Normally, when I have these guest essays, I begin with a long winded diatribe that serves the purpose of introducing the author, but mostly demonstrates what an insufferable airbag I am. I love to hear myself talk, but I love to hear Vincenzo Bilof talk even more and he does so ever so much more eloquently than I so I’m just going to get the fuck out of the way let him speak. I’ll be reviewing his novel in poetry form, VISIONS OF A TREMULOUS MAN, tomorrow but don’t waste time waiting for that. Go check out his Amazon page and get some of his books and, in the meantime, check out this brilliant essay that talks about poetry and the major concept album that is life and the unraveling of the human mind.
The Unraveling of the Poetic Mind: an essay by Vincenzo Bilof
Our lives unfold like melodramatic concept albums. All the emotions that we have experienced during our lifetime leave behind fragments and impressions; our memories are like Hallmark cards that make noise when you open them. Words, a song, an image, a design; an intention or emotion is captured. Some memories are more complete than others, and for those of us who are vivid dreamers, concepts buried in our subconscious emerge and re-contextualize some of these Hallmark cards; it’s like a child sitting down at the table and cutting up a bunch of Hallmark cards and taping them together to form new cards that we attempt to puzzle over. These snapshots—Hallmark cards—compose one major piece of work that is a concept: life.
Poems are often tiny pieces of those Hallmark cards, or they can be an entire collection of cards. Poems are a linguistic attempt to capture the essence of an emotion or an experience; perhaps the poem is a linguistic interpretation of a thought process that involves many moments or images. What is the essence of the poem? What does that even mean? Does the language in any poetic endeavor convey anything? Is it supposed to?
I don’t know that we have to define poetry at all.
Therein lies part of the problem with poetry. Whenever I begin to teach a unit on poetry, the students groan audibly. They don’t “get” poetry. Not all students are creative, and not all students can easily work with a bunch of assigned literary terms. Sorry, but not everyone can write a clever metaphor or oxymoron at seven in the morning. Sometimes, artists and literary pundits take for granted what is seemingly a trite exercise; but I’ll be damned if you give me a chart with X Y Z coordinates and tell me something about a parabola. All I know about parabolas involves a song by Tool.
Poetry is often a relatively abstract concept, and more often than not, it is written through the lens of personal experience. Even if my students are not going to be becoming award-winning poets, learning how to reflect upon an idea and translate it into language is an empowering skill.
I like to create simple exercises for students. At first, they are intimidated, but a little structure goes a long way. I recently asked students to read a chapter summary of a novel; the students were instructed to rip out no more than five words from a significant idea or event that is present in the summary, and use at least ten lines that contain these five words (basically, choose ten main events in the summary and rip out the words). Here is an example of student work:
The choppy ocean muses
Search for the beast
Grazed with its tusks
only playing a game
use a littlun instead
Ralph and Roger wait somewhere
Desire to hurt was over
Jack climbs alone
A giant ape, horrified
I don’t think we need to sit and analyze it, but we can pretend this is a poem published in a reputable magazine somewhere. Does it seem confusing? Does it make sense? The words are fragments, pieces of ideas. What if we changed the requirements and wrote it a different way?
“Mr. Bilof, does it have to rhyme?”
“Poetry does not have to rhyme.”
“Mr. Bilof, I don’t understand poetry.”
We attempt a variety of exercises. I am sure a lot of poets out there will look at my sample and suggest, “It’s not poetry, it’s bullshit.” That, my friends, is one of the primary reasons people do not want to write poetry, or allow others to read what they write. Not everyone strives to be a published poet, but there are so many people out there who will just say “it sucks,” as if they have “literary genius” inscribed into their gene pool. As soon as we publish a poem of our own, we then become glorified experts.
Sometimes, poetry is simply a collection of those Hallmark cards, and those cards are often personal. Letting someone read poetry that you have written is almost like painting a picture that represents a page you wrote in your journal, and then asking everyone to look at it: “This is how I feel, and this is what I have experienced. Look at it.”
And then your audience does not care.
Let us consider the epic concept album. If I reflect on my own poetic inclinations, I think it’s possible to trace my appreciation for poetry to the first time I listened to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The lyrics and music are presented as an interior dialogue full of snapshots and memories.
I used to hate poetry. I have never sat down to actually think about how or why I began to write poems, until I began to write this article. I used to sit in the back of my math classes in high school and write the lyrics to “Comfortably Numb” all over a notebook. Once, I did the same thing in college on a portfolio that I had to turn in for a grade. My professor pulled me aside and said the lyrics were very beautiful, and I explained they weren’t mine. We know that Roger Waters, who is credited with composing most of the The Wall (or all of it, I don’t know and don’t want to be sued), crafted a piece that is biographical in nature. Why did the words resonate me? Was it the emotional confusion in the origin-story of a haunted rock star’s unravelling?
Ah yes, the unravelling.
And there you have it.
We could write a very lengthy essay that includes examples from a variety of poetic classics, but I will stick with our old buddy, Billy Shakespeare. Western civilization’s bard wrote entire poems within his plays that demonstrate the unravelling of a character’s mind. Hamlet and Macbeth described their emotional turmoil when nobody else was in the room with them, as if we were allowed a chance to glimpse interior monologues.
My poetry books are very much like horror concept albums. The Horror Show and Visions of a Tremulous Man include multiple characters who have already unraveled, or they are in-process. Horror poetry was a specific genre I despised, because I believed the tropes were cheesy and uninteresting. Since I began my own foray into the genre, I have discovered some excellent horrorists who capture that sense of “unraveling.” I believe horror poetry is a genre that has a lot of room to explore, if artists are willing to take risks.
All of us unravel at some point, but it may not be to an extent that sends us into a clinic. Some of us endure serious mental health concerns that underscore a sense of unraveling that seems to be a curse. I believe there can be a connection between the idea of personal terror as an ongoing struggle; and in a poetic collection, we can approach the idea of a concept album.
Anxiety, dread, fear; these emotions are familiar to us, and they don’t always have to involve monsters or murder. When I began to write The Horror Show, I personally did not qualify it as a horror piece until I realized the combination of madness/murder are common to the genre, though I would argue there are several literary classics that include the same elements and do not have to be classified as horror. Macbeth meets a group of witches, assassinates his king, and suffers from vivid hallucinations; isn’t there a horror story in there?
Both of my concept albums are extremely graphic in nature, and each poem in those books was created with the overall design of the book in mind; each poem had a particular aesthetic that physically represented themes, and the words themselves provide a sort of “direction” for the stories contained in the poems.
I like the idea of exploring poetry with the concept album in mind. Roberto Bolano performed a similar feat with a book called Antwerp; two of my contemporaries, Matt Bialer and Jordan Krall, have created work that presents a sort of emotional or psychological unraveling, and their work is usually not considered part of the “horror” genre. I can name several poets working specifically in the horror genre who are constantly producing strong work; I name Bialer and Krall to emphasize the idea that not all poetry that deals with human suffering or unraveling must be labeled as horror. The process of unraveling is a horrific one, even if we choose to reflect on disastrous relationships or financial instability.
While I can appreciate a variety of poetry, my favorite is the work that explores the gradual destruction of the psyche. Poetry, like music, is a personal experience that not everyone can relate to, but it can be approached from a conceptual perspective. The echoes of the subconscious are interesting, because there is no form, and sometimes, there is no function. Therefore, there are no rules, and that is perhaps the greatest freedom an artist can experience.