I’ve been thinking about how poems turn lately. Particularly, how they shift toward the final moment and I’ve developed a pet peeve for one trope that seems overused enough that it’s become a cliché. There was a book a few years ago that won one of the big first book prizes and garnered a lot of attention, yet I’ve never been able to finish it because almost every poem turns on a variation of the phrase “I wish I could say.” The trope’s popularity doesn’t end with this one poet, either. It’s so common you can probably pick up any random poetry journal and find it in one form or another.
I suppose there’s good enough reason for its popularity. As a trope, “If I could tell you,” conveys both desire and impossibility and implicates the speaker in an emotional conspiracy, for the secret that prevents the speaking must either change the speaker or the relationship. It performs the role of shifting context and complicates the presentation. If the persona “can’t say” what needs to be said, then whatever follows must be important. Used as a final turn (which is how that one book employed it much of the time) to move from the body of a poem’s meditation to the last images, it elevates the most mundane of images or declarations to a higher plane of suggestiveness. At least, that’s what it seems to do.
There are other worn tropes but I can’t think of any that seem as dilapidated as “I’d say.” Many syntax-based turns get reused so often we don’t seem to notice them at all (for example, the word “how” often functions as a syntactic turn). Although they can creak too, they have the benefit of differing greatly according to context, whereas a content-based turn such as “I will tell you” depends on a limited set of conditions. There are only so many possibilities under which the phrase makes sense, yet it appears frequently. (The variation, “which is to say,” works in a wider range of situations, but it still depends on the articulation of, or the speaker’s ability to articulate, whatever follows.) More than anything, the way this trope calls attention to itself strikes me as a poorly wrought hinge in the machinery of the poem. It grinds against itself, taking away from the marvel of a well-constructed thing. Worse than that, in many poems it has lost its connection to what its language says and become a signal, a way of hitting the lights and shouting, here’s what I mean.
Darren Jackson’s recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Pinch, The Laurel Review, The Offending Adam, Bluestem, and other journals. He also translates from French, including Life in the Folds by Henri Michaux (Wakefield P, forthcoming Fall 2014); “The White Globe,” an essay by Bertrand Westphal, which is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in the The Planetary Turn: Art, Dialogue, and Geoaesthetics in the 21st-Century; and, with Marilyn Kallet and J. Bradford Anderson, Chantal Bizzini’s Disenchanted City (Black Widow Press, forthcoming September 2014). He received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Tennessee in 2013.
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