• Kaecey McCormick

Experiments in Syntax with 80 Flowers

I love being introduced to new-to-me poets. As such, it was a treat when last Sunday, as part of Hugo House’s excellent Write-o-Rama, I “met” Louis Zukofsky (1904-1978), a Jewish New York poet and self-described

“objectivist” writer.


Write-o-Rama takes place over four hours, and writers choose from four workshops each hour. Though I didn’t know anything about Zukofsky, I can’t imagine life without music. In fact, I write, work, cook, and do most things with the music of my current mood playing. So when I saw a session entitled “80 Flowers: Syntax as Music,” I signed on.

The session’s description read as follows:


“We will read several poems from Louis Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers and write our own poems using the same form. In this ‘book of songs,’ the eight-line poems, with five words to a line, eschew traditional syntax in favor of a musical arrangement of words.”


During the workshop, the facilitator, poet and educator Noah Zanella, provided some background on Zukofsky and read several of the poems from 80 Flowers. The collection comprises eighty of these 8-line poems, each with the title of a different flower or plant.


To say these poems are different is an understatement. They break the rules of syntax, and rather than meaning or emotion at the core, the poet takes aim at the sounds of the words. The reader is invited to slow down, listen, and see each new plant or flower with new eyes, or hear the speaker’s ears as they discover an associative leap.


It’s best to read some of the poems to understand their flavor, and I recommend borrowing the book from your local library or perusing this article by Leon Lewis for a few samples as the poems are all under copyright.


The exercise in the mini-workshop was to craft a poem in the same format but using an obsession or something to which we’re personally drawn rather than a flower (though it could be a flower). I’d recently had a lovely encounter with a group of owls on my early morning hike, so I crafted a poem entitled simply “Owls,” following the 80 Flowers format. Here are the opening lines:


owls

after louis zukofsky


moonlight sentinel tree-sitting over earth

wide-eyed hunter of fields observer

singular hooting mouse-and-dream eater soaring


This poem is still under construction, and it may never move out of my files and into a more public space. However, I find the bravery Zukofsky showed with syntax inspiring, and the workshop has encouraged me to take more risks with my own poetry.


What’s inspiring your writing these days? Drop me a line in the comments or message me and let me know!


Happy writing!