March 7, 2013

Prompt: Chloe Yelena Miller and the Past, Present, and Future

 "I am in you and you in me.

If the doors of perception were cleansed,
everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

Eternity is in love with the creations of time."
- William Blake

Poets have used verb tenses to manipulate time in their poems. The English language has many verb tenses to choose from, and a poet is always deciding when she begins a poem which tense is the best (or correct) verb tense to use. Focusing on choosing the right tense and knowing how and when to shift verb tenses is a technique that can add immediacy, or introduce tension.

Tense is the grammaticalisation of time. The basics are often all you need: past, present, future. But sometimes we need, or we accidentally slip into, present perfect, past perfect, future perfect or use simple or progressive verb forms.

I don't want to be the language teacher here, because, ultimately, that's not the prompt or point. And I have found that grammar is an almost sure way to lose the interest of the student.  But, here's the lesson in brief:
Present      I run (simple) - I am running (progressive)
Past           I ran - I was running
Future       I will run  - I will be running
Present Perfect    I have run - I have been running
Past Perfect    I had run - I had been running
Future Perfect   I will have run -  I will have been running

First, here's a quick poetry and tenses lesson using William Blake's "The Tyger."

Why does he use "dare" and not "dared" or "dares"?

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Is Blake using the present subjunctive tense to bring the past into the reader's present?  I'm not sure, but I do know that he made a choice and it catches the ear and eye.

If you are familiar with with other languages, you know that some things about our English verb tenses are the same and other things are quite different.

For this month's prompt, you need to try a poem which very deliberately plays with tenses. It might play with time (as in the time traveling of past, present and future tenses) or it might play with the language of tenses changing (in English or other langueages).

Rather than create a verb tenses poem,
In the language the little boy spoke,
there was a promise the little boy broke.
In the letter the little boy sent,
there was a truth the little boy bent.
it would be far better to consider the bigger implications of Time and tense, as Chloe Yelena Miller does in her poem.

No Infinitive

We met in Esperanto, declared:                   Mi amas vin.

Which means (in case I forget):                    I love you.

We swam in the Sardinian sea, the water as blank
as your conjugations. I wear one piece of my two piece:

I will, first person future,
label these photos in our language
without a national body. The word
for our actions is not a noun.

Gender neutral, were we
heterosexual? The flexible
syntax translucent, nudity's definition.

I could pronounce (phonetics):                     You.

There were rules: The accent
is always on the next to last syllable.

It was carnival, a meatless (almost meaty) masked
party. Lent followed, we gave up
each other (reflexively).

by Chloe Yelena Miller

I like it right off that they met in Esperanto. Not a place, but a language, and a word that translates as "one who hopes." We could follow the thread of Esperanto's three tenses and three moods. Maybe your poem can work with the poetic and non-English jussive mood that is used for wishes and commands.

And her poem ends "reflexively" - a form that cause problems for English speakers learning a new language since this feature is practically absent in English. The literal reflexive means the agent is simultaneously the patient. That's grammar class talk meaning we do it to ourselves. How poetic is the reflexive: to enjoy oneself, hurt oneself, kill oneself, convince, deny or to encourage oneself.

Submissions for this prompt will be accepted through March 31, 2013.

"No Infinitive" is from Chloe Yelena Miller's new chapbook, Unrest (Finishing Line Press, 2013). Chloe teaches writing privately and online at Fairleigh Dickinson University and leads writing workshops at the Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. She blogs at

1 comment:

  1. This was an intriguing puzzle of a prompt for me which I enjoyed. I liked the way Miller's oem led me into it. I bought her chapbook and found it consistently fine.

    I also discovered in searching for her poems that she has a writing blog and one on foods and things Italian - and that she is expecting her first baby!
    Salute e gioia!


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