My Dog Barks and All is Lost

2014 has oozed in. For me, the new year has not been a festive pop, a fresh face, or a blank slate to begin anew. The new year transition has been more like a hangover (that I didn’t have; it’s hard to party when the mood is oozy), more like a stalled rather than idling engine, more like the undercoating below the sheen of a final coat of paint. But that’s the way it goes sometimes, and without it there would be no good times; it would just be one continuous boring state of evenness.

Here is a poem.

My Dog Barks and All is Lost

Suppose it is the pencil
I pick up today
(an old one with the yellow-orange
paint chipping on each ridge
of hexagonal comfort,
a cap eraser worn
into a clay-like lump
of pink softness streaked
with the grey of gritty work,
a dull instead of sharpened
point to rub instead of scratch
words into shape)…suppose it is
a pencil that sways thoughts
to concretize into specific words
that then appear upon the page.
And just like that suppose
my dog barks and all is lost,
the pencil’s power undone
by a deer or rabbit or merely
the shadow of an owl
ready to retire, the sun
not yet quite up, the heaters
clicking and pounding now
as water fills the pipes,
darkness and silence
just two more illusions
with which I must contend.


“A poem depends on its detail…”

This is a line from Ellen Bryant Voigt‘s poem, “The Last Class,” which she wrote after teaching her last undergraduate class at MIT. See below for links to the poem (both text and audio).

How does one go about deciding which details to include or omit from a poem? Restraint and extravagance have always been a quintessential issue in writing poetry. The first draft of my poem above did not have all those details of the pencil, and I’m still not sure all of those details should be in there. Shouldn’t I get right to the point of the dog barking the poet from concentration? With the pencil details, there’s a long “entrance ramp” into the poem. After all, everyone knows what a pencil looks like! (The “entrance ramp” analogy was introduced to me in 2010 by fellow Stonecoaster, Karrie Waarala, and it has helped me countless times).

Stephen Dunn, in an interview at Frostburg State University in 2002, spoke about restraint and extravagance (see below for link to the interview). “The kind of judgment that we exercise comes down to the difficult simplicity of knowing what to put in and what to leave out. It’s always a compromise between original intent and the language we find ourselves using. The balance you refer to is dependent on so many things…”

I considered using more restraint and shortening my entrance ramp into the poem above, but without the long drawn-out pencil description, the poem is too quick to get to the dog. The details of the pencil serve multiple functions. The first is insight into the narrator of the poem whose pencils are well-used and comfortable. This is someone who writes a lot and to whom writing brings comfort, yet it also shows that the poet may doubt his/her abilities – what if it isn’t the poet but the pencil that holds the creative powers! Secondly, the details of the pencil are a micro-study in descriptive writing. How do you describe a seemingly normal pencil? Sight (colors), feel (chipped paint, hexagonal), sound (rub instead of scratch) convey the importance of the pencil in the narrator’s life. The third function of the pencil description is the contrast it provides with the vague words at the end of the poem: darkness and silence. Just as with the illusion of the pencil creating the poem on its own, darkness and silence are an illusion. Perhaps this is a depressing ending. Perhaps it isn’t if we know there is always light and sound somewhere or at some time in our lives.

Now, what does the dog have to do with any of it? Do we need to know what type of dog, what it looks like, or where it is outside? No. To put in those details would create a different poem. In this poem, the dog is a transition snapping the poet out of the reverie about the pencil and is a catalyst for the consideration of deeper things than a pencil such as darkness and silence.

But to only talk of the illusion of darkness and silence would not give us much since we best communicate ideas and concepts through images.  “Details…anchor feelings that are more implied than stated,” Baron Wormser explains in the chapter, Details, in his book, Teaching the Art of Poetry, The Moves. “Detail,” Wormser explains, “is credibility.”

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
The history of the pencil from Studio 602: Exploring Creativity in Music and The Arts
“The Last Class” – poem by Ellen Bryant Voigt. Click the title link to hear Voigt read her poem. Click here to see the poem.
Poet of Restraint and Extravagance: A Conversation with Stephen Dunn
Tiger Face – a poem by Stephen Dunn, mentioned in the interview above. Also found in Dunn’s book, What Goes On