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Craft Note: Duet — Part One (Beginning With A Line by Mark Irwin)

What / you’re looking through is the act of giving, writes Mark Irwin in his “Poem Beginning with a Line by Milosz.”

I wrote about this poem, briefly, several months back, thinking about Irwin’s gradual transformation of Milosz’s line—“The most beautiful bodies are like transparent glass”—as a kind of improvisation.

Such a poem is also, clearly, a conversation, between one poet and another, or between one poet and another’s text.

There are, I think, four significant variations on this kind of conversation poem, or duet as I’d like to call it—and this craft note, published in (three or four) parts, will explore these four kinds of duets.


The first is the one I’ve started with, the poem in which the borrowed line is an instigation, a root note, from which one can branch and to which one can return when the exploration or the rhythm seem to get too far afield.

Let me explain this through a poem I wrote as an exercise, to try to get a feel for this.

Here’s the poem:

Poem Beginning With a Line by Agee

If it hurts you, be glad of it.
If it pleases, turn away.
You were looking for something more
than 16mm flicker,
eyebeams on the living room wall.
What have your dreams ever
brought from the stars,
any mysterious box?
The angel is a stranger
in the window, the stranger
a monster, more at mental,
deriving from menos, meaning
spirit, meaning breath.
If the breath in the curtains
comes closer, if it burns
a hand across your face,
if it reminds you of your father
or your father’s shadow,
sing quietly your song of praise,
pray it will hit you again.

After the first line, the following twelve lines more or less read the first line, first developing a converse position—“If it pleases, turn away”—and then exploring the logic of Agee’s idea that good art, important art hurts. Agee’s point, at large, is that transformative experiences require us to expand, to dilate ourselves, even change, which may begin in pain. I’ve developed, first, the idea of desire, of yearning for the transformation, thinking of the flatness of old home movies, which we watch (or watched) to recover something from the past, though such films always make me feel the folly of the fantasy of recovery. This feeling becomes, in the next sentence, the question about the effect of dreams: what have they ever brought? Then the meditation begins to turn, toward what they do deliver, shadows, angels, strangers—things that shouldn’t be there, strange, monstrous, mental, spiritual. These twelve lines have worked, incrementally, to get the idea of a shadow or a presence into the poem, which could be the agent of the stimulating encounter or of the hurt Agee invokes.

The last seven lines, then, turn back to the verbal formula, the “if,” for two reasons. The first is to remind the poem (or the reader) where this all began. Each “if” that follows, I think, renews the possibility of pain or discomfort introduced by the borrowed, first line. In the poem’s narrative, then, this serves as a kind of foreshadowing—almost calling the breath to coalesce into a hand, the hand to hit, and then perhaps to hit again. The second reason is to tie together the previous string of sentences and ideas, to bring them back into relation to the poem’s first breath—to get that initial rhythm back into the poem and announce the end by rounding back.

Of course, the very last lines break out of this formula, just a bit, so the poem doesn’t feel like an exercise in rhythm, so Agee’s line doesn’t swallow all of mine.

I wrote this poem through a kind of game—how far can I get away from the prompt before I forget it? how can I turn back to the prompt without my words disappearing into the prompt? And, in a way, I’ve meditated on the game of form, however improvisational: here’s the rule is echo, in phrase and in idea. At the point that the echo gets too faint, the first tone has to be repeated. But for the exercise or game to become a poem, it has to violate the rule, to exceed the grounds set forth by the game, so it develops a presence of its own.

You begin, as Irwin suggests, with a gift, something you don’t own, and you look through—and speak through—that gift and that act of giving, to say something of your own.