Quoted: Peter Norman’s Some of Us and Most of You Are Dead
Peter Norman, author of Some of Us and Most of You Are Dead (Wolsak & Wynn), explains the use of the “terminal” in poetry, how this has inspired his work, and the process of wrestling with words to get at the clearest truths.
Each poem in Some of Us and Most of You Are Dead is a “terminal.” Invented by Australian poet John Tranter, the terminal borrows its line-ending words, in sequential order, from another poem. For example, a terminal based on “Roses Are Red” would end its first line with red, its second with blue, and so on.Before starting this project, I had dabbled in terminals and had included a couple of them in earlier collections. My fear in committing to an entire book was that in such great numbers they would start to feel inauthentic. That by contorting its narrative to land on those line-ending words, the poem might wobble from its natural orbit, just as bad formalist verse will pretzel its grammar to arrive at the rhyme. (I also like working with rhyme, and the same worry applies there.)
This anxiety surfaces explicitly in many of the poems. Some of them express self-doubt; some are wary of the impulse to disinfect the human mess through aesthetic form. The lines quoted here are from a poem called “First-Person Prophet”; its source is Gwendolyn MacEwen’s “Dark Pines Under Water.” As is usually the case with my poems, the “I” who narrates this one should not be confused with me; here, it’s a disturbed individual with an overwrought sense of his/her/their powers of insight.MacEwen’s poem ends with an apt evocation of the creative instinct: “And you are sinking, sinking, sleeper / In an elementary world; / There is something down there and you want it told.” That resonates with my sense of what a poet does (a poet, that is, who’s working in the traditions I typically adhere to). A well-rendered poem can indeed draw us down into that subsurface mystery, where some barely articulable truth lurks. For me, the ideal poem cannot be paraphrased; its unique sequence of words does unique work. If you summarize or rearrange it, the alchemy dissipates. And this precisely calibrated word-sequence illuminates some sort of “truth,” or at least a sliver of insight or wit.And yet I recoil from such portentous claims. Poetry is just a bunch of words, carefully arranged. Like music (a bunch of sounds, carefully arranged), it can achieve remarkable effects. But it’s not magic. It’s not clairvoyance or prophecy or some other supernatural portal to truth. Indeed, beware the poem that gestures at profundity without sufficient attention to craft; it’s liable to stink. And what if the poem actually pulls us away from “truth”? If the alluring phrases are actually “sequined lies,” seductive but ultimately misleading? That tension underlies “First-Person Prophet” and lurks throughout my book.A terminal is a poem in dialogue with its predecessor, absorbing words and images and ideas, paying homage, sometimes snarking back. I suspect most poets are doing this all the time anyway. This unease with our heroes and ancestors is always with us, and it stirs again whenever we dare extract something from our brainpan and wrestle it into verse.* * *