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Prose Poets: ‘Of Gears’

gear def


I like poems that change gears, or change gear, if you prefer. I also like songs that change gear, like ‘I Heard Ramona Sing’ by Frank Black, which gives the gearbox a good work out before settling into the first verse. It seems to rev through four or five intros before finding its optimal cruising speed.

I’ve written poems that try to do the same thing: changing direction, energy, tone, sound, and pace – sometimes when expected and necessary, and sometimes when not. It’s about escape velocity and gut instinct and breath. A poem doesn’t have to do these things but the engine and the chassis of a poet’s imagination ought to be capable of getting into and out of trouble at the turn of a line.

Johnson’s dictionary came out a little too early to carry this more recent sense of ‘gear’. Johnson elaborates gear’s meaning as “Furniture; accoutrements; dress; habit; ornaments.” If we were to transpose this to a poem, we might talk of a poem’s gear as its layout, form, diction, ‘image-bank’, tone, rhyme scheme, and so on: its ‘clobber’ (both noun and verb).

In this sense, a poem is its own ornament. It wears itself. But does it wear it well? What kind of silhouette does it throw? Sometimes that’s best seen from across the room. A second definition, however, does take us closer to the modern vehicular meaning: “The traces by which horses or oxen draw.” If you like, let this definition steer you down another path to Homer, Joyce, and the Oxen of the Sun: it almost did me.

You can’t change gear until you’re in one: until you’re in motion. You’ve got to start somewhere. Did you park your imagination on a hill? Did you leave it in gear? Will you get a rolling start or rev up to the biting point before releasing the handbrake and gliding (or lurching) forward? Let’s look at some openings of poems; some ignitions.

It’s easy to choose examples that fit one’s arguments, so I thought I would pick poems at complete random from my shelves and see where they took me.

First up, I laid my hands on The Whole Motion by James Dickey and opened it on page 45 to the poem ‘For Robert Bhain Campbell’, which begins:


Unwandering, I can move
One hand, then both,
But not the hand to write what you can hear.


Let’s imagine that titles are doors: car doors. ‘For Robert Bhain Campbell’ is fairly heavy and closes with a satisfyingly snug clunk: no loose revolving handles or kooky gull-wing action here. Being dedicated to a triple-named, aristocratic-sounding gentleman (whether you know this doomed poet – this acquaintance of John Berryman’s – or not), the title carries a sense of stateliness and formality: a broad wheelbase, I’d say. So turn the key.


Unwandering, I can move


I have just spent a fair amount of time trying to parse this line. If you suppress the ‘er’ of ‘wand’ring’, we seem to be dealing with iambic trimeter [ -/-/-/ ], which ties in with the iambs of the following two lines. But ‘unwandering’ can only have four syllables to my ear and I wonder if it’s that rare four-toed foot the ‘second paeon’ [ -/– ] followed by a trochee [ /- ] and a catalectic trochee with its front wheels hanging over a cliff at the line break?

Whatever the case, the line does seem to shudder on the spot, though: moving but not moving forward; or unwandering and yet moving. Motion and lack of motion are held in tension, if not ironised. These effects are intensified by that whacking great caesura after the first comma.


One hand, then both,
But not the hand to write what you can hear.


By line three the poem is moving smoothly in the lane designated for buses, taxis and iambics. And to be honest, the poem continues at a dependable pace but with an ever-present sense of possible change or reconsideration:


Young poet asleep with cancer,
I feel you changing with
I feel you changing my language


Those repeated line openings (never exact copies, of course, as nicely covered in Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry) remind us of the tentative opening of this poem, the tensions in play.

The second poem I picked at random was ‘Suicide’ from Melissa Lee-Houghton’s collection Beautiful Girls (page 55). The door/title of this poem feels like one belonging to a lighter or sportier vehicle than Dickey’s. It is pulled shut urgently, the keys stabbed at the ignition in the need for a quick getaway.


There’s a child, a pretty girl. We all see her. The nurses don’t.


It’s halting though: there’s anxiety, suspense, staccato attempts to turn the engine over. Each attempt hits a comma or (more frequently) a full stop.


Sarah calls her Mary. She won’t talk to us.
She is always trying to loosen the reinforced windows for us.


By the third line we’re moving but I feel a little nervous to be travelling with these two women – their names familiar from scripture – in this unpredictable, lurching vehicle. The feet on the pedals, the hand on the gearstick give a bumpy ride. There are hairpin turns, emergency stops, sprints, and sometimes I imagine I can feel the taut strap of a seatbelt against my sternum:


Sarah says Mary’s only five and her mother doesn’t want her.
I want her. I don’t drink and I don’t eat. And Sarah’s mad,
madder than television, than torchlight at the back of your eyes;
we spend all day going out of our minds like scratched records skipping.
As I read, I’m worried that this poem will crash. I’ve feared it since the title.
Outside it’s gale force, she’ll never make it.
The wind picks up and smashes and smashes against the dormitories;
my hands shatter in my lap. Sarah says it’s ok,
someone will come soon and sweep them up.


Something does, indeed, crash.

My third randomly picked poem is by Vida Mokrin-Pauer and is a translation from Arc’s Six Slovenian Poets. So its engine has been retuned and it may be forced to drive on the wrong side of the road, or across the bumpy cats’ eyes between the dashes of the central white line. It begins:


it’s disgusting, now that I’ve written this out. This jelly of stuff. When love
clips capillaries together, and I’m hardening like a piece of wood. A one-
hundred-year-old Venetian piece : piloting it here, broom-like, beneath the
cathedral up outstretched thoughts. A worn-out hen on a hatching egg.
Undecided surroundings of cruelty. But the lunacy in me is ebbing away.


This two-stanza piece seems to straddle poem and prose poem: both sides of the road. There’s something about the layout and the line breaks that makes me wonder if another edition might be slightly different. While my knowledge of Slovene is slender, the way both versions (original and English) are ‘dressed’ (to come back to this other sense of ‘gear’ for a moment) mirror each other closely, with a certain amount of necessary rearranging of material across the lines (“capillaries” and “kapilare” for example appear on different lines).

The poem begins in a similar way to Lee-Houghton’s, with that first short sentence stopped early on in the line. But the capitals, the bold text, and the AND of the second sentence enjambing over onto the next line give this the feeling of a rolling hill-start. I imagine the poet heaving the poem forward, one hand on the wheel, jumping onto the running board and then into the driver’s seat to gun the engine after some speed has been gained.

There’s something gradual, shapeless, but eventually exhilarating about this start, with “This jelly of stuff.” This poem mutates, sprouts wings, hardens, softens, squeezes blood vessels, careers downhill. I don’t think this poem is going to crash with me in it; I half expect its wheels to leave the ground and the whole thing to soar above Venice or another, more gothic, cityscape. Its gearbox is a little more ‘experimental’ and assisted, no doubt, by the inevitable creative retuning of the translators (Ana Jelnikar and Stephen Watts by the way, who have certainly brought this fascinating and enjoyable poet alive for me).

Looking back over this essay, I realise I’ve focused more on getting started rather than changing gears: getting the poem into gear, getting it into its gear, checking out a poem’s clobber in a full-length mirror before hitting the town. I may have just made a start but I’ve run out of road. Maybe you’ll find my abandoned vehicle and hot-wire it, drive it further.

Prose Poets is a new series of short prose essays on poetics by poets. Each essay uses a word and definition excerpt from Samuel Johnson’s first edition of the English Dictionary as a spur towards an exploration of poetry, language and literary criticism, combining a casual, subjective treatment of the chosen theme with personal anecdotes and reflections.

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Image credit: Marian Bijlenga