At the beginning of each semester, I ask my creative writing students what their favourite poem is. Some students can’t narrow it down to a single favourite, and the process of explaining this is a good way to get people thinking about how poems work.
For other students, the answer is difficult for a different reason: they don’t know any poems. It’s not all that unusual for a first-year student of poetry to say something like, ‘I don’t like poetry’, or, ‘The only poems I know are the ones I had to read at school – and I hated those.’
I don’t think it’s that strange (at least, not now that I’ve had some time to adjust) that someone who doesn’t know anything about poetry would enrol in a poetry writing course. We don’t expect chemistry students to name their favourite reduction-oxidation reaction.
These ‘poetry-curious’ students present a peculiar challenge. It doesn’t work very well to show them how to go about writing poems by appealing to examples of poetry they are unfamiliar with. Instead, I often call on Prince, who almost everyone knows (and who almost everyone loves).
Let’s get this out of the way. Prince was a song-writer, not a poet. While pop music does make use of poetic techniques, the modes of expression are fundamentally different. The craft and conventions of pop music (the fact that there is music; the time-restrictions, the production processes) are wholly different to those of poetry. Nevertheless, I often use lines from ‘Raspberry Beret’ to demonstrate the power of image over abstraction in poetry.
I was working part-time in a five-and-dime
My boss was Mr. McGee
He told me several times that he didn’t like my kind
‘Cause I was a bit too leisurely
Seems that I was busy doing something close to nothing
But different than the day before
That’s when I saw her, ooh, I saw her
She walked in through the out door (out door)
She wore a raspberry beret
The kind you find in a second-hand store
And if it was warm she wouldn’t wear much more
Lesson one in the first-year course is on ‘Image’. We focus on image first because we want to stress that writing poems is about perception, sensation and sensuality – it’s about experiencing the world through the senses. We say things like, ‘A poet looks outward for meaning, not inward’, and, ‘A poet finds meaning in what they perceive, not in what they conceive’, and, ‘A poet favours concretion over abstraction’. These statements are all a bit kitsch, and also a bit not-always-true, but they are (like the imperfect comparison between pop music and poetry) useful. And the reason we want to stress this early on is that new writers always seem to look inwards when writing – to intellectualise. The first poem is almost always a piece of personal philosophy, especially if the only poetry they are familiar with is Instapoetry – a topic for another time.
My go-to line is, ‘She walked in through the out door’. This is an image – something that’s observed. It’s free of judgment, it doesn’t require explanation, and it shows us so much about the woman. It shows us that she is unconventional, that she either deliberately disobeys society’s rules or is indifferent to them, and that she doesn’t really care what people think. This image is so much more specific and effective at evoking these ideas than the equivalent abstraction would – which might be something like, ‘I saw this weird girl’ – ‘weird’ could mean so many things that it essentially means nothing. This is, in fact, why images are generally so much more effective than abstractions. Abstractions capture an idea but in a general way. The word ‘sad’, for example, is a poor choice for a poem because it can mean so many things (upset, pitiful, sorrowful, lonely, pathetic, etc.) that it just isn’t very helpful. Much better to show an image: a person alone on train platform; someone trying to speak but being ignored; an empty fridge; and so on.
The central image of Prince’s song is, of course, the raspberry beret itself. A beret evokes the idea of artiness, but it’s also militaristic, and it’s also French. We can’t forget either that it’s the sort of beret you find in a ‘second-hand store’, which makes the image even more precise. The raspberry beret carries a huge weight of denotation and connotation, all of which allows us to start drawing a very specific picture of this woman. And ‘raspberry’ is an unusual choice of word to describe a colour, and as such it announces itself. Raspberry, in fact, invokes all the senses, sight, taste, smell, touch – even sound. When spoken, ‘raspberry’ has an edge to it: why is there a rasp in raspberry? And why don’t we voice the ‘p’? The word itself has a texture.
You can lose students if you start talking about the texture of words. But you can get them back again if you start swearing. The reason we say ‘fuck’ so much is at least partly because of its texture, its mouthfeel – its rasp – the satisfying lips-on-teeth of the ‘f’, the sticky ‘ck’ at the back of the throat.
Prince gives us more to work with. He says, ‘When it was warm she wouldn’t wear much more’. This statement feels sexual – both because we know what Prince is like, and because of the conflation of nudity and the erotic. But it’s also a moment of pure observation. There’s ambiguity in this image. She may wear very few clothes, but there is a good reason for it – it’s warm. She doesn’t go around half-naked when it isn’t warm. Which makes us believe, if we really immerse ourselves in the experience, that she just doesn’t care what other people think. She just does what feels right at the time, and others be damned. It’s an extension of the walking in through the out door – she is her own person.
This is crucial, though: when it’s warm and she sheds her clothes, she keeps her beret on, even though it probably makes her head hot. It’s part of her identity – either her self-identity or the identity projected onto her by Prince.
The use of the abstraction ‘leisurely’, which precedes the description of the woman in the song, has been described as ‘genius’. What I’ve said above implores that we eschew abstractions; however, a poet in control of their craft knows when to go there. In Prince’s song, the word works for a few reasons. Firstly, speed is important. We need information quickly so we can move on to the subject of the song (the woman). That’s what abstractions allow us to do: they are short cuts. Secondly, the word ‘leisurely’ is unusual – at least as a self-descriptor. It’s slightly odd to use it to describe a person at all (days are leisurely; people are slack). We might well wonder, too, about the rhyme of ‘Mr McGee’ and ‘leisurely’. Which word came first? Which provoked the other into existence? Or did they arise together? No matter, because the unusual context and the originality of the rhyming pair (surely there is no other example of these two words being used together in poetry or song?) means the word is entirely refreshing. Thirdly, the word ‘leisurely’ is self-deprecating – it ingratiates us to the speaker, and sets him up for the imminent encounter with the girl wearing the raspberry beret. After all, his persona will affect how he views her, and what he notices.
The use of ‘leisurely’ might be genius in a sense, but it’s risky to say as much to students. At least some writers, and especially those new to the craft, suspect they might well be unrecognised literary geniuses. I don’t really think there’s such a thing. Those we’re tempted to call geniuses are much better described as skilful people who have honed their craft and developed a solid body of work. We can call Prince a genius if we like, but we should also see him as someone who laboured over many years to become the best songwriter and performer he could be. His songs are not poetry – I stand by the assertion that pop music and poetry are fundamentally different – but his work is useful for the study for poetry.