Tempering Your Poetic Temperaments (grâce à Gregory Orr)

A Poetry Squawk
By Michael Broder
Author of Drug and Disease Free and This Life Now

les_hallesI do believe some much-need Squawk relief is quivering on the horizon, but I hate seeing these weeks go by without a fresh Squawk, so yes, okay, I’m going to Squawk again myself.

I’ve been doing various kinds of poet mentoring lately, and I keep telling my mentees about my favorite craft essay of all time, “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry” by Gregory Orr, which you can find in the excellent book, Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World, edited by Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryant Voigt.

One mentee asked me whether their highly story-centered poetry was inconsistent with contemporary poetic standards. Made my day! And so, for my own Squawking pleasure if not yours, I reproduce here an appropriately edited version of my comments to them.

Story-centered poetry is not at all inconsistent with norms and standards of contemporary poetry—whatever that actually means (fodder for another Squawk and yes, I’m going to keep capitalizing Squawk). Very established, in fact, as one type of contemporary poetry. People often make a distinction between “narrative” poetry and “lyric” poetry where narrative poetry tells a story and lyric poetry expresses thoughts and feelings or uses language in a relatively abstract way. I don’t really buy that distinction. I think it’s more of a spectrum. Which brings me back to Orr’s “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry.”

Orr talks about poetry living on a sort of matrix in which story, structure, music, and imagination are the four quadrants (temperaments). Any poet finds their comfort zone somewhere on this grid, with sort of a primary “temperament” and at least one secondary temperament. All poems, according to Orr, have all four elements to one extent or another.

It’s fine to be a “story” poet by temperament, but to be the best poet they can be, a story poet needs to figure out how to integrate the other temperaments. It gets a bit more complicated because the temperaments are divided into two pairs, finite (story and structure) and infinite (music and imagination). Ideally, any poet’s secondary temperament would be of a different kind from their primary temperament. Story and structure are finite (meaning they tend to set limits on the poem), so these types of poets would want to try to cultivate music or imagination (which are limitless qualities, according to the way Orr uses these terms). And vice versa.

For Orr, and I think for most of us poets, music means things like rhyme, alliteration, assonance, rhythm, and simply the sounds of words themselves—short words, long words, sequences of words, balance of vowels and consonants, where stresses and pauses naturally fall, etc. Imagination may  be the squidgiest of Orr’s terms, but it’s also the one I am most intrigued by. He divides imagination into concrete imagination and abstract imagination. Concrete imagination is what we usually call “imagery,” sensual or sensory language, actual things and how they look, sound, taste, smell, or feel to the touch. Abstract imagination is thoughts, feelings, beliefs, ideas. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” (Whitman is the quintessential modern poet of abstract imagination).

Personally, I think I may be a story + abstract imagination poet. Maybe this poem is a good example.

Only you can say what your combination of temperaments is as a poet. If you buy what Orr is selling, and you feel that your primary temperament is story, then you want to push hard to cultivate music or imagination, either concrete or abstract. That doesn’t mean you pay no attention to structure (stanzas and fixed forms like the sonnet or villanelle and so forth); just keep in mind that your stories already structure your poems to a great extent, so you may not want to push too hard on the formal type of structure, it may render your poems overly “finite” and lacking in the dimension of infinity lent by music and imagination.

And that’s about where I left it with my mentee. If you haven’t already done so, get yourself a copy of Orr and Voigt’s Poets Teaching Poets and read Orr’s “The Four Temperaments” for yourself—it’s not much longer than the overview I’ve given here, but it’s infinitely richer in the original Orr. And think about your own poetic temperaments. Then go out and Squawk.

Michael Broder is the author of Drug and Disease Free (Indolent Books, 2016) and This Life Now (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), a finalist for the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. His poems have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. He holds a BA from Columbia University, an MFA from New York University, and a PhD in Classics from The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the founding publisher of Indolent Books and the creator of the HIV Here & Now Project. Broder lives in Brooklyn with his husband, the poet Jason Schneiderman, and a backyard colony of stray and feral cats.