Dean Young's "Romanticism 101" Partially-Explicated and Meditated Upon

This was intended to be an "Inspired by" day but life's tumultuous and it was pushed back, and now I've already posted today. So instead, read this and then my explication/one-sided conversation with it and maybe use it as a writing exercise sometime.

First: twice read the fantastic poem "Romanticism 101" by Dean Young which was just published in the July/August 2014 issue of Poetry. If you're not too versed in poetry (heh, and sorry), and the poem doesn't seem to make much sense, don't worry. It is a paratactic poem, so it lacks much of the connective tissue (or bridges) that traditional narrative provides you and requires you to leap along with it.

Even if you're not necessarily following anything but the individual lines/sections, take each one in as its own unit. This is a different way of reading than many are used to so please take a little longer reading the lines. They may be literal or metaphoric without notice given to the reader.

Once you've read it over, without looking back at the poem, think for a minute about things that stuck out to you in particular. Think back to words in particular. Give it a minute. There is a lot crammed into this short poem.

Then give it a second read over once you know what you're getting yourself into.

Maybe think of it like this. Imagine that you open your eyes and discover that you're standing mid-river in your Sunday best atop a couple of mossy rocks. Ahead of you is Dean, you're best bud, he's just looked back, and shouts "Come on!" then begins dashing along the scatter of rocks which pock the river's surface through the curling current. There's no bridge, there're no rocks behind you. You have no choice but to step on the rocks Dean was hopping to and keep as dry as you can, which isn't too dry. You make it to shore, blink, and as you open your eyes you hear the river, see Dean's mouth shape "Come on!" and have no choice but to try again. The second time the rocks' moss will be a little less slippery and I promise, you'll stay a little drier.

Once you've read it twice pop down to the last bit, or just bask in its goodness and move along with your day.

Dean Young is a master of the paratactic poem, and "Romanticism 101" is no exception. Similar to the story we worked with earlier, Scott Kreeger's "Zigzag. Yeah." Young's poem conspicuously utilizes anaphora to the point where he feels the familiar need to get metapoetic: "Then I realized even when you catch the mechanism, / the trick still works." These lines work both in the context of Romanticism (identifying movements like those hyperbolized in the poem) and in the context of the reader reading this poem, where the anaphora has been utilized to the point where even the novice poetry reader has the device in their scopes.

The idea that surprise is important has been reinforced time and time again in poetry, both by teachers and the poetry I've read itself. That and the imporance of rhythm, of repetition. The poppiest of pop songs are all chorus and fall quickly from the radio stations, a Wu-Tang triumph or a Garfunkel ballad is often cherished by a few but ignored by most, but the enduring pop songs are a mix of both surprise and repetition. They're not boring, but easy to sing along to. (I'd like to plug Bo Burnham's "Repeat Stuff"-nsfw which is a hilarious take on the conventions of pop love songs) In this instance, the pop music is rockabilly. The revival of country-rock. I still see Brian Seltzer when I think rock-a-billy, but that's San Diego Rockabilly, not Texas Rockabilly. And this isn't my poem, and that's one of the many, many reasons I love it.

His anaphoric lines are cleverly broken up with tangents and epiphanic notes like L5 "All was change." The aforementioned anaphora switches ("I came too" etc.) also help to break up any building monotony.

"But how does the poem move," everyone asks at parties, well, this poem works largely in three movements, broken up by two short lines "All was change" and 'Yeah, as if.' The first grand statement (reminding me of Rilke's famous "You must change your life" but in a passive, almost forlorn form) segues into the metaphysical middle segment, and the second colloquial statement undercuts and segues from that metaphysical mode with a metapoetic move as whatever the narrator's been drugged with has worn off--which might be a feeling of optimism, hope of change, or perhaps a deeper reading of Romanticism.

Or perhaps the poem is a fractured narrative of someone's actual drug trip, including their reasoning for the trip, the disembodiment and outside perspective of the trip, and the awful 'heroin hangover'.

Or perhaps it's an ars poetica, a metaphor for an artist's journey from plainspoken dismalities through surreal metaphysics to gritty realism and ending on stoic lyricism. Not altogether an alien reading of Young's work, though also... you know, not a real one. Someone else has done/is working on that dissertation.

But now that we've begun, let's get to the beginning:
"Then I realized I hadn’t secured the boat. / Then I realized my friend had lied to me. / Then I realized my dog was gone / no matter how much I called in the rain." 
The poem begins with a list of three general sinking revelations, moments when you know something has been lost: a boat, a friendship, a pet. These themed images introduce you to the poem and its intentions. This is summarized by the following epiphany "All was change."

From there the poem jettisons its ties to the shore of normalcy and moves onto a more drastic revelatory mode where the narrator has insight into things far out of the ordinary, as well as into the workings of ordinary things. He chooses dark (shadows) over light (essences) and continues on the somewhat hallucinatory journey begun with the aliens at the hotel breakfast bar. But once the realizations reach the florid level of "the very futility was salvation / in this greeny entanglement of  breaths" it pauses, is shook from that metaphysical level with the cynical "Yeah, as if" which serves both as a callback to "All was change" as well as to comment on the previous surreal lines where shadows sing telegrams and have old gods.

As the narrator becomes aware of 'the poem's' mechanics, the revelations become more close to home. In Texas, Rockabilly will never die. Every single line of words can be read in multiple ways. This is just how we poets have decided to dice up our language.

Again, we need to pause. If for no reason other then because a small pause, a small reconsideration of the world around the one who we call the reader, is helpful. Stop reading. Like, come back, but give it a few seconds. I understand it's strange to not immediately move on, but just stop. Count to ten. Think again about the poem. Come back after.

Come on now, read it.


Now I'd like to talk momentarily about the lines near the end: "I came to handcuffed and gagged. / I came to intubated and packed in some kind of foam. / This too is how ash moves through water."

This section has meant a few different things to me as I read and contemplated this poem, but the one that I've always returned to is that of resurfacing from an infatuation. Romanticism can be like that. Any genre can be. Any discovery of the "brand new" can be an intoxicating and immersive experience. Sometimes you submerge so deep into a subject you never truly return to the surface and you're always carrying the skin of that perspective with you. This last interpretation is the one I leave the poem with. The helplessness of post-infatuation. There's the helplessness of the poetry's power and devices, in varying forms of being beyond the point of no return. Loving the poems despite identifying the mechanisms of the machinery. And then the ash floating upon the surface. Tied and kept dry by surface tension.

There're different ways to feel when you've passed infatuation. There's usually a feeling of revulsion, or resentment at the investment made to such a degree. However upon perspective, which is spoken in the last lines, this is a universal experience not isolated in Romanticism. Stylistics are in their very essence a redundancy of rhetorical or thematic movements. You either like it or you don't. And even when you like it, you can't deny that there are disciplined turns in almost every categorical story or poem.

But also, hey, who'm I? Pretty much no one. That's always nice to remember.

Onto the writing exercise.

Young utilizes the repetition of "Then I (realized)" to drive his poem. This is a good choice not only because the poem moves forward on the wheels of its rhetorical device but is also charged with the energy of his chosen repetitive words. As each repetition is a sudden shift of perspective, a revelation to the narrator.

Writing Exercise: Utilize similar anaphora: "Until then," "Stopped by," "Which started" or "But once again" or some variation of the phrases. As Young does, be sure to use a couple hyperbolic or out of place lines to mix things up, and maybe they won't seem so out of place once you finish. Also, as Young does, do not begin every line (or sentence, if you're writing a prose piece) with the anaphora, and perhaps introduce another much shorter lived repetition (as Young does with "I came to" and they/they're/their).