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David Solway's "What Makes a Poem"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

David Solway

Introduction and Text of "What Makes a Poem"

David Solway's "What Makes a Poem" consists of seven stanzas. Each stanza features an ingredient for the production of malt liquor, which carries an associative complement to creating a poem. The speaker never makes a complete statement about any of the ingredients. He merely offers the noun and several phrases about its being or behavior or as the speaker puts its "the manner." He offers no particular claim about the manner, only suggests the presence of that manner, while also suggesting it somehow has something to do with making the beverage, which in turn has something to do with making a poem. The poem, therefore, is a series of suggestions about phenomena and how they behave.

What Makes a Poem

The barley
and the manner of its malting
its standing up to the wind
its sprouting and drying
its gradual ripening

The water
and the manner of its flowing
traces of peat and mineral
its floral and honey notes

The mash tun
and the manner of the yeasting
where malt and water mix
starch turning to sugar
the draining of the wort

The still
and the manner of its tending
its shape—column or pot—
the ancient skill of the coppersmith

The cask
and the manner of its keeping
the flavors of the wood
the subtle art of the cooper
its tempering of sublimities

Time
and the manner of its passing
of its passing

The maltmaster
and the manner of his knowing
the manner of his loving
the grain, the water, the copper, the wood,
and the slow ferment of years.

Commentary

Suggesting a parallel between the making of malt liquor and the making of a poem.

First Stanza: Going with the Grain

The barley
and the manner of its malting
its standing up to the wind
its sprouting and drying
its gradual ripening

The first stanza begins with the grain used to produce the alcoholic beverage, barley. Barley belongs to the fabrication of the liquor/poem because of "the manner of its malting." But before that stage, it stood up to the wind in a certain way, it sprouted, dried, and ripened in its own unique manner.

Before a poem can be poured into the glass of the blank page, it too must stand up to many winds of opposition; it must also sprout, dry, and ripen in the mind of the poet.

Second Stanza: Inspirational Blood

The water
and the manner of its flowing
traces of peat and mineral
its floral and honey notes

Water's contribution is in "the manner of its flowing," but also part of the role of water exists in its "traces of peat and mineral / its floral and honey notes." These terms are used by tasters and critics who describe the wares they test.

Water is the metaphorical counterpart to the inspirational blood that nourishes the poem as it circulates through the heart and mind of the poet.

Third Stanza: The Word

The mash tun
and the manner of the yeasting
where malt and water mix
starch turning to sugar
the draining of the wort

The "mash tun" becomes part of the process, important for "the manner of the yeasting / where malt and water mix." In this vessel, also the act of "starch turning to sugar" is accomplished. The line "the graining of the wort" offers a clear connection between the booze making and the poem making: the term "wort" means "word" in German. Of course, apropos to the making of liquor, it is the boozy mixture that results from the mashing of the grain after its starch has turned to sugar.

Fourth Stanza: The Stillness of Cognition

The still
and the manner of its tending
its shape—column or pot—
the ancient skill of the coppersmith

The manner of the "tending" of the shape of the still imposes its influences through the "ancient skill of the coppersmith." The copper coils that conduct the mash to it distillation destination figure in this process. The poet's creations result from the "still"ness of his own cogitations.

Fifth Stanza: In the Poet's Consciousness

The cask
and the manner of its keeping
the flavors of the wood
the subtle art of the cooper
its tempering of sublimities

The place where the flavors are held and intermingled features "the flavors of the wood / the subtle art of the cooper." The line, "its tempering of the sublimities," also corresponds to the act that takes place in the creating poet's consciousness.

Sixth Stanza: The Passing of Time

Time
and the manner of its passing
of its passing

All important in both spirits manufacture and the spirit body of the poem is the passage of time—for the poet, the distiller, and the finished product that each creates. Therefore, the speaker repeats, "of its passing / of its passing."

Seventh Stanza: Bringing it all Together

The maltmaster
and the manner of his knowing
the manner of his loving
the grain, the water, the copper, the wood,
and the slow ferment of years.

Bringing all of these fine ingredients together, the speaker testifies to the presence and implied magnitude of the creator along with "his knowing" and "his loving" all of the other ingredients, "the grain, the water, the copper, the wood." He then adds again that necessary time element, "the slow ferment of years."

Music video of David Solway and Janice Fiamengo performing David's song "Loving You, Loving Me"

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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