Another year, another POEMHACK! I welcome submissions by readers, especially of poems that have been previously rejected for publication. Check the bottom of the post for details, and check the archive for previous installments.
OP writes: I was visiting the lands outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina last fall. Fearrington Village is a spot with rolling lawns, a lake, a great bookstore and nice restaurants. Along with all this they have “oreo cookie” goats – that are just like the cows there- simply amazing- black goats with a white ring in the middle around their bodies. It’s a very peaceful place to spend some time.
The size, drive, and step of the poem is not something I see very often. The poet has done a great job distilling a few choice details from probably a whole day’s experience, and they’re crafted in such a way that when I get to the end, I’m surprised the poem is over.
Part of this is that the poem happens over only two sentences, which is few, even for a poem. In three sentences – read: thought-units – you’ve very easily got a story (beginning, middle, end) or a joke (set up, development, turn) or a dialogue (argument, rebuttal, counter) etc… at the end of this poem, it’s like I know there’s not another sentence coming, but something in me is anticipating one, hoping for one. And a poem that leaves me hungry for more is doing well in my book.
What’s not working:
The major problem with this poem is the first seven words. See my markup below for a larger discussion of why the poet might have chosen these, but one out of ten thousand people are going to have any notion what a “Belted Galloway” might be, and “Bovine friends,” which tries to, but doesn’t quite, clarify what they are, is the only ugly phrase in the whole poem. All editors are looking for reasons to shrink the slush pile. This poem is giving them reason to do so immediately.
A simple fix that’s gonna way increase the chance an editor makes it through the poem, and thus has a chance to hear the chiming soundplay and feel the rhythmic compression – the ornamentation that delivers the primary effect of the poem – is switching up how the poem starts. What would the first line be if the title were “Cows”? Or “Cows in North Carolina”? Though those titles don’t attempt as much as the current one, they succeed in their work – “Bovine” is mostly making up for “Belted Galloways” failing to deliver much besides the sense that the poet knows something I don’t.
A question I’m still not convinced I know the answer to: is this poem only about cows? I’m inclined to think these particular cows, which have black heads and asses and white middles, are being used kinda metaphorically. That our states just-post-birth and just-pre-death are so similar, and that newlyweds and the aged are the inhabitants of this farm, and that “the end” is in quotation marks – it’s like, right? Isn’t this about life and death?
But it’s so subtle – those quotation marks seem to be the most explicit communication about it – I still feel unsure. If this poem is only about these specific cows, either its audience is people who live in or around Fearrington Village, or it could stand, still, a little fancying up. If it’s about life and death too, I don’t see the harm in making this more explicit. Poems are not codes to be deciphered, but things to be experienced.
I’ve revised the poem a couple different ways to show different tracks it could take, and to highlight or work against impulses in the original poem.
This is the revision most in keeping with the original approach to the poem – focused on sound, highlighting the flourishes and fireworks of craft. Where this departs is, while the original may treat the transcendence of the original subject (cows) too lightly (is it life & death?), this revision makes it a bit heavy-handedly.
The original poem swifts by; an effect produced in part by sentence structure (long), use of French-root words laden with unstressed syllables (“revelries” etc.), and compression of line length (funnel-ly). How would this effect be altered with thunky, basic diction?
In this case, I felt great about using the original title. Not only is it way clear we’re talking about cows here, but the three-, seven-, and eight-dollar words have a weird tension with the all the second-grade reading level monosyllabics. That the cows’ particular coloring is similarly obvious, the This is From Real Life import from the breed name and the place name is allowed to do its work.
What if I wipe out basically everything but the parataxis? No analysis, no soundplay, no real ornament, and still the poem mostly functions. The light touch of the original is not just in the crafting of the language, but in the choice and framing of the images themselves. That this version almost functions as a poem is testament to the Original Poet’s good eye, and the power of parataxis.
If you’d like me to take a look at a poem of yours that’s getting no love but you don’t know why, please send it to me ([email protected]) with the subject “POEMHACK”. By doing so you acknowledge that it’s your own unpublished work, that you give me the right to post it here and do whatever I like to it, and that I am just a dude talking about one poem of yours, not your entire career or potential as a poet! Any poems I choose to write about will be posted anonymously, but feel free to out yourself in the comments.