“Art is a lie that tells the truth.” — Pablo Picasso
This lesson involves non-linear poetic storytelling and encompasses the dream-like, absurd, and surreal. Following information about this unique narrative style, I have included three unique examples to study, along with annotations.
Defining surreal or non-linear poetry can be as difficult as fully explaining a dream. What makes abstractions and absurdity creatively work? How are we able to intuitively grasp and finally accept as real words and images that contradict what we know of the world? Let’s start off with a few notes and tips:
Notes on Surreal and Non-Linear Poetry
|1)Explore the subconscious. Create something tangible, comprehendible, and resonant from your own dreamt world. Externalize the internal.
|3) Non-linear poetry is all about reciprocal trust. The poet has created his or her own unique world, and we must trust that vision. We must recognize something of it in our own reality. Like a funhouse mirror, a non-linear poem is reality skewed. Readers must trust the poet to expand the known by incorporating the unknown, and the poet must respect the reader’s need for something reflexive, familiar, and safe to “ground” or “anchor” them in this fantastical world.
|4) Not unlike the multi-dimensional theory espoused by some theoretical physicists, the non-linear poem exists in two or more overlapping dimensions. The real and imagined blur and coalesce. The known and unknown collide and spark something new, rebellious, and strangely beautiful.
|5) Juxtaposition is key. Providing contrasts is hugely significant. Non-linear poetry must pit images against each other and certain words against their assumed meanings. These contrasts (and in some cases outright contradictions) make readers stretch their imagination and hopefully perceive the real world differently.
|6) Sometimes consciously composed and sometimes incidental, off-beat humor often results from crafting strange and surreal imagery. Even if the context is deathly serious, when something unexpected happens in a poem one natural human reaction is to laugh. And that’s okay; it may even be the poet’s goal.
A Few Simple Methods for Creating Non-Linear Poetry
|1)Take a single surreal element and place it in a real-world context. (An example is Zachary Schomburg’s poem below)
|3) Begin with an actual dream. If you keep a dream journal or tend to remember your dreams, focus on a few particularly compelling images, place them on the page, and craft a world for them to exist in. (not unlike Dali’s painting above; any of us could have dreamed this but we must then create the context for it to make sense.)
|4) Be a child again. Yes, force yourself to revert to childhood perception. Do you remember when the moon was made of cheese? Do you remember when you questioned the reality behind absolutely everything? When you would look up at a tree or a parent or the roof of your house and without meaning to create a metaphor? Childhood is when everything that exists in the tangible word exists in a different form in the mental world. This is the place we must return to to create stark, interesting non-linear poetry. The entire world can be a metaphor again!
Let’s see how three contemporary poets approach surreal and non-linear poetry. The below poems are quite different from each other and break from reality in different ways. Schomburg’s work is obviously surreal. Britto’s poem delves deeply into a single, strange image and builds abstract connections from it. And Lighthart makes us see the intimate world in a fresh, new way.
Following each poem is a set of notes that highlight the poet’s tools, techniques, and approaches.
After studying the above tips and below annotated poems, you will find your reading, discussion, and writing assignments for the week.
Annotated Example #1
This is a Night of Evenly Spaced-Out Escalators
This is a night of evenly spaced-
out escalators. This is a night of werewolves.
Bodies are colliding into one another.
Trains, oceans. My body collided with hers
hers collided with his
his fell awkwardly to its death.
There are werewolves that scatter about evenly
but congregate at dead bodies.
Ants at a picnic. Trees to rivers.
There are werewolves in business casual
riding up the escalators, so evenly spaced-
out, so tremendously efficient
and consistent. This is a night of driving.
I am in my Mercury Topaz. She is in hers.
Moons are electrons above us.
We are hitting tons of werewolves.
Notes on poem.
- The strange connections Schomburg makes. This poem exists simultaneously in two worlds: the mundane (escalators, trains, trees) and the horrific (werewolves, bodies, death).
- The absurdity creates a strange, dark humor. Without the inclusion of werewolves, this wouldn’t be as surreal, funny, or resonant.
- As we discussed above, notice how this poem couches only one dream-like image (the werewolves) into our world, creating a jarring emotional response.
- Notice the way each image cascades in a dream-like manner. Somehow we move from night to urbanity to rural landscape and back to urbanity and finally back to night. So there is a consistency of structure we recognize and trust within which the beauty and absurdity thrives.
Annotated Example #2
Paulo Henriques Britto
The tuba player
wrings a grimy and crusted music
from the intestines of the metal.
The trees, unaccustomed, all shiver
at the guttural sound. (So virginal are they.)
With the brusque gesture of its shoulders,
the sky, blue and perfectly clean, repels
the hoarse notes lifting weakly
into flight, and the notes
vultures struck from the air.
Indifferent, the tuba player stops, spits,
and plays on.
Notes on poem.
- The title itself works to challenge reader expectations. The pastoral is a conventional poetic form that most readers are familiar with, yet Britto approaches it unconventionally.
- Britto creates a world we can trust and inhabit. This is fundamental when toying with dream imagery. Notice how he:
- Anchors us immediately with a specific, recognizable character. He ends the poem with the same character, making the poem progress almost like a narrative.
- Focuses each image so that every word in the poem relates directly to the body or music. This provides a clear thread for us to follow, making his surreal statements feel more authentic.
- Includes so many visceral words. Intestines, guttural, virginal, shoulders, corpulent— these words help the poem feel intimate and recognizable. Our own bodies work as reference points.
- Includes natural images too, providing further evidence that his dreamt world is very much our own tangible world.
Annotated Example #3
See how strong the thread is, how the tree of life is stitched into place,
how all your sad thought cannot dampen this cloth.
Someone has woven a trusted face into every branch.
Even the hungry roots bear that smiling gaze.
Nothing has been forgotten.
Within the branches, the flowers wear your eyes.
To look at even one petal is to see your life hidden everywhere.
Notes on poem. Notice:
- The first line presents a paradoxical image: a tree, stitched. In the second, we learn: perhaps the tree is not really a tree, but a cloth? The reader is enticed to meander in the area between these two strong images to begin their interpretive work.
- The metaphor extends to verse 2. The tree is populated with faces – trusted, smiling. Who is the someone the poet may be referring to?
- Verse 3 stuns the reader with its bold declaration, its guarantee of memory. The reader encounters their own memory and its limits, its madeleine cakes. A line like this may keep the reader occupied for a while.
- The last verse continues its bold escalation of risky, yet compelling assertions, concluding in the life-affirming final line. What does it mean, to have one’s life hidden everywhere? Does this notion come with a responsibility for everything?
- The poet appeals to the reader directly. This is risky – some readers don’t appreciate being talked to. What makes the poem a whisper in your ear rather than a speech from a podium? What entices the readers to trust, love the voice that addresses them?
“Invisible Architecture”, by Barbara Guest (essay; 1 p.)
“Darling” by Alex Dimitrov (poem)
In “Invisible Architecture”, Guest says, “The writer only slowly retains power over the poem, physical power, when the poem breaks away from the authority of the invisible architecture.” In at least 100 words, discuss what internal, invisible architecture you see in the three assigned poems and how the poets break away from it. You may write about one, two, or all three of the poems.
To create a robust conversation, don’t forget to comment on your fellow course mates’ comments.
Let’s call this week’s writing assignment: the dream come to life. Begin with a single dream-like image, be it pulled from your dream notebook or wholly invented. Remember: you can be a child again, and no metaphor is too “out there”. Using this unique image as your base, think about how you can incorporate it into the real world. Think about what things you can compare to it and contrast against it. Think about how to make readers trust you with this image and with the journey you take them on.
John Sibley Williams’ writing has appeared in American Literary Review, Third Coast, and RHINO. He is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently Controlled Hallucinations (FutureCycle Press, 2013). Four-time Pushcart nominee, he is the winner of the HEART Poetry Award and has been a finalist for the Rumi, Third Coast, Ian MacMillan, Best of the Net, and The Pinch Poetry Prizes. John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and Board Member of the Friends of William Stafford. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rivier College and an MA in Book Publishing from Portland State University, and he currently works as Marketing Director of Inkwater Press and as a literary agent. John lives in Portland, Oregon.