Thursday, August 1, 2013

Poetry and the Art of Surprising Oneself

Going through all my stuff to get everything on the new website is a bit like cleaning out the attic. I keep coming across things that I had forgotten or completely lost track of. This essay was written over a year ago, and a journal was going to use it, but they shut down before they every got to do so. In the meantime, I used it with my composition class as an illustration of documentation. Now, realizing that it has never been published elsewhere, I'm going to put it up here. In the next few days, I'm also going to repost links to some wonderful reviews that I hadn't looked at in a while. The new website, by the way, is at, and it has blurbs and reviews on all the books, easy PayPal purchasing options for the books and the new CD, interviews, links to most of the meaningful non-fiction I've written, and now I'm working on indexing everything so that it will be very easy to locate everything of significance that has been written about any of the books or individual poems. It's a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. Help me out by posting a link to it to anyone you know who is interested in poetry.

Now, here is the "new" essay.

Poetry and the Art of Surprising Oneself

Who wants to read what a poet has to say about his own poems? What moment of surprise, what joy of discovery could there be in that? Certainly the poet would see only exactly what he meant to put in the poems. Right?

The funny thing is I think it is often the case that poets don’t know everything, sometimes not even the main thing, they put into a poem, much less into a collection of poems, perhaps not at all into several years worth of poems.

Such was the case recently when I read poet and critic Connie Post’s brief review of my new book of poems, For One Who Knows How to Own Land. Certainly I was aware that “redemption”, with its connotations of buying back, rescuing from worthlessness, discovering or recreating a value where it had been lost, played a large role in my 2008 book, The Fractured World, which concludes with an image of that unavoidable, universal redemption that saves us all from utter worthlessness no matter how hard we try to be worthless. That redemption created by physical death and the inevitable “giving back” it entails:

His skin had grown so thin
it easily changed into birchbark
and started peeling away.
And his hand,
his hard right hand
which never learned to hold
anything gently turned into
a leaf that held wind,
rain, sunlight upon it,
then let everything go. (79)

So it came as no surprise when columnist and newspaper editor Barbara Burns entitled her review of the book, “Hope and Redemption in a Broken, Fractured World.”

And of course I knew that my 2010 book, Paternity, embodied the redemption of a lost childhood in the story of an abused son who becomes a loving father. Thus, the book ends with “The Daddy Poem”:

The poem of my life has been
the transformation of just
one word, leaving behind
the slap and yell, sunken
teeth of argue and fight,
teaching instead the rule
of numbers, colors, left and
right, replacing fist with open
hand to carry, hold,
soothe, pouring tea
checking for monsters, eating
crusts of bread, skin
of apples, anything unwanted. (68)

Recognizing this redemption, poet and critic Pris Campbell wrote of the book, “It’s both a book of the love of a father for his daughter and at the same time, a type of atonement for his own father’s failings. By being a better father, Owens walks away from the ghosts of his past into a better now of his own creation” (par 1).

And, yes, in The Nature of Attraction, another 2010 book, I knew Norman, the male protagonist, could redeem himself, although no critic ever said as much, only by discovering enough capacity for love within himself to leave before he could cause further harm to those he loves. Norman’s own recognition of this fact is made clear in “The Day He Left”:

Years later, old and alone,
he’d see it as his one success,
the woman he almost loved,
the day he left. (33)

And I knew all along that my 2011 book, Something Knows the Moment, would be a controversial and dubious redemption of if not religion, then at least something that might be called faith, as exemplified in these lines from “Common Ground”:

I do not believe God will bend
to kiss this mouth. I do not believe
the wine will turn to blood. But something
knows the moment of sunflower,
the time of crow’s open wing,
the span of moss growing on rock,
and water washing it away. (99)

Thus, critic and NC Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti astutely observes, “By turns these poems are terrifying and glorious, always luminous, informed by an abiding faith that the liturgy of poetry will leave us burnished and restored” (Owens, Fractured cover).

While redemption had played a conscious role for me in the creation of each of these earlier books, I had not thought of it as one of the primary themes of For One Who Knows How to Own Land, a book of poems primarily about growing up in the rural South. Nor had I considered redemption to be one of my persistent themes across the full range of my work. At least not until I read Post’s remark: “This book will take you through an incredible journey themed on the brutality of rural life, the sanctuaries inside the self, and how in some way, we can be redeemed” (par 1).

With that thought in mind, I see my own poems with a new understanding. I see how the line, “I finally understand / the weight of it all” (93) in “Acts of Defiance” speaks to the redemption of experience. I see how “It’s the people you care for, / or hate, who keep you / coming back, or never let you go” (91) in “Homeplace” reveals the redemption of our families of origin. I see how “And every child should know . . . / where they come from, what / they bring or take, and where when it’s all / done they might return and call home” (88-89) from “Rails” suggests the redemption of place. And I see how each of the poems in For One Who Knows How to Own Land and perhaps in all of my books finds value in someone or something once believed to be valueless.

Of course, now, with the help of Connie Post, I think what could be better than a lifetime of work finding the redemptive value inherent in the things and people around me? Robert Frost famously said, “No surprise for the poet; no surprise for the reader” (par. 148). That’s the best thing about writing poetry as perhaps opposed to writing most anything else. If you do it honestly, without a preconceived agenda, it will always be full of surprises. If you do it as former Poet Laureate Billy Collins suggests such that the poem starts “out like a lone traveler / heading into a blizzard at midnight,” then the surprise will exist not just for the reader but for the poet as well.

Works Cited

Bathanti, Joseph. Book jacket for Something Knows the Moment by Scott Owens. Main Street Rag, 2011.
Burns, Barbara. “Hope and Redemption in a Broken, Fractured World.” Observer News Enterprise, September 5, 2008.
Campbell, Pris. “Review of Paternity.” Good Reads, March 12, 2010.
Collins, Billy. “Winter Syntax.” The New York Times, 5 Nov 2012.
Frost, Robert. “Robert Frost, The Art of Poetry No. 2.” Interview with Richard Poirer. The Paris Review, No. 24. Summer 1960.
Owens, Scott. For One Who Know How to Own Land. Future Cycle Press, 2012.
Owens, Scott. The Fractured World. Charlotte: Main Street Rag, 2008.
Owens, Scott and Pris Campbell. The Nature of Attraction. Main Street Rag, 2010.
Owens, Scott. Paternity. Charlotte: Main Street Rag, 2010.
Owens, Scott. Something Knows the Moment. Main Street Rag, 2011.
Post, Connie. “For One Who Knows How to Own Land By Scott Owens -- A Review.” Amazon. 3 November 2012.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed the essay Scott, Thanks. If there are no surprises for either the poet or the reader, then the poetry lacks the chance to be any larger than the person who wrote it. That becomes a moment of no redemption.