A Handful of Thanks from Gregory Fraser

David Bottoms was never my teacher. But he has made me a better teacher. Without his poetry, my work with younger writers would be decidedly less clear and less nuanced. Time and again in my nearly twenty years as a workshop leader at the University of West Georgia (where David earned a Master’s degree in English), I have turned to his poems as exemplars of how to bring in authenticity and overthrow kitsch; how to cast sentences in the active voice, with vivid, unexpected verbs; how to show more than tell, and much, much more.

It is impossible to count the number of emails I’ve written to students urging them to study David’s work, how many times in my comments on their submissions I have turned to his poetry as an unfailing guide. Every teacher is a Dante of sorts, and every one needs a Virgil. David Bottoms has been my Virgil in the classroom. (Sometimes, I wonder if he shouldn’t receive a cut of my paycheck each month.)

To give a concrete sense of how David’s writing shapes my engagement with students, I’ve dug around in my files and excerpted a handful of passages that address one (but only one) craft issue where David paves the way. In the present context, I think of the following write-ups as five ways to offer tribute to David, and to thank him for his profound influence on my career.

1.

A lot of this seems informational. Pore through some Bottoms poems. Watch how he zooms in on the essentials, bracketing parts of the situation that don’t add much to the reenactment. We have to screen out for our readers the details that don’t contribute to the march, as it were, toward meaning by the end of the poem. Notice how everything in “Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump” funnels down to the so-called “boss line,” the culminating gesture that propels the poem outward into larger significance. All of the previous compression and selection allows, in short, for the coup de grâce.

2.

Notice the proportion—the ratio of showing to telling. Bottoms predominantly shows. Then he slips in a little telling. He zooms in a lot, then zooms out (to larger, more profound ideas and realities), but only for an instant, and mostly at the close of the piece. That trick of first a) describing a particular episode or object at length by showing, and then b) offering an interesting observation or suggestion in brief by telling has served many poets throughout the ages. Try it.

3.

Look again at David Bottom’s “Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump.” The poem would lose all of its suggestiveness and subtlety if Bottoms came out somewhere in the poem and  stated something like, “because we could see that our lives as young Southern males weren’t really going anywhere, because we had no guidance, and our educations were woeful, and our prospects limited . . .” He would be telling, in prosy language, the “why” and “reason” and “because” of the poem. On the contrary, he suggests it, by focusing on the drama at hand, and by slipping in that evocative last line that help us, as readers, understand his suggestion. Make sure you offer suggestions as to why your subject is important to the speaker of the poem. Why does it matter? Why should a perfect stranger (your reader) care about the particular subject, or episode, that you describe? Think: What drove me to write about this subject? Why did I choose that particular focus? How can I “make it matter” to the reader? I’ve never read a Bottoms poem that doesn’t take hold of these questions in one way or another.

4.

Check out this professional example of the difference between telling (which you should resort to 20% of the time, at the most) and showing (which you should adopt 80% of the time, at the least):

Telling:

I rode with my father and uncle in a pick-up truck
along a muddy, bouncy passage through the woods.
We were part of a group of hunters, the last in the line.
Finally, after swerving and bumping for a while,
we came to a bright, open field.

Showing:

Bump and jostle, the road falling fast into rut, ditch, washout,
pines cuffing the windows, and me in the cab
a constant bounce between my old man and my uncle
as we bring up the tail
of a caravan of trucks tumbling like a rockslide
leveling into splash and creek-bog,
then back-end swerve and up, and rear tires throwing mud
as my old man crunches gears in a field of orange light
where the sun falls in layers
through the splayed tops of pines

(David Bottoms, from “First Woods”)

Do you see how Bottoms, one of Georgia’s most celebrated poets, incorporates sharp imagistic details that climb high on the ladder of specificity? When you show in your writing, you create a film in the minds of your readers, and you set the stage for them to experience the episode as if they were present in the scene.

5.

I know that you are a fan of David Bottoms, and I think that his work might serve as a guide to revising your latest draft, which I think shows a lot of promise. This is what Bottoms teaches us: that you have to sift through daily life, through the mundane details of the everyday, and pinpoint those moments that carry meaning-bearing contexts, that carry significance because of some relational reality, some important underpinning or base—someone is dying, or the nation is at war, or someone is pregnant, or someone just lost a job, or someone is about to get married, or someone is lonely for a particular reason—some “bigger” situation inside which you “think small.” Ultimately, we’re looking for a “small” crisp moment rendered in detail high on the ladder of specificity . . . but it often makes sense to set that moment, that episode or anecdote, within a “larger” meaning-bearing context. Right now, I keep wondering why you’ve selected this particular episode as worthy of poetic utterance? For help with that question, let’s look at a piece from Bottoms’s powerful collection We Almost Disappear:

MY DAUGHTER WORKS THE HEAVY BAG

A bow to the instructor,
then fighting stance, and the only girl in karate class faces the heavy bag.
Small for fifth grade—willow-like, says her mother—
sweaty hair tangled like blown willow branches.

The boys try to ignore her. They fidget against the wall, smirk,
practice their routine of huff and feint.
………………………………………………………….Circle, barks the instructor,
jab, circle, kick, and the black bag wobbles on its chain.

Again and again, the bony jewels of her fist
………………………………………………………….jab out in glistening precision,
her flawless legs remember arabesque and glissade.
Kick, jab, kick and the bag coughs rhythmically from its gut.

The boys fidget and wait—
then a whisper somewhere, a laugh, a jeer.

She circles the bag—jab, jab, jab—flushed, jaw set, huffing
with her punches, huffing with her kicks, circles
to her left and glares.
………………………………………But only at the bag—alone, in herself,
to her own time, in her own rhythm, honing her blocks
and feints, her solitary dance,
having mastered already the first move of self-defense.

This is classic Bottoms. Look at how he zooms in, but also how he situates the piece within the larger context of adolescent gender relations. Notice how perfectly he follows the trusted “Three I” pattern: he identifies the subject of the poem in the title; then he illustrates (or shows) for almost the entirely of the piece; then he ends with the interpretation of significance, the why of the poem (the tell). Without the larger context—the broader relationship of the daughter to the boys in the class, and the wider gender complexities rooted in our culture—there’s not much chance for the poem to “mean” very much, to carry import.

What if the poem read like the below?

MY DAUGHTER WORKS THE HEAVY BAG

A bow to the instructor,
then fighting stance, and the only girl in karate class faces the heavy bag.
Small for fifth grade—willow-like, says her mother—
sweaty hair tangled like blown willow branches.

………………………………………………………….Circle, barks the instructor,
jab, circle, kick, and the black bag wobbles on its chain.

Again and again, the bony jewels of her fist
………………………………………………………….jab out in glistening precision,
her flawless legs remember arabesque and glissade.
Kick, jab, kick and the bag coughs rhythmically from its gut.

She circles the bag—jab, jab, jab—flushed, jaw set, huffing
with her punches, huffing with her kicks, circles
to her left and glares at the bag—alone, in herself,
to her own time, in her own rhythm, honing her blocks
and feints, her solitary dance.

Frankly, it’s not bad, right? And yet, it doesn’t play for the same high stakes as the published version. It doesn’t allow the reader to “zoom out” to something bigger, with broader relevance. Think about the question of import with regard to your draft. If you can find an authentic meaning-bearing context, then I think that you’ll have a more resonant draft on your hands.

Gregory Fraser

Gregory Fraser

Gregory Fraser is the author of four poetry collections: Strange Pietà (Texas Tech University Press, 2003), Answering the Ruins (2009), Designed for Flight (2014), and Little Armageddon (2020), all from Northwestern University Press. He is also the co-author, with Chad Davidson, of the workshop textbook Writing Poetry (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008) and the critical writing textbook Analyze Anything (Bloomsbury, 2012). His poetry has appeared in journals including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, and The Gettysburg Review. Fraser is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.
Gregory Fraser

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Author: Gregory Fraser

Gregory Fraser is the author of four poetry collections: Strange Pietà (Texas Tech University Press, 2003), Answering the Ruins (2009), Designed for Flight (2014), and Little Armageddon (2020), all from Northwestern University Press. He is also the co-author, with Chad Davidson, of the workshop textbook Writing Poetry (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008) and the critical writing textbook Analyze Anything (Bloomsbury, 2012). His poetry has appeared in journals including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, and The Gettysburg Review. Fraser is the recipient of grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.