Friday, February 23, 2007

The exchange before midpoem

Well, Tom's got me reprocessing this theory before I've even exchanged a pawn for a participle, but let's continue.

In chess, the transition from opening to midgame is marked by an exchange of pieces, intitiated by the sacrifice of a piece for the purpose of clearing out and ultimately assuming a controlling posture toward (though not necessary controlling position in) the middle of the board. It is marked by the beginning of development of more powerful pieces for use in midgame.

Before we get to the development of the powerful pieces, let's discuss the transition, the exchange. How is this akin to writing poems? My contention is that more successful poems tend to operate from a vulnerable position - confessional exposure being the most obvious and most overused. If you're willing to think ahead with me and anticipate that a good poem has to leave itself open in anticipation of a surprise somewhere in it (like a well-played chess game will at some point deviate from mere parroting of the great players), then the first transition of that poem is the conscious direction that creates the opportunity for surprise. The sacrifice of a bishop to radically and blatantly disrupt the center defenses may be similar to the driving home of the poem's idea through a repetition of word and image.

Or, maybe, the transition is the deliberate clearing of the space around the poem's opening that makes taking it in a new direction possible. On the chess board, this could be exchange of pawns and knights that leaves the middle empty for the queen to take over. In the poem, this is discarding of the details not central to the poem's thesis that leave the metaphor available for detail and embellishment.

Just like the meaning of a chess move can only be interpreted in the context of the style of the player, the meaning of a poetry development can only be interpreted in the context of the style of the poet. Similarly, a single poet's/player's style can change from poem/game to poem/game.

Next up: me bouncing off your comments.
Following that: Midpoem.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Poetry Like Chess: The Opening

(Disclaimer: By objective standards, I qualify as "advanced amateur" in both poetry and chess)

Accept for this discussion that a
chess game develops in a series of known phases: The opening, the midgame and the endgame, with definable transitions between each phase pair. I know some will resist this idea, but this is really not a bad analog for a poem. Poems require compelling openings, precise and developing middles, and impactful (or at least calculated) endings.

Though poetry has the advantage over chess in number of potential openings, it is greatly similar in one way: a wildly unconventional opening portends either genius or the beginning of an unpredictable uneven ride.

Let us take "opening" in this case to mean "stage setting". On offense or defense in chess, a good player is thinking several moves ahead, positioning pieces not for where they need to be now, but where they need to be in the future. And anticipating where the opponent expects them to be and meeting that expectation in one of two ways: Either by presenting the opponent with something different, something surprising but still part of her plan, or by accepting the opponent's expectation, but with a level of preparedness that leaves no square of the board unaccounted for in its depth of planning.

Is this all that different than writing a poem? I know we want to believe that we follow the poem to where it wants to lead us, but I think this isn't entirely dissimilar from playing off a good opponent across the chess board. You have a plan, and you execute that plan, adjusting it continuously as you receive input and opposition. In the case of a poem, we often provide the input and opposition internally, maybe subconsciously, but we are reacting in real time to our own words as they develop on the page before us - the point at which they stop being our property and start belonging to the poem. It is that point at which they are most like the moves of our opponent on the chess board; even if we have anticipated their move perfectly, we are still reacting to it - choosing to keep with our plan or depart from it.

Some chess openings are accepted convention (Ruy Lopez,
Ponziani), some are more radical than others, and some require more skills (particularly those that develop the queen early). Again, here, this isn't all that different from the writing process: We can choose to employ standard, or favorite, or accepted openings, or ones that are challenge the reader (the opponent?) to play along with us. A good chess player will decide by the 4th move if the opponent has the skills to make the game competitive. How many times have you decided by the 4th line of a poem that it was not crafted with sufficient skill to be meaningful or useful to you? How many of your own poems have you tolerated past a weak 4th line, ignoring your own awareness that it was weak?

Understand I'm not saying that an unconventional opening, or an aggressive or challenging one is a bad thing - merely that it requires greater skill to pull off effectively. And that discarding convention merely as an act of anarchy is a sure way to lose the reader, and make the challenge of completing the poem very, very difficult.

If I can figure a way to do so meaningfully, next up will be examples. Down the road a piece is: Transition one: The first sacrifice.