Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What is a Setting Poem?

Before I discuss the specifics of setting poems, I'd like to introduce a major concept in poetry which is often overlooked when trying to categorize poems.  Essentially, any poem has elements of every poem.  For example, in Bishop's "In the Waiting Room," it's a narrative poem, but we have the elements of a child-like voice and the setting details surrounding her narrative.  In Larkin's "Church Going," we have a similar effect, but it's a setting poem because the narrative is somewhat less important, but we still have some elements of narrative along with the voice of a man who's detached from religion and church in general.

Today's discussion will focus on Philip Larkin's "Church Going" and  Yusef Komunyakaa's "Sunday Afternoons" (Magic City version).
Komunyakaa's "Sunday Afternoons" takes this a step further.  In "Sunday Afternoons," we have a strong narrative movement - the poem starts with the children being sent out to the yard, it reflects back on the family events surrounding this, and then comes back in the end to that last view of the house: "If I held my right hand above my eyes..."  The events are generalized to reveal the pattern of Sundays rather than just a single Sunday, but there is a story being told.  The voice, too, is exceptionally strong.  Phrases like "we were drunk & brave" and "Where did we learn to be unkind...?" reveal the narrator's older perspective looking back on a younger time.

"Sunday Afternoons" is considered a setting poem not due to a lack of narrative or voice, but because the setting is the dominant element in this poem of setting, narrative, and voice.  From the first line, "They'd latch the screendoors / & pull venetian blinds,"  the narrative in this poem is driven by these setting details.  The sense of formless anger is revealed through "Speckled eggs, blue as rage," and "...gospel on the radio, / Loud as shattered glass."  The voice, too - the character's sense of realization - comes out through metaphors drawn from the setting: "The backyard trees breathed / Like a man running from himself."

As you write your own setting poems, I'd like you to bear in mind this idea of combined forms.  Often, the temptation in writing a poem like this would be to start and end with the setting.  For example, I could write a poem about my childhood room that would go something like this:
Desk so cluttered
there was no desk.
The lamp was a spindled island
of aluminum
and light.
It's a nice image, yes, but this short poem goes little farther than that.  The idea of an "island of aluminum and light" seems to imply something, but it's impossible to say what.  Is this a commentary on childhood?  Or maybe regret due a lack of clerical organization?  Let's expand this to see if we can't develop something further:
They told me
to clean my desk.
Out my stuff would go:
the papers, the cheap sci fi pulps,
that beanie green turtle thing from Shelley at Christmas.
The black bag waited,
plastic and Hefty,
thirty-gallon maw
of hunger.

"You need space to work,"
they said,
pointing to the lamp,
that spindled island
of aluminum
and light.
Right away, this poem develops a great deal more tension (granted it has more lines to work with - this helps).  We have "they" in that first line - a very malevolent presence in this poem.  The Hefty bag represents a "thirty gallon maw / of hunger."  There's a kind of narrative tension here - the narrator versus "them" and "their Hefty bag," but we don't know from where exactly this tension arises.  The setting has established the situation, and it's given us elements of voice in the line of "Out my stuff would go."  There's a sense of resignation here, with the possibility of resistance, but it's uncertain.  If we wanted to pick it apart, we could say that "would" implies an older voice looking back, whereas using "will" could have given the sense of a child facing the Hefty bag here-and-now.

But let's not go that far today.  Instead, I'd like you to focus on what it is you'll write about.  The real problem with setting poems is that they are very rarely about the setting.  "Church Going" uses churches and their decay to reveal a larger truth about human society.  "Sunday Afternoons" uses the house and the yard to reveal a complicated family situation.  For your setting poems, I'd like you to do something similar.  Find a story or a truth from life that you'd like to explore (and it doesn't need to be from your own life by any means).  Think about a place to reveal this truth (if it's a story, just consider where it happened).  Write a list of the setting details from this place.  Consider how each one reveals the tension of the story/situation.  And from there, write your setting images to reveal the narrative and the voice together.

Please feel free to post questions below or send me an e-mail.

Happy Writing,


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