Upstairs, Pierre, the Naked Sailor: On Why We List
We list when we wake by recording snippets of our dreams. We list before we sleep. We list before we shop, we list to unclutter our brain, we list to persuade, because the more details we list, the stronger our argument becomes. The list implies a tool. It is a tool for remembering: what to get or things to do. And sometimes we list to help us catalog our human frailty or locate how far we’ve strayed from our ideal selves. But as a tool in workshop, the list poem should not be reductive; it should be a device to awaken possibility.
Imagine if you were able to write only one sentence every day. How would you start? Would writing feel as labored and tedious as describing how you would begin a poem? Perhaps that one sentence’s structure demands self-imposed borders, or it should have a defined syllabic count per line on the page while the number of lines refuses to find a period; perhaps the sentence itself may have a classical sonic device: a hexameter line like Homer’s “ear, ear for the sea-surge.” Imagine the difficulty in figuring out when to say enough in that golden nugget of an idea we call a complete sentence. The poet Mary Ruefle says that in life, we are really writing only one sentence. “It must have a lot of semicolons,” Ralph Angel responded in jest. You are reminded of a poet who suffered a brain injury and during her recovery was allowed to write only one sentence per day. What would that one sentence be like for you?
Your one sentence would be made up of some reckless list. Could your beginnings and endings be part of some grand list? Writing a list poem forces you to cast a wide net of particular specimens from your day. Think of how your list should begin and how to keep it going before finding a suitable way to end. As in most poems, the list poem often requires the subtle shift from one concrete image to the next. The leaping is the procedure that lends action to the form. It’s an associative process broken by a breath in the guise of a comma. Procedures culled from various lessons you learned even within the course of a single day: the things that force us to go on as we fend off the inevitable. You discovered the listing device in poetry when you were first introduced to Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book (c. 966-c. 1017): diary entries, observations of daily court life in prose, and sketches of high-ranking and lower classes. Impressions meant for her eyes only. Because she wrote in secret, you note certain “meanness” in her observations that may appeal to contemporary poets; a sharp focus, or a jab to the solar plexus of the world she inhabited. The book for instance, contains 164 lists of “hateful things.” Among them are the following:
One is just about to be told some interesting piece of news when a baby starts crying.
A flight of crows circles about with loud caws.
An admirer has come on a clandestine visit, but a dog catches sight of him and starts barking. One feels like killing the beast.
One has been foolish enough to invite a man to spend the night in an unsuitable place—and then he starts snoring.
You tell your students to make a list: things that are white, things that are red, in the manner of Shōnagon. You can’t think of anyone who has done this exercise any better than Lyn Emanuel in her poem “Whites.” It operates horizontally instead of vertically, it’s a list, but it looks like a miniature essay:
The scar, the moon, the blind man’s cane, the gluey soup of barley, the bread, the milk, the chalked concoctions that coat the ulcer, the blind man’s eye, the banker’s long, pale, trembling fingers poking at the family ledgers until even the neighbors come by to get a look at folks so relentlessly unsuccessful. The tubers, the roots, long and damp and weeping, the nurses’ nose stuck into our business. Weevils in sacks of spoiled flour, grandmother’s feet pared with a paring knife, Dulles, Eisenhower. Glaciers’ paunches, slow and heavy, the body of the Savior on the altar wall, in the tub upstairs, Pierre, the naked sailor.
The comma is both your guide and witness to the next precinct of memory. The shift could be as casual as an unimposing road sign (“slow and heavy” or “the tub upstairs”), an object perceived from a distance, not unlike the intrusion of peering neighbors. There is a story here, or at least, an implied one. It begins with the body (the scar) and ends with the body (the naked sailor, Pierre). But the poem has no plot, only a theme. In this case the theme is the poem’s brilliant meditation on “things that are white.”
From Mary Ruefle’s list of “concrete fears”:
fear of death
of not understanding
of disturbance of reversal of powers
of being unloved
of the unknown or strange
of making a mistake
of loss of dignity
of outliving the mind
of eating an anchovy.
In her list, Ruefle contrasts the final item (a concrete thing) with all the abstract things that preceded it. Even though her list above is not meant to be “a poem,” it demonstrates a strategy that instructs how you might want to end a list poem. She begins with death, the absolute abstraction, and ends with the concretized act of eating a salty, pungent, perhaps even tasty dead thing.
Memory begets story and story in poetry begets that transparent stitch familiar in songs. Refrains echo a feeling, to hear it again and again because we demand to be present, demand to be heard, or at least invited to a place at the table. You can’t help singing the blues when you find yourself weighed down by the invisibility you embrace and later feel ashamed for passively accepting it as your lot. So you pause, take note, make a grocery list of grievances and call it your blues. Maybe your list will become the beginnings of a poem. A list poem though not in the manner of supreme declarations of our better human selves as in the Beatitudes from The Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament and the anaphoric device that Christopher Smart imitates as in “For I will consider my cat, Jeoffry” from his poem “Jubilate Agno.” Even in Homer’s Iliad we encounter the ancient poet’s awesome list of armies gathered in ships bound for Troy. Listing in poetry honors poets who came before us when we cast our wide nets and proceed toward the next image, the next item, the next polis, the next sketch of a clandestine lover, or the next elusive poem. We read our poets and capture a melody, or a discordant tone and eventually find our way into our own poems. In the end, we begin with one sentence even if it takes us all day and all night to write it down.
Emanuel, Lyn. “Whites.” The Dig and Hotel Fiesta. University of Illinois, 1995.
Ruefle, Mary. “On Fear.” Madness, Rack, and Honey. Wave Books, 2012.
Sei Shōnagon. “Things That Give Me an Uncomfortable Feeling.” The Pillow Book. Translated and edited by Arthur Waley, Houghton-Mifflin, 1929.
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