 14 lines and utterly eschews rhyme scheme. The critics, the rest of Helen Vendler’s ilk, might take me to task for that, but this is a short poem with a voltaic twist that has its two parts playing off each other. And, while writing it, I had the structure of other sonnets, such as Willis Barnstone’s or Dan’s historical ones, in mind. Quite frankly the poem speaks for itself, so it doesn’t really matter, but I just wanted to get that out of the way.

The start of the 2nd stanza describe the Rafflesia, and this plays off the ‘dark’ and ‘exterior’ at the start of the poem. Enjambing at ‘red’ creates this feeling of disembodied color which could be physical or psychological. ‘Spotted’ can function as both adjective and verb. The next part describes the smell and touches on the narrator’s Christianity, because few, even if rationalistic, are going to be outright agnostic or atheistic in British colonial times. The stanza then builds up from religiously-motivated existential questioning into another mysteriously decontextualized memory. The corpselike pungence of the flower activates the narrator’s memory of his time on the prison ship, performing a caesarian. I chose ‘unmoving smile’ as a subtler and muted description of a dead baby, although some readers could read it as alive too. Finally, the ending cuts everything off before the narrator can reveal the object of his ‘wish’.

In my original ending, I had the narrator lamenting this discovery of the baby. Considering Dan’s fix, cutting it off opens more possibilities of what the narrator could be wishing for: pining for home? The baby being alive? Better medical skills? Rather than funnel it into one answer, the abrupt end is objectively the better option. That’s why if you’re a young poet, living in current times, with some amount of talent, you should contact Dan Schneider, because there is a living MASTER, of the Beethovenian, Rembrandtian, and Melvillian variety, there to help you guide your pen, just one email away. Genuine poetic expertise without the need to waste money on academic books, like Helen Vendler’s hefty tome. And these two poems, though largely of my own efforts, are attestations to that fact. Did I think I could be writing excellent poetry eventually a few years ago, before Cosmoetica? Well, maybe. But now I KNOW I can. With considerably more hit-and-miss than better poets, but there is still a certainty there that, lacking such, I could have spiraled into a million other lesser avenues without any fruition. And the knowledge that there is certainty to art, and progression, is what will save more artists from the world’s offshooting oblivions.

So that’s it with my evaluation. If you’ve managed to read this far, let’s talk about the future. Where, currently, am I? Well, as you can see, despite these poems being of quality, they are largely marriages of form to idea, different from each other, nothing that outright unites them together as Chinian the same way a poem might be Cranean, or Plathian, or Jessian, or Schneiderian. That leaves me in a bit of a pickle. Because, my foundations lost again, I have to remake them. Obviously it would be silly to go on infinitely replicating coupleted A.I. poems or Heart Of Darkness-esque colonial discovery poems. Maybe the ideas will bleed into later poems, but their form will be nothing like these. Now, I can’t say much for how great writers feel, not having reached there yet, but I imagine there must be a little more certainty knowing that any subject you touch will be unmistakably accented with your voice: being able to pull structures out of air like Stevens, or an elegy of your lamentations like Rilke. For me, with some level of technical capability, but not yet that unity of voice, there’s still more searching, relying on the lucky nooks of the world than making a notch of one’s own. That’s art for you: not noun, but verb, and all the flux that involves. To quote my better self: “a newer line unfettered, eyes”.

Oh, and going back to Helen Vendler, let me tweak that maxim of hers little:

“The urgency of a poem is the how of its issue.”

Let’s leave it at that.

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