My Favorite Position is Juxtaposition

My Favorite Position is Juxtaposition
Flower Conroy
Key West Poet Laureate

 

In last month’s issue of Decimos, I scratched the surface of ‘what transpires between the title of a poem and its first line’.  Although I focused on the physicality of the words on a page, I intended to mine that invisible terrain between the title and first line… which seems a sideways way of talking about juxtaposition (from juxtapose—to place or deal with close together for contrasting effect, Oxford American Dictionary).  In his Poetry & Experience, poet Archibald MacLeish warns of the danger in imposing too much importance on juxtaposition; therefore, let us immediately insist too much upon it and see what kind of good-natured trouble we can cause.

Hearing a poem as it exists in the air is a different sensory experience than encountering the poem on the page.  We can imagine how the lines may look on the page while listening to the poem ghost across the room and into our ears—but likely we are attuned to the sound of it, its aural textures, its repetitions, breaths and/or musicality.  When we encounter the poem on the page, presumably we are witnessing the poem unfolding in space as the poet intended us to see it, privy to its pixilated or inky organization.  We see the whitespace—but are we hearing it, too?

Sometimes when I’m reading a poem, I will map word constellations—to see how subconsciously or not, subtexture is being created.  One need just look at end words and see how they speak to one another, but I’m calling attention to the more embedded juxtaposition, the more subtle positionings that may need a little more teasing out from the text.  And it need not be just words; ideas, colors, smells, tones, temperatures, states of matter, etc., can be placed in such proximity as to create tension.  Imagine a poem that has the following lines: “The crows had taken over the vacant church on the hill,” and “It was dynamite, biting into the polished apple.”  These lines seem innocuous enough…but what if in the poem’s unfolding, the words “church” and “dynamite” rubbed against each other?  Consider how the subtexture changes when the juxtapositioning changes:

The crows had taken

over the vacant church

on the hill.  It was

dynamite, biting

into the polished apple.

 

as opposed to:

 

The crows had taken over

 

the vacant church on the hill.

It was dynamite,

 

biting into the polished apple.

 

Of course the introduction of additional whitespace and the manipulation of the linebreaks contribute to the overall difference in how we receive this imaginary poem—if a poem is nothing else, it’s its own structure—something ominous brews in the latter example that is not present in the former.

Now consider what emotional/psychological/philosophical/ethical shift(s) occur when the lines’ order is flipped:

It was dynamite, biting

into the polished apple.

The crows had taken

over the vacant church

on the hill.

 

and:

It was dynamite,

 

biting into the polished apple.

The crows had taken over

 

the vacant church on the hill.

 

(Initially) introducing the word “dynamite” into the poem’s landscape (in comparison to opening with the crows) dramatically changes the atmosphere, mood, and tone, ever-so-much.  Think of the word constellations each example presents; notice how “vacant” is more strongly associated with the “crows” and the “hill” in the first of these (second) examples, and in the latter, the “crows” are more connected to “polished” and “church.”  It is as if we can see the glean of the crows’ oily bodies more vividly in our mind’s eye because of the juxtaposition of “polished” and “crows.”

In my own poetry, my sense of lineation is often guided by my purposeful attempt to align specific words, sounds, and/or ideas in order to deepen the poems’ subtexture.  Like magnets, words emanate energy; as such they may repulse or attract, thus creating tension and nuance.  The writer is responsible for the relationships, connotations, and/or complexities—whether subliminal or overt—that arise in a poem as a result.  Donald Hall writes: “The poem is the whole of the poem, and nothing but the poem.  It is vowels and metaphors; it is almost-invisible connections by the association of words.”  In a similar fashion to how body language may reveal one’s masked feelings, a poem may reinforce or undermine what it is saying through gestural subtleties of juxtaposition.  As BL Whorf puts it in Language, Thought and Reality, “ ‘Connection’ is important from a linguistic standpoint because it is bound up with the communication of ideas.”  Whether or not you’re into that sort of thing—being bound up with communicating ideas—if you want to spice things up on the page, I recommend switching your juxtaposition.

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