June 17, 2020
DAY 3: GOING TO PROM
Welcome to the third day of our poetry retreat. Thanks for joining me.
To keep a health issue at bay—and since I can no longer go to the local gym—I've spent a great deal of time exercising during quarantine. My bedroom has an odd alcove that now holds my yoga mat. Each day, I activate and stretch my muscles, looking to identify and expand their ranges of motion.
It's true range of motion I'm seeking, not passive range. True range is the amount of movement available to muscle groups when they operate on their own strength. Passive range is the amount of movement available when external force is applied. Passive force takes muscles to unnatural stopping points.
In the world of muscles and joints, PROM stands for passive range of motion. As a poet, however, I like to think of PROM as poetic range of motion. PROM—poetic range of motion—refers to how far a poem can extend before it loses its natural strength. A poem's strength is born from the dual action of language and meaning.
When a poem reaches true PROM, it reaches its perfect length. It can't be contracted without losing something essential, and it can't be extended without sounding overwritten. Long or short, every poem has a true PROM.
Overwriting is one way we prevent our poems from reaching their true range of motion.
Mistaking more for better, we push our poems into a passive stretch, writing beyond the point at which they've already delivered their meaning. We often do this at the end, by "wrapping up" or summarizing a poem.
Sometimes, we also do it at the beginning. It can sound a little like this:
I'm going to write about rain.
I'm about to tell you about the rain.
I'm almost there. Okay,
I'm ready. For three days,
we lived inside walls of rain.
That's not a terrible last line, actually! The problem is that it should be the first, because the poem's true range of motion begins at For three days, we lived inside walls of rain. The lines before it carry no tension. They have no strength.
One of my teachers once said that an opening line should grab the reader and pull them into the room of the poem. I think of his comment every single time I start a poem.
When I work on a poem's ending, I think of my mother. She used to tell my misbehaving brothers, "Know when to stop."
The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai
(Translated from the Hebrew by Stephen Mitchell)
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
During quarantine, we've worked hard to express ourselves in the spaces available to us. We've cleaned and organized, cooked, read, gardened, written letters. We've adapted to doors and walls, beginnings and endings.
Write a poem called "In This Room." Pretend you will give it to someone whose company you enjoy. Describe your surroundings in a way that would make them wish they could keep you company inside that room. Pay special attention to your opening line. How will you pull your reader inside?
Speaking of making the most of our work and living spaces, here's some eye candy for writers: ideas for homemade desks.