Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:December 20th, 2009 10:34 EST
Is a poet a language mechanic, a word magician or a beneficiary?

Is a poet a language mechanic, a word magician or a beneficiary?

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

If there is one perfect word in English for the creation of a poem I haven`t found it. I don`t like saying I write poems, I don`t like saying I make them, and I don`t have the hifalutin audacity to say I create them.

So I`m announcing here and now that this is going to be a snit of fussiness. Poetry is, after all, about the right words and how they`re choreographed, but no, it`s not about the choreography of words.

I have the same problem when it comes to artists. I don`t like saying they paint pictures, I don`t like saying they make pictures. I have less of a problem with sculptors, because sculpting strikes me as the right description for at least some of what sculptors do.

I got to thinking about this as I faced the task of revising an infelicitous stanza in a poem. I was finishing a book-length manuscript entitled Nail me to this moment when I noticed the tortured rhetoric of this stanza.

Taking the language apart and putting it back together in different ways has been a way of life for me for a long time. I am not squeamish about it. I was for many years a newspaper editor and page designer. There are many kinds of editor; the best of them strive to help the writer fulfill his or her own highest aspirations. The chief characteristic of such people is or ought to be respect.

It`s all about the skill and willingness to compromise, something Congress seems to have forgotten. You compromise with time, with the writer, with the language, with the writer`s sources, with available space, with the reader`s projected reading level, with other editors, and an army of constraints.

James Joyce

James Joyce

But you try throughout to retain the writer`s voice, his or her wit, a special way of saying things, a special intent towards readers. If you fail in this, you fail the writer and the language.

You learn that it`s all about your own ignorance, how little you know about the language, and you learn that the language, too, has its limits. Where, for instance, is that perfect word to describe the coming into existence of a poem or painting?

The troublesome stanza on which I was working posed a similar but not identical predicament. We often use the French word donnée to describe the original inspiration or impulse of a poem, perhaps the first line, perhaps a stanza, sometimes, if the poet is lucky, the whole poem. The word donnée is the feminine past participle of the verb to give. It suggests a gift. It`s a lovely word and makes for a lovely principle.

When revising a poem I find the donnée as much a presence as an angel in the room would be. You don`t want to violate this organizing principle, but sometimes the remainder of the poem fails to comport with it; sometimes the donnée seems to get in the way. Or sometimes it seems to have set the bar too high. How can you redress infelicities and tangents while being true to this enigmatic impulse that gave rise to the project? The poem must rise to the donnée.

For me it becomes a religious issue. I return to the poem, whether it`s a failed poem or simply one that could be made better, as if reporting to an angel who has given me sacred instructions. I would rather scrap the poem than I would do violence to the donnée.

I can`t bring myself to regard the poem as a broken machine, a failed appliance. It`s rather as if I had mined an emerald from the ground and was somehow conscious of its carbon history. If I can`t cut and polish it properly I should hand it over to someone else. Under such circumstances, you might think I had written very few poems, but that`s not the case. I`ve been lucky, or I have brutalized an angel. Only time and readers will tell.

The poem is like a newspaper story. You can get away with a lot of fudging, with obscurity in the service of pretentiousness, with fancy dancing, with lack of substance and depth, with shine and wit but no courage. In short, there is a lot you can get away with. But you can`t fool yourself, not even if they give you a Pulitzer Prize for it.

The prize will always remind you of what you got away with, what you didn`t confront intellectually or linguistically, the gift you betrayed.

Or you can take your chances with the angel, perhaps writing poetry nobody wants to publish, perhaps dying in obscurity. Or not. Only one thing is certain. The future of the language, of our collective intellect, depends on your dealings with that donnée, that worrisome stanza, that way of saying something that nobody in your generation may like. I regard this issue as far more important than the next presidential speech.

That`s why we admire James Joyce today, or Emily Dickinson, or Hart Crane, and so many others. They confronted the impossible as it arose in their own work. No, they did better than that. They embraced the impossible.


Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.

His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latté first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999. 

He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.