Layering Complexity and Recklessness (or, How Poems are like Cookies)

I’ve started reading Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness, and have been thinking about loosening up the layered connections I am beginning to make in my poems.  The lateral leaps it takes to pursue these layered constructions seems to align to some of the things he’s talking about in the beginning of the essay – it’s really like one long essay.

If I wanted to try to describe this layering… I have a hard time articulating it.  It is not layering in the sense of layering a cake.  More like in the sense of cookies, where all the ingredients get mixed together: oatmeal, brown sugar, chocolate chips, etc.  These all come together to make great cookies, but they also retain their own identity when eating.  The discerning cookie monster will still note each of these ingredients, even while those like the butter, white sugar, eggs, & etc., become invisible.  Even though Cookie Monster can still taste these ingredients, they are balanced enough that they become one whole cookie, and even though he’s on a diet, Cookie Monster will eat as many as he can, like in the days of real Sesame Street when I was growing up.

In poetry land (for me at least), these ingredients are the outward components of a poem: the different subject matters which come into the poem and create the complexity.  Even poems which seem to limit themselves to one outward component will expand with enough attention so other ingredients come to the front.  Fine wines do this as well, but I will stick to the cookie metaphor.  The other ingredients form the base of the cookie.  These are just as important, but generally carefully controlled and therefore subtle implementations.  Without things like tone, rhythm, rhyme – the list goes one – the poem would end up like a cookie without butter, flour, and sugar.  Flat.  Uninteresting.  A sad jumble of dry words which don’t stick together and taste like crap.

But, the real question is where these layering ingredients come from.  Like the myth of the original chocolate chip cookies, the ingredients are accidentally come to.  The poet allows his mind to jump, almost subconsciously, from where s/he is to an entirely different – and only tangentially connected – realm of discussion.  Concepts, opinions, and subject matters become increasingly linked to the base of the poem.  Of course, the poet must test the batch, see whether these particular ingredients work together in the proportions used.  Just like a Cookie Monster, the poet must hone the recipe for each individual poem, focusing and adjusting until everything is just right.

More thoughts to come as I continue reading Young’s book.


– Eric