Jim Leftwich

Notes on a Couple of Inside-Out Poems By John M. Bennett
"Pool(", from Glue, XPress(ed) 2005
and INHALE, from Mailer Leaves Ham, Pantograph 1999

There are a few poems in Glue, a book of sonnets published by Jukka-Pekka Kervinen at XPress(ed) in 2005, which are written in what I remember as the "inside-out" form. (I remember that form as being in use in the mid-nineties, but at the moment I can't remember which books it was used in.) I am looking at one entitled "Pool(", just as an example. The form of the poem is as follows: 7 lines, a space, the title, another space, then seven more lines. The second seven lines are a mirror of the first seven. That is, the last word in the last line rhymes with the first word in the first line, and the rhymes continue, word by word, until the first word of line eight, which rhymes with the last word of line seven.

In order for this poem to have this specific shape, the first seven lines would have to be written first, and then the last seven would need to be written in response to the first seven. Seen from one perspective, this is a very loose improvisational process in which there are a great many options to choose from at any given intersection point (each word being in this case an intersection point). Seen from another perspective, the second seven lines have been composed within a set of very tight constraints: each word must be "mirrored" by itself, not as part of a phrase, and no words may be skipped.

In looking at Mailer Leaves Ham, I do not find this specific form. The poems in Glue are sonnets. I don't think there's any need to qualify that assertion. The poems at the beginning of Mailer Leaves Ham read like partially-mirrored prose poems. Take INHALE (page 8) as an arbitrarily selected example: beginning in the center of the poem, with the title, we find, reading towards the end:

vision of resink and clocker thirdly riddled in your bay ("gutsy") guts 'n keys, your humo sailed and, reading backwards towards the beginning until we find the rhyme for "sailed", we find:
nailed, branch exhumed or gust. The cables strayed, retribution in the wordless sink eye convexion

The rhymes here are for the most part not in any way exact, but they are nonetheless very clearly present. Some words and phrases are not "mirrored" at all, while others are "mirrored" out of sequence. Listening to (and looking at) the interplay of sounds in these two sections of the poem reminds me of improvisations being played on a melody. Snatches of the melody are repeated and recombined, just slightly off in certain places, meticulously exact in others. A reader/listener hears (and sees) what is being done, without any need for rational analysis.

Looking again at the poems in Glue, we see that the process is significantly different. Looking again at "Pool(", and beginning in the center with the title, we read line seven:

bucati heave slugged board !)dang shore slime followed by line eight
time pore, sang nor bugged grieved loquat.

Line eight mirrors line seven word for word. This is not the same process as the one used in writing INHALE. The thinking is different, different kinds of decisions are being made during the writing.

In an excerpt from a letter to his father, reprinted as an afterword to Mailer Leaves Ham, Bennett writes about "unconscious thinking" and "trained unconscious activity". "There certainly is," he writes, "conscious mental activity going on (a vast realm including continually reprocessed memories — a good deal of one's 'self', perhaps — somatic processes, etc.), some of it trained unconscious activity. I also believe ('know') that 'unconscious thinking’ (oh yes, it exists!) is what brings art or writing to life. Without it, it is dead, boring, predictable, academic.
The conscious activity that goes on during the process of creation is merely the form through which the other is processed, a kind of transliteration."

The constraints in these "inside-out" poems function as a means of permitting conscious decision-making processes to interact — to occur simultaneously — with what Bennett calls "unconscious thinking". Bennett, from later in the same letter: "One of the ways that meaning is conveyed, especially from art like mine, is through an appeal to, and contact with, that 'unconscious thinking' that all people have."



Email from Bennett to Leftwich, 03.03.2018

thanks for this - glad you took on Glue, a book i like which is kind of invisible (hmmm, what else is new?) your comments are right on target

anyway, re Mailer Leaves Ham: you're right that the forms in Glue are not in MLH, but there's a different form of insideoutness. many of the MLH poems have the title in the middle, and the poem actually starts after that title. when the apparent end of the poem is reached, one should proceed to the apparent beginning to continue reading until just before the title, which is the "end". at least that's one way to read them. there are multiple possibilities, of course.

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