Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Killer and Filler Poems

Earl the Squirrel's Rule #23
     In Poem Types, Vol. 1: "Killer and Filler" Rattle Editor Tim Green mentions how one salient, unforgettable image or quote can catch an editor's or judge's eye and save a poem from oblivion.

     No doubt you've seen poems that contain only one remarkable (i.e. "killer") snippet, nestled in a bed of relative mediocrity (i.e. "filler").  Typically, these fail because the audience is left wondering if the poet had only enough inspiration and energy to write that one spectacular phrase.  As we'll see, the perfect "killer and filler" poem is brief and well integrated, such that the filler showcases the killer.  Think bride and bridesmaids here.

     Because it contains the finest sentence in 21st century poetry "There are Sunflowers in Italy" by D. Menendez is often mentioned in this context.

The sunflowers in Italy
are as distant
as the Cuba I never knew
and the poems that you left
when I met you
in that marble room.

El grito tuyo no se oyo
pues el silencio
del que fusilaron
en el jardin
fue mas alto.

You wrote your verses
with your veins
cold against the wall.

Today I walk through the streets of Miami
crying for what you left.
But you, old man, you cannot mourn.
You have the sunflowers.

     We recognize this effort as one of the five great poems from this millennium.  This is almost entirely due to that showstopping sentence--one that halted even Peter John Ross in his tracks ("Whoa!").  The ending is fine, if a little sentimental to some.  The first half, including the out-of-place colloquial Spanish sentence, is flawed and limp but we could overlook that as buildup.  The problem is that, as a killer and filler poem, the filler doesn't seem to be from the same poem as the killer.  The voice, style, rhythm and tone are all different.  As such, the poem lacks integration.

     A slightly better example would be John Stewart's "Sister Mercy", a cliché collage with one astounding line.  In it, "Sister Mercy" is both the name of a soldier's nurse (and imaginary lover) and a euphemism for the heroin she brings him.  As you can see, the language is common to the point of cliché (e.g. "nothing is forever...so grab it while you can") except for that one moment of clarity when he envisions being cured.

Sister Mercy (by John Stewart).

Would you bring me Sister Mercy, yeah
If she is still in town
For it seems I lost directions
And I've always had them down
And I don't know where I'm going, yeah
And I don't know where I've been
Could you send me Sister Mercy, yeah
She's always been my friend
Always been my friend

She would bring me to the river, yeah
Where I could lay my head
And I would close my eyes
And remember what she said
She said nothing is forever, yeah
So grab it while you can
Find the dreams along the river
As they move across the land
Move across the land

In the summer in the Badlands, yeah
Where I once ran wild
She would take me to the river
As a mother takes a child
For the dreams along the river, yeah
Are the best, I understand
Sister Mercy and the river, yeah
They know how to treat a man
How to treat a man

And she knows it's not forever, yeah
And I'll soon be on my feet
And I will take her dancing, yeah
In the liquid desert heat

And I'll forget tomorrow, yeah
And most of yesterday
Sister Mercy and the river
They know how to get their way
Sister Mercy and the river
They always get their way
Always get their way

Would you bring me Sister Mercy, yeah
If she is still in town
For it seems I lost directions, yeah
And I've always had them down
And I don't know where I'm going, yeah
And I don't know where I've been
Could you send me Sister Mercy, yeah
She's always been my friend
Could you send me Sister Mercy, yeah
She's always been my friend

     These succeed as lyrics because the music keeps listeners entertained.  It fails as poetry because it is too long;  the killer to filler ratio is far too low.

     The archetypical killer and filler poem--the one that inspired the expression itself and may be the best poem of the last thirty years--is "Hookers" by Usenetter Marco Morales.

Missing you again,
I embrace shallow graves
Pale faces, doughlike breasts
help me forget.

    It's short.  There is no difficulty in spotting the killer line.  More importantly, though, every word from the other three lines shares vowel sounds with the killer except the words "Me...missing you", which encapsulate the theme.  It may seem like free verse but is, in fact, metrical:  three iambic trimeters and one dimeter, from which we get the form's name:  carnivalia (i.e. three tris per dime).  Notice how the trochaic inversion of the last line echoes the acephaly (i.e. headlessness, missing an unaccented syllable before "Missing") in the first, allowing both the beginning and ending lines to commence with an attention-grabbing stress.

[x] Mis|sing you | again,
I em|brace shal|low graves;
pale fac|es,  dough|like breasts,
help me | forget.

     Notice how the trochaic inversion serves as an effective exit strategy here.  If those last ten syllables were part of an iambic pentameter poem...

pale fac|es,  dough|like breasts, | help me | forget.

     ...they would be pivotal rather than terminal, as in this famous line at the turning point of Hamlet:

To be |or not | to be, | that is | the quest|ion.

     There is so much packed into these four tiny lines that this poem serves as a fascinating topic when other poetry discussions stall.  See how easy it is to memorize.  That, itself, may be the sign of a brilliant poem.

Addendum:  Check out this Killer [and Filler] Pun.

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