Moves in Contemporary Poetry
Way back in the comments on Danika Stegeman’s poem “Panacea,” a discussion started about “moves” in contemporary poetry, and I mentioned that I’d seen the poet Elisa Gabbert start pretty awesome discussions about “moves” on her own blog and on the Ploughshares blog. Then she posted the following comment: “Hi Mike, I have definitely talked about moves before, moves I like and moves I don’t like and my own signature moves, but haven’t made a real list, certainly not a comprehensive list, certainly not the DEFINITIVE list. Let me know if you want to collaborate on a list of moves for HTMLGiant.”
Well, I thought that sounded like a terrific idea. So here it is, our stab at cataloging 41 popular moves in “contemporary poetry,” an exercise that’s fraught with peril, what with the competing definitions, camps, roles, and processes of “contemporary poetry,” the nebulousness of calling something a “move,” the inevitable non-definitiveness of such a list, and so on, but hey: dancing is fraught with peril too, and no one’s managed to stop me from doing that. So here we go. 41 moves. With mildly related pictures! In no particular order! Please argue and add in the comments. Many thanks to Elisa Gabbert for the bulk of the work on this list.
1) Exposed revision
Example: Alice Fulton’s “About Face“:
At least embarrassment is not an imitation.
It’s intimacy for beginners,
the orgasm no one cares to fake.
I almost admire it. I almost wrote despise.
I can only imagine
how hard it must be for you
to believe me. I mean, to hold
blame. I mean, to be you.
Example: Jack Gilbert’s “Searching for Pittsburgh”:
The rusting mills sprawled gigantically
along three rivers. The authority of them.
3) Abstract epistolary: Using “Dear [abstraction or common object]” in the title or first line.
Examples: Countless. Dear Body: by Dan Machlin, “Dear Final Journey,” by Lynn Emanuel, which begins, “Dear Noose, Dear Necktie, Dear Cravat”
4) The “blank of blank” construction
5) Use of “etc.”
7) Ending a question with a period
8) Ending a non-rhyming poem on a rhyme
Examples: “What He Thought” by Heather McHugh
And poetry—(we’d allput down our forks by now, to listen tothe man in gray; he went onsoftly)—poetry is whathe thought, but did not say.
The despairof loving may lead to long plane rides withlittle leg room, may lead to a penis fullof fish, a burning chicken, a room filledwith a single, pink rose. Funny, howwe think of it as a giant rose,not a tiny room.
10) Description or declaration by way of posing a question and then answering it
My bedroom window can be seen from the viewing deck
of the World Trade Center. I’ve seen it.
What I saw?
My roommate experimenting with my vibrator.
11) The “the new X” construction
12) Comparing something to itself
I could say this guy was like Spicoli,or I could say this guy was like Sean Penn,and both would be wrong because reallythis guy is like a guy that works weekendsfor the family mini-golf business.
13) Extreme (ironic) egotism
From “Vermont” by Dan Chiasson: “I was the west / once. I was paradise.”
14) Explicit references to poems, especially the poem in question
15) Mention of a forest animal
When the tree climbs down its bark, I follow
seedlings buried in cake. I’ve hidden the sin in roofing,
de-veined by a plum falling from the child’s hand.
A wolf of her own.
17) Humorous use of ecstatic “O”
18) The very long title
19) Poetic allusion as jokeExamples:
From “As If To Say” by Chris Nealon: “I seriously have a mind of winter”
From “Sheer Commerce” by Phillip Byron Oakes: “Grecian urn your / pay”
20) Surprise re-framing of an utterance
From “Gone Before” by Dobby Gibson: “Sadness, though your beard may be fake, / your anonymity is quite real, / whispered the dying man to his nurse”
From “Running Away Jam” by Jason Bredle: “I wish I could take a microphone everywhere I go so everyone / would hear me / is how I began a letter to my parents”
21) Verbs as reasons for linebreaks
From “Homecoming” by Dorianne Laux: “At the high school football game, the boys / stroke their new muscles”
From “Vehicle” by Heather Christle: “… Man / in the dining car, stop eavesdropping / on children talking about balloons.”
22) Fake proper names
Example: From “Governors on Sominex” by David Berman: “They’d closed down the Bureau of Sad Endings”
23) Moving the poem forward by associating one word with an unrelated word that sounds similar
From “Social Life” by Alice George: “I’ve / got the wrong end of the stick or maybe // it’s the way I’m holding it, the way it’s sharp. / The shtick of the party, the excuse of it”
From “Hounds Begin to Howl” by Clay Matthews: “Like calling people meat. Meat, meat, meat. / It’s a might, might, might and I don’t know.”
24) An often campy obsession with science/sci-fi terminology
Example: From “Side Effects” by Dean Young: “… but his experiments / at the cyclotron don’t amount to much dark matter”
25) Self-aware naivete of tone and diction
Example: From “The Crowds Cheered As Gloom Galloped Away” by Matthea Harvey: “Everyone was happier. But where did the sadness go? People wanted to know. They didn’t want it collecting in their elbows or knees then popping up later.”
26) The act of identification as an opportunity for humor
Example: From “Poems About Trees” by K. Silem Mohammad: “the products he’s hawking have names on them like KABOOM”
27) The throwaway pun
Example: From “Play It Again, Salmonella” by Jeffrey McDaniel: “I’m a card-carrying member of a canceled party.”
28) “Scare” quotes
29) Stacking up of ten-dollar words
30) Breaking a line so as to stack a repeated word on top of itself
November is more of the usual
And what you do–the syntax
Of inaction versus the syntax
Of deliberate action
We woke up under an overpass on I-90
(at least the underside looked like I-90)
consider this more like drawing
a picture of someone drawing
31) Ending a poem with a question
What roiling ritual is this?
What does this dance mean?
What are the shapes that I know?
32) Embedding a fragment of a quoteExample: From “Nothing Moving” by Hazel McClure:
“nothing but blueskies” all gone, thick wool,
wintered rotten logs.
33) Including a brand name in a list
34) Clipping or altering a cliche
35) Correcting a cliche
36) Definition or description by negation
From “Situation in Yellow” by Stephanie Anderson: “She does not take paper / clips or protractors.”
From “This Is Not About Pears” by Matthew Hittinger: “whole sections left white, not blank, / but the white where light lifts form / into pears (even though this is not / about pears).”
37) Compound nonce words
From “Autobiographia” by Karl Parker: “That was prettymuch the story of my life”
From “Grand Central Terminal” by Darcie Dennigan: “1913, the girlghost died here in a gas explosion”
38) Polysemy: Language deliberately meaning multiple things at once
Example: From Scape by Joshua Harmon: “to balance my bicycle and my checking account”
39) Parataxis: Pairing nebulously related things/utterances
Example: From “Sunset Debris” by Ron Silliman: “Can you smell rain? Will you use bleach? What is a fretless bass?”
40) Illogical causation
Example: From “Cryptozoology” by Sabrina Orah Mark: “Walter B. was so relieved he slept in his boots.”
41) Ending with an end (e.g., fade to black, death, credits, Fin“)
Example: From “Bleeding Hearts” by Harryette Mullen: “Where I live’s a wren shack. Pull back. / Show wreck. Black fade.”