Toward a Practice of Metacraft

As it is most commonly conceived, craft orients poetry by and toward better, but I propose a counterconception I’ll call ‘metacraft,’ which recognizes also the possibility of orienting poetry by and toward otherwise.

I take the former conception as prevalent enough to count as common sense. So, for example, asked why she was teaching a workshop on craft, a poet likely would reply to the effect that such a workshop would help her students become better poets. Asked why he was taking a workshop on craft, a student likely would reply to the effect that he was seeking to write better poetry. And either might add of course. It seems obvious, even self-evident. But that common-sense conception of virtual reality headset craft takes for granted that writing poetry is a skill, acquired by approximating a given standard, and achieved by realizing in poems that given standard. To hone my poetic craft is to make my poetry more poetic, to make my poems look more like poems.

At least two consequences of that assumption, though, are problematic enough to warrant a reconsideration of the common-sense conception of craft. First, it makes poetry inherently conservative, by definition the preservation of structure already in place. To approximate a given standard is to approximate a given standard, to reproduce a status quo, reinforce an establishment. Second, it does not account for all the phenomena. It’s true that, say, Paradise Lost ‘looks like poetry’: presented with an unidentified reproduction of a page from Paradise Lost, in a context that created no prior expectation that poetry would be presented, any contemporary reader of English would recognize it immediately as poetry. But presented with, say, page 115 of Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which simply lists names of pharmaceutical companies, or with page 45 of Jena Osman’s The Network, which gives a chart tracing several seemingly unrelated English words (e.g. ‘finery’ and ‘finance’) back to a common Latin root, or with pages 56 and 57 of Lisa Fishman’s Flower Cart, which offer a photoreproduction of two pages from a workbook called ‘Trees I Have Seen,’ partially filled in with handwriting dated 1910, the same reader of English would be unlikely to identify it as poetry. Without context, the reader might call the Rankine page a list, the Osman a chart, and the Fishman a photocopy, but probably would not call any of the three poetry until offered cues such as surrounding pages from the book, or the book’s self-identification as poetry.

By ‘metacraft,’ I mean to name and describe a sense of craft that accommodates both Milton and Rankine and Osman and Fishman, a sense that recognizes both poetry’s capacity to fulfill existing standards and to contest those standards. The common-sense conception of craft is realized by making one’s poetry look more like poetry; to that possibility metacraft adds another, expanding craft to include its realization by making one’s poetry look less like poetry.

Linguist George Lakoff’s book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things offers a construct that helps toward the alternative conception. Lakoff speaks of ‘idealized cognitive models’ (ICMs), which he identifies as structures by means of which we organize our knowledge. Part of Lakoff’s purpose is to show that ICMs function more or less successfully in a given human context, but do not correspond to preexisting realities. So the concept of a ‘weekend,’ for example, ‘requires a notion of a work week of five days followed by a break of two days, superimposed on the seven-day calendar,’ but this reveals that it is idealized, not ‘real,’ since ‘seven-day weeks do not exist objectively in nature’ (68-69). Lakoff further distinguishes ‘cluster models,’ in which ‘a number of cognitive models combine to form a complex cluster that is psychologically more basic than the models taken individually’ (74). Lakoff’s example of a cluster model is ‘mother.’ One would think that for so important a concept we would be able to ‘give clear necessary and sufficient conditions for mother that will fit all the cases and apply equally to all of them.’ But in fact no possible definition can ‘cover the full range of cases,’ because ‘mother’ employs various ICMs, including such divergent models as: the birth model, in which the mother is ‘the person who gives birth’; the genetic model, in which the mother is ‘the female who contributes the genetic material’; the nurturance model, in which the mother is ‘the female adult who nurtures and raises a child’; the marital model, in which the mother is ‘the wife of the father’; and the genealogical model, in which the mother is ‘the closest female ancestor’ (74). Lakoff’s point is that if, say, I was adopted by one woman, who died soon after, and raised by the woman who raised her, then the birth model identifies one person as my mother, the marital model picks out another, and the nurturance model yet another.

Lakoff goes on to point out that ‘when the cluster of models that jointly characterize a concept diverge, there is still a strong pull to view one as the most important’ (75), as reflected in the custom of dictionaries to rank definitions. The model construed as most important Lakoff calls the ‘privileged model.’ But the privileged model often needs qualification, as happens when we find ourselves needing to describe someone as a ‘stepmother, surrogate mother, adoptive mother, foster mother, biological mother,’ etc. (76), which happens, Lakoff says, in cases ‘where there is a lack of convergence of the various models’ (76). The crucial point is that ‘the concept mother is not clearly defined, once and for all, in terms of common necessary and sufficient conditions. There need be no necessary and sufficient conditions for motherhood shared by…biological mothers, donor mothers…, surrogate mothers…, adoptive mothers, unwed mothers who give their children up for adoption, and stepmothers’ (76).

I propose that ‘poetry,’ like ‘mother,’ is, in Lakoff’s terms, a ‘cluster model,’ and that the availability of widely varied privileged models for poetry, combined with the impossibility of giving necessary and sufficient conditions that cover all cases of poetry, makes a practice of metacraft incumbent on all of us who write poetry, and also helps reveal metacraft at work as the recognition of alternative models.

Probably no cognitive model of poetry is so widely accepted as that based on a contrast between prose, which is presented ‘continuously’ on the page, and poetry, which is broken into lines. This ‘lineation model’ shows up in ways as varied as the familiar joke about converting prose into poetry by expanding the margins, and J. V. Cunningham’s assertion that ‘as prose is written in sentences, without significant lineation, so poetry is written in sentences and lines‘ (267; my emphasis). However common this model may be, though, it is demonstrably not comprehensive. To name one obvious exception, there is by now a long and established tradition of the ‘prose poem,’ whose very name indicates both its claim to be poetry and its refusal to privilege the cognitive model that would make lineation definitive of poetry.

That has everything to do with the Claudia Rankine book. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is printed as prose, but the book is tagged for marketing purposes ambiguously as ‘lyric essay / poetry.’ It couldn’t have been written if Rankine had accepted as her model for poetry the contrast between poetry and prose. The page referred to above, the list of pharmaceutical companies, fits the lineation model in at best an ambiguous way. Yet lists have value for us, including potential emotional value. The most obvious example of a list laden with emotional value is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which simply lists names. In Rankine’s case, the list of pharmaceutical companies turns out to be a list of the ‘thirty-nine drug companies [that] filed suit in order to prevent South Africa’s manufacture of generic AIDS drugs,’ a suit that attempts to enforce the companies’ claim to own, as ‘intellectual property,’ antiretrovirals, thus protecting their own profits, though doing so would entail the deaths of millions of people, the great majority of ‘the five million South Africans infected by the HIV virus.’ Rankine laments in the poem that ‘it is not possible to communicate how useless, how much like a skin-sack of uselessness I felt’ (117). The list of pharmaceutical companies comes close to communicating that, though. When I face the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I understand the irrecoverable loss of thousands of lives of individual human persons in a different way than before, with an emotional immediacy that my general awareness of the fact of those deaths does not possess; similarly, when I see Claudia Rankine’s list of pharmaceutical companies, I understand her uselessness because I recognize it as my own uselessness in the face of, and my complicity in the fact of, colonialist plunder of material wealth and scorn for human life. I understand my uselessness and complicity in a different way than before, with far greater immediacy. Do we wish for that possibility to be excluded from poetry? Then we cannot accept as given or fixed the lineation model as our way of thinking of poetry; we cannot let it set the limits for our poetry.

If the lineation model is inadequate, what about the model Aristotle proposes in the Poetics? He specifically states that ‘the distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse’ (my emphasis). In other words, he begins by observing that the lineation model won’t do. He explains that ‘you might put the work of Herodotus into verse, and it would still be a species of history; it consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature of universals, whereas those of history are singulars’ (1451b 1-11).

Call this the ‘algebraic model.’ If the lineation model establishes parameters for poetry by differentiating it from prose, the algebraic model constructs poetry by differentiating it from history. History documents the facts, accounting for what actually occurred. Poetry, in contrast, portrays on this model the necessities and principles that underlie the facts, accounting for what did not in fact occur but might have, and may yet. Poetry’s contrast with history resembles algebra’s contrast with arithmetic. The arithmetic equation 2 + 2 = 4 tells me that the two bananas I had today for breakfast and the two I had yesterday total four bananas. The algebraic equation x + .02x = y tells me how much any salary would be after a two percent raise.

This ‘algebraic model’ gives a way of finding King Lear, a play about events that never happened, and about persons who never existed, more edifying than The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a history of events that did happen and were performed by persons who did exist. Or again, of finding The Waste Land, though Eliot’s characters, such as his ‘typist home at teatime’ and ‘young man carbuncular,’ were invented, more edifying than Democracy in America, though Tocqueville’s characters, his George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were ‘real people.’ Yet, for all its virtues, the algebraic model cannot be all things to all poems. Where, to name only one instance, would the Divine Comedy, with its many ‘real people,’ even people of Dante’s personal acquaintance, fit in this scheme?

Jena Osman could hardly have included in The Network the etymology charts of which the page referred to above is an instance if she accepted Aristotle’s privileged model as her own. Osman wants to include in her book, and she wants to emphasize, the factuality of language. As she herself formulates things on the first page of her book, ‘Rather than invent a world, I want a different means to understand this one. I follow Cecilia Vicuña’s instruction to use an etymological dictionary: “To enter words in order to see”‘ (3). Osman’s book enacts a premise formulated in this way by Jan Zwicky: ‘Few words are capsized on the surface of language, subject to every redefining breeze. Most, though they have drifted, are nonetheless anchored, their meanings holding out for centuries against the sweep of rationalist desire’ (166). That is, words, though they undergo constant change, do not change randomly, so any word contains in itself a form of history, is itself a kind of history. It is this history that Osman seeks to access, and to make available to a reader willing to wonder how Wall Street came to have the power it does over our country and over our lives.

Etymologies are forms of association, to which Osman adds other forms, such as maps and chronologies. Forms of association invite further association, as for example when Osman gives a chronology, listing various events in the order of their occurrence, identifying them by the year of their occurrence, and ending with an account of a 1920 event in which a ‘horse and buggy loaded with dynamite explodes in front of the J.P. Morgan Bank, killing 40 people’ (98). Because chains of association ask to be continued, Osman does not have to say to her readers, ‘Please note the points of analogy between this event and the events of 9/11.’ Simply offering it as the last item in a chronology invites continuation of the chronology with the association to that later event. But the association is between historical events. Osman’s poetry bases itself in, and purports to present, history. Aristotle’s privileged model of poetry as a contrast to history doesn’t cover this case; Osman must have had some other privileged model in mind when she was writing her book.

A third common cognitive model is proposed by Shakespeare’s character Theseus in his familiar speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing
A local habitation and a name.  (V i 4-17)

The model Theseus offers here is exciting enough, bordering as it does on sex and madness. Poetry, this model would have it, is poetry not by contrast with prose, as in the lineation model, or with history, as in the algebraic model, but with reason. I’ll call this the ‘fantastic model.’ In it, poetry is the discursive result of seeing things. The lunatic imagines things that aren’t there, but fails to make and maintain a distinction between things that aren’t there and things that are. The lover sees one thing, the beloved, as he or she is not. The poet experiences the same press of imagination as the lunatic or the lover, but records it, displays it to others in words. Poetry records fantasy, the seeing of unreal things in place of real things.

Like the lineation model and the algebraic model, the fantastic model, according to which the poet is animated, even overwhelmed, by her hyperactive imagination, enjoys currency in popular culture, but Lisa Fishman could not have written Flower Cart if she had accepted it. Fishman opens her book, not with something she imagined, but with something she found. The first full page of her book contains not a single word she herself wrote: it’s a photocopy, reproducing a 1916 letter from F. J. Sievers, the Superintendent of the Milwaukee County School of Agriculture and Domestic Economy, to Mr. C. E. McLenegan of the Public Library in Milwaukee, describing the results of tests performed on a sample of corn sent by McLenegan. Fishman is not transcending ‘cool reason’ by means of her own ‘shaping fantasies.’ She is, if anything, applying cool reason to a decidedly non-fantastic document. Fishman’s poetry does not begin in ‘aery nothing,’ but in fully material somethings. About the items reproduced in Flower Cart, such as the fieldbook about trees and the 1916 letter about corn, Fishman claims in an ‘author’s statement’ that she did not have ‘an intention or purpose or “project” in mind’ for them. Instead, she ‘transcribed and/or materially reproduced [them] after years of living with them and feeling in contact with them in ways not clear to myself,’ including them in the book as an attempt ‘to understand why they became necessary to me, how they were functioning, what they have to do, for me, with writing or with the possibility of writing.’ If Flower Cart is imaginative, it is not with imagination as Theseus conceives it: that which ‘bodies forth / The forms of things unknown.’ Fishman has found things, and seeks in her poetry to prevent them from becoming unknown.

How I conceive of poetry (what I think poetry is) will go a long way toward determining what I can and cannot do in my own poems. Rankine, Osman, and Fishman realize in their poetry possibilities not available to the most common models of poetry. A practice of metacraft might, next to a practice of craft, orient my poetry toward such new possibilities.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Ingram Bywater. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. Random House, 1941.

Cunningham, J. V. ‘How Shall the Poem be Written?’ The Collected  Essays of J. V. Cunningham. Swallow Press, 1976. 256-71.

Fishman, Lisa. Flower Cart. Ahsahta Press, 2011.

———-. ‘An author’s statement.’ Ahsahta Press website.

Lakoff, George. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987.

Osman, Jena. The Network. Fence Books, 2011.

Rankine, Claudia. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Graywolf Press, 2004.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Houghton Mifflin, 1974.

Zwicky, Jan. Lyric Philosophy. Univ. of Toronto Press, 1992.