One of the earmarks of Spanish poetry is the use of a leap into seemingly unrelated imaginary material. Poets such as Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, César Vallejo and Antonio Machado all use this technique to great effect. These poets and many others were introduced to us by the deep image poets of the 1960s such as Robert Bly, James Wright and W.S. Merwin. Earlier American poets such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell had already shown themselves capable of similar sudden metaphorical flights. As a result, many poets writing today have a wealth of examples to draw on and learn from. Our admiration for these mavericks has led to imitation, and we now have integrated “the imaginative leap” into our own American brand of contemporary poetry. Here’s an example of such a poem by Ellen Bass.
“If You Knew”
What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.
When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.
A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.
How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?
“If You Knew” by Ellen Bass, from The Human Line, is used by permission of Copper Canyon Press, 2007.
If the title of this poem is compelling for its mystery, the premise of the poem is clear from the first line. What if, on a given day, all the people you encountered were going to die soon after you touched them? Would you treat them differently? The poem asks you to consider this question, as well as everyone you have ever come into contact with, from the anonymous person stuck inside the ticket booth or the teenager standing glassy-eyed at the cordoned-off movie theater hallway, to your own beloved aunt, kissed by a stranger she’s charmed after lunch. The question of the poem provides the true significance to these daily interactions that we might otherwise find mundane or forgettable.
But it’s the leap in the final stanza that gives the poem its extraordinary emotional weight and psychological power. The images come from the deep unconscious. A dragon appears out of nowhere. The heavens crack open. And in the final lines, the human predicament of time and its passage resonate against the image of a bee or butterfly pinned in a lepidopterist’s display case—the fragile and beautiful, the fleeting and rare. This is the imagination at its best, carried away to metaphor.
Another example of the leap can be found in this modern day poetic fable by Joseph Millar.
Today he’ll ride his bike to Safeway
in his death’s head earring and mismatched socks
where the checkers all know his name. He’ll buy
Cheeto’s and Kool Aid before coming home to bathe
in the rusty light from the TV, until I get off work
and collapse on the fake velvet sofa, a double order
of fast food bleeding grease through a bag in my fist.
He hasn’t eaten anything green in a week
and I see the dirt under his fingernail when he points
to the surfboard he drew on his sneaker.
What would we do if I got fired, I wonder,
listening to the wind outside and the evening’s
announcing more layoffs in the South Bay.
in the bank for his school clothes, and the rent’s
almost paid again. I should be happier.
He’s been watching the talk shows. Have
you ever done it with someone you didn’t love,
he asks, his old guitar resting against the wall
like an abandoned girlfriend, and the pleats
of the hound’s-tooth, fleamarket slacks
gathered around his small waist
like the leaves of a sunflower calyx.
Eat slowly, I say, as he smiles at me
around a mouthful of fries, points the clicker
at my chest and says I’m getting fat.
We’re bound together like sailors, swaying across
a dark ocean, resigned to each other’s odd humors
and unable to see the stars overhead
as we stagger around in the engine room
of a ship with a foreign name.
“Sole Custody” by Joseph Millar, from Overtime, is used by permission of Eastern Washington University Press, 2001.
Unlike the previous poem, this piece relies more on a narrative context wherein gradually more details of the speaker’s situation are revealed. Single parenting, economic anxiety and insecurity, and the vast gulf between the experience of the adult and the innocence of the child—a completely contemporary Blakean dichotomy—are the materials that give rise to the startling leap of the final stanza, which plucks us from a shabby living room and drops us into the belly of a ship on the high seas.
These two poems have absorbed the rhetorical movement from traditions of other times and other lands to find their way home, and into our hearts.
TRY A LEAP
Write an imaginative poem wherein you ask a theoretical question and extend it for as many lines as you can. Choose your examples from different areas of life so that you look at the question from a variety of angles or viewpoints. You could also tell a brief story taken from everyday life wherein you describe many of the various physical particulars and touch on one or two emotional moments.
From one of these two foundations, allow yourself to leap into metaphor; find an image or a series of images that can contain and expand your extended ruminations.
This exercise can also be used to resolve and revise an existing poem you feel hasn’t yet attained its fullness and power. It may not be easy to find your metaphor at first. Don’t be afraid to try anything: a box, a wave, a leaf. Millar has spent time on the ocean in fishing boats and his metaphor comes from experience. Bass has a partner who studies insects and the metaphor arose organically. Look to your own life and don’t rule anything out.
Another approach might be to begin with the metaphor and find the context for it later. Jack Gilbert wrote a poem called “Michiko Dead.” It’s one long metaphor that describes what it’s like to carry a heavy box around in your arms.
This poem is very simple in both language and execution, and the leap doesn’t take place inside the poem, but rather in its conception. The poet suddenly saw how the adjustments we make to get through our days when someone we love has died are all the same kinds of contortions the body must make to continue holding something heavy.
You might begin by describing an extended action such as weeding the yard, sweeping the porch or dressing for work. After you’ve described your actions in minute detail, take a look and see how this description could be a metaphor for something else. Make that the title of the poem.