New Poem: “Buried in the Garden”

I have a poem published in May’s Snakeskin which (shock, horror!) is not formal.

Snakeskin logo

Buried in the Garden

Now I lie dead, buried in the garden,
And the plants take over.
Two hibiscus bushes grow from my eyes,
Oleander from my nose,
A sapodilla will fruit from my mouth,
Casuarinas grow to sigh from my ears.
From my chest a love vine straggles out
And black crabs live in the cavities of my lungs.
A chicken boa curls around and hunts up and down
And from my private parts grows
That least private of plants, a coconut palm.
From my feet termites are building tunnels out around the world.
So is my body divided, reused, and the birds take hair for their nests
And the calcium of bones and teeth for their eggs
And the body, the body is gone.
And what am I, but a body? What would remain in your sieve if you sift my remains?
Only some thoughts, others’ memories of some thoughts,
Blown away on the wind when the rememberers themselves are gone.

At a stretch, you could claim it has elements of formality. It has a structured sequence of appropriate tropical plants and other creatures growing from body parts – the most visually arresting from the eyes, the most highly scented from the nose, and so on. It has a volta, a turn in the argument from the description of transformation as positive, to the dismissal of that process as being mere erasure.

But are those things enough to make the whole piece word-for-word memorable? Because that is my test of poetry. And I think the answer is no. So no, it is not real poetry. There may be one or two memorable phrases, but that’s not enough. The underlying concept may be memorable, the images may be memorable; still not enough. Only if the entire piece is easy to recite because of the actual expression of the words, I argue, can it be called poetry.

Should you then put your time into transforming the images into formal verse, creating perhaps a Shakespearean sonnet, iambic pentameter and all?

Buried in the Garden (Take 2)

In garden buried, I sprout from my eyes
Hibiscus; oleander from my nose;
From mouth, a sapodilla; a pine sighs
From out my ear; from chest a love vine grows;
Black crabs in lungs, small boa in my guts;
From feet, ants tunnel out around the world;
My privates sprout a palm with coconuts.
Birds peck my bones, my teeth, hair that once curled,
For calcium for eggs and for a nest…
Sift my remains: what remains in your sieve?
Of my whole body I’ve been dispossessed,
Only the memory of some thoughts still live
Within the thoughts of others’ memories;
When those rememberers go, all traces cease.

So we come back to the old questions of poetry: is the expression itself richer or poorer for having been put into verse? And is the formal verse expression (whether richer or poorer) more memorable than the non-formal expression? What do you think?

I wonder if Snakeskin editor George Simmers has an opinion.

3 thoughts on “New Poem: “Buried in the Garden”

  1. Michael Burch

    Are you saying that your free verse isn’t up to snuff and thus doesn’t qualify as poetry, or are you saying that free verse as a rule doesn’t measure up to the best formal poetry (a position taken by a number of contemporary formalists)?

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    1. Robin Helweg-Larsen Post author

      Generally the latter, assayed with the word-for-word-memorable test. In this particular case I wrote the sonnet as an afterthought, as a translation out of Free into Formal, and I don’t have an opinion (yet) as to which version I prefer, or why, or what such a preference says about the nature of poetry (as opposed to about the nature of enjoyment). I *can* say that my wife Eliza prefers the Free.

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      1. Michael Burch

        I suspected the latter. It’s an idea that makes absolutely no sense to me, because there are memorable works of free verse that eclipse 99.9% of contemporary formalism, if not 100%. I find it amusing when formalists speak dismissively of free verse, never having come close to the masterpieces of Walt Whitman (“A Noiseless Patient Spider”), Ezra Pound (“The Garden”), T. S. Eliot (“Prufrock”), Louise Bogan (“After the Persian”), et al.

        And what about “The Song of Solomon,” the haiku of Basho, and other forms of poetry that don’t employ English poetic meter or rhyme?

        There’s an old saying: “The proof is in the pudding.” After I have heard all the arguments about how formal poetry is better than free verse, I like to sample the pudding for myself. I’ve created a page of free verse that I believe proves there are memorable free verse poems:

        http://www.thehypertexts.com/The%20Best%20Free%20Verse%20Poems%20of%20All%20Time.htm

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