Pondering Poetry With Rachel Oates

I was prowling around my usual YouTube Paths when I stumbled upon Rachel Oates. The video was about Gabbie Hanna’s new poetry book called Adultolescence. When I clicked it, I expected the usual YouTube drama with uneducated people slinging insults and lackluster content in the name of making a few cents off of ad revenue. What can I say; I love a good drama!

I was pleasantly surprised when she began to speak. This woman was articulate, sensitive to Gabbie Hanna, and offered enlightening points and comparisons to other poets. I do not want to highlight the fact that Gabbie Hanna’s poetry book is not loved by a lot of people. Instead I want to focus on Rachel and her wonderfully enlightening commentary.

Before she jumps into the poetry roast, she draws attention to the fact that poetry is subjective, and therefore everyone will have their own opinions about poetry; and as she so earnestly states, “If I paid money for your book, I feel I can critique it if it doesn’t live up to what I expected.”

The first point she makes is that Gabbie’s poetry is shallow. “What you see is what you get”. Oates interprets poetry as being a multi-level art form, with meanings and allegories hidden within each line or even a single word. It is true that poetry is one of the few art forms that can be used to play with language, grammar, and even the visual structure of the words on the page. Poetry, according to Oates, is the antithesis of “what you see is what you get”. She categorizes poetry as the perfect medium for the Show-Don’t-Tell rule, where the creator illustrates their meaning not only in a simple sentence, but through layers of descriptive, sometimes subtle, and often witty language.

“In a really good, well crafted poem, every word has been picked out for a reason; and is used for a reason; and placed where it is for a reason.”

Oates reads a quote from The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. Her quote can be heard at 5:48 in the video.

Oates then gives an example of a multi-layered poem; Little Red-Cap by Carol Ann Duffy. On the surface, this poem is a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. On another level, it is an auto-biography of her life. On another, it is a statement about relationships and sex. Another level, and it is a “feminist statement about a young girl fighting back against traditional gender rules in relationships, discovering her sexuality, and coming out of it as a strong independent woman”.

Other poems mentioned by Oates can be heard in the video above. Each serves to illustrate a point made by Oates about the structure and use of poetry. I will not list these here. If you would like to hear these poems or support the poets and buy their books, Rachel Oates has linked these works in the description of her video.

Instead, I would like to draw attention to one of my own favorite poems, Persephone Lied by Spuffyduds. The original was posted to livejournal, so without an account you cannot read it. I have copied the poem here, but the original source can be found here.

The truth is, I was bored. 
My mother blissing ahead of me, rosebuds rising in her footsteps,
And I skulking behind, thinking,
Oh look. She walks in beauty.

Her power could boil rivers, if she chose.
She doesn’t choose. She scatters
Heliotrope behind her.

And me, I’ve no powers. I think she’d like
A decorative daughter. A link to the humans
She feeds with her scattered wheat.
A daughter wed to a swineherd’s just the thing
To show that Demeter’s a down-to-earth
Kind of goddess.

Do you know what swineherds talk about?
Diseases of, ways to cook;
“That ‘un’s got no milk for ‘er shoats;
Him, there, he’s got boggy trotters.”

And when he leaned in, smiling,
While we sat in a bower sagged with Mother’s honeysuckle,
When he said, “Now,
My herd’s growing and I’m thinking I could feed a wife—”
That’s when I snapped, I howled, I ran.

And when a hole opened up, a beautiful black, in all the pastels of my mother’s sowing.
Let me fix the lie: Nobody grabbed, nobody pulled.
I jumped.

I thought it was a tiny earthquake, 
Thought I was killing myself,
Starting a long journey to Hades.
It was a more direct trip
Then I’d imagined—
I landed in his lap.

He just looked at me, said “Well,”
And kept driving his chariot down,
Flicked his leather reins near my face.
He did not give me flowers.
He never spoke of pigs.

Didn’t speak much at all. Just took me down in darkness
And did dark things.
I liked them.

I stumbled through his grey gardens, after,
Sore and smiling.
And the gardener said, “Little girl,
Little sunlit flower,
You belong in the world above.
Trust that they’ll come for nyou,
But while you wait
Don’t eat the food of the dead, for it will trap you here.”
And I said give me the fucking fruit.

But when I ate I could hear her howling,
See her spreading winter on the world.
My poor mother, who missed me after all;
My poor swineherd, starving.
Huddled up for warmth with the few he hadn’t eaten.

I spat out half the seeds.

So now I suffer through the summers,
Smile at the swineherd who tells me
Which shoat is off its feed.
Smile at my mother and walk behind her.
My powers have come to me now, and in her candy-colored wake I scatter
Sundew and flytrap, nettles and belladonna.

I smile and wait for November,
For when I come back to you.
Your clever cold hands and your hard black boots.
I don’t ask what the leather is made from.
I don’t think I want to know. 

– Persephone Lied, by Spuffyduds

This poem illustrates Rachel Oates’ sentiment about multi-layered poetry. On one level this is a poem about Persephone, the Greek Goddess and daughter of Demeter. On another level, it is about coming of age and wanting to be free from your parents, to live your own life and find your own happiness. On another level it is about relationships and, on a deeper level, there are implications of BDSM and the power dynamic present between a Dom and a submissive with mentions of leather and whips and “dark things”. On this level it is also a self-discovery story about a girl finding her sexuality and what turns her on; a “coming out” story of a submissive being introduced into the lifestyle and finding her Dominant, which, in the lifestyle, is as close to love as you can get. And yet on another level it is about a girl finally able to be herself and growing into who she wants to be.

But more than that, this poem implies that Persephone’s mother is socially accepted and lives in the light, and likes normal things like roses and sunshine, while Persephone has always longed for darker things. This theme is always something that anyone coming of age experiences. The song Black No. 1 could have been written about this Persephone. It paints her as a goth who longs for the anti-culture, rebellion, anything different than what she knows. And in the end, when she finds herself with Hades, she is free to be herself. She is free to live in the darkness. This is illustrated by the lines

“My power has come to me now, and in her candy-colored wake I scatter sundew and flytrap, nettles and belladonna.”

Sundew and flytrap are both predator plants that eat insects to survive, and nettles and belladonna are both dangerous plants; nettles for having sharp spines and belladonna for being poisonous. These subtle references would be lost on someone who did not understand their meaning, who would not dig deeper to discover that every word in that poem is placed there purposefully. Also, the line “My power has come to me now” not only refers to her powers as a Goddess, but also her power as a woman who has found herself and her happiness.

A poem does not have to be long to be deep, either. Another favorite of mine is Suicide’s Note by Langston Hughes. Composed of three short lines, this poem is at first hard to understand until you reread the title.

The calm, 
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss. 

And then it makes your brain draw all the connections between suicide victim’s and their struggle with depression, with their dark thoughts, and how blissful it would be to end it all. It paints suicide in a positive light with the word kiss, as if it were something sweet. It also personifies the river by calling the surface its face, as if it were a lover. Every word is chosen intentionally to create a narrative in which a person who has killed themselves explains through a note their thoughts before taking their own life.

What are some of your favorite poems? How can you break them down layer by layer?

Happy writing,

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