Community Feedback: Would You Have Told? by Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor
Community Feedback is our recurring column that provides an opportunity for our audience to get some quick, free & exceptional feedback on a new poem.
It works like this: we keep open the category for everyone to submit a poem in progress.
Meanwhile, our editorial staff selects a poem to critique and comment on.
We publish the poem and the comments once every month, and repeat the process.
Submit your poem here.
This month, we chose Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor ‘s poem, “Would You Have Told?.” Thank you to all of our submitters.
Would You Have Told?
The boy who stole cookies from the donation bag,
Or sold books from the donut bag,
the one who hid vodka in suit pockets, the one
who’s head rocked to music, pock marked
who lifted dirts or shirts and you, willingly, wanting
his thick mouth on your neck: said thick, said mouth
said lift, said neck, said no. But what would you tell?
Blurry with drink, would you have told
white lace of her naughty peeking, tanked
lipstick and lavender dizzying black tank
blame if, earlier, you’d lain like an oiled
invitation, like a spoiled irrigation, like the words
were an ocean’s retribution: no one
reads the no trespass signs, no one
speaks or throws guest pass fines. Would they
laugh at your expense? Gaff fat at your defense?
Blame nipples or eye twitch, ripples or spy witch?
If you told, bold, anyone, many ones:
what would you say?
what did you say?
what didn’t you say?
“Would You Have Told?” fits easily into today’s most vital culture conversations. If anything, the #MeToo movement has generated an amazing amount of authentic, powerful and rich poetry. This is something that our editors are aware of in our selections, as we try to find poems that will engage and move our audience.
However, speaking to a cultural moment is never enough by itself to warrant publication. The inventiveness of voice, the authenticity of emotional travel, the careful and deliberate consideration of each line—these are always more important, and I’ve chosen “Would You Have Told?” primarily for its exemplary display of those qualities first and foremost.
This is a good poem, almost ready to for publication in great journals. The piece does its work with genuine desire for what’s true. On the surface, all seems quite simple. We have an abundance of rhymes that are not necessarily inventive in their sound—many direct and full rhymes in each couplet. And we have images that also do not strain themselves at reaching for the completely new. The geometry of this poem’s imagery is overall simple-shaped: triangular, square, circular.
Yet it’s that choice of simplicity that I find most intriguing, that might be the heart of this poem’s strength.
All the Rhyming Sounds
Rhyme is perhaps more difficult today than it’s been before. More difficult to do well—readers of today want more from rhymes. I see and enjoy plenty of submissions where the author has carefully crafted a cascade of slanted sounds, near rhymes and half rhymes. This is often the instinct of today’s poet: to rhyme surprise with the author died, to hide the rhyme behind sly consonance and assonance.
“Would You Have Told?”does this exceptionally well: hid vodka in suit pockets / head rocked to music, white lace / lipstick, Blurry with drink / her naughty peeking, an ocean’s retribution / no trespass signs, etc.
But the poem also takes a entirely different tact, abundantly showering full and repetitive rhymes on the reader: donation bag / donut bag, dirts / shirts, thick / thick, mouth / mouth, neck / neck, tanked / tank, oiled / spoiled, no one / no one, expense / defense, told / bold, etc.
These full rhymes and repetitions simplify the overall sound of the piece. They flatten out the diction and the language to a level usually aimed at by nursery rhymes and children’s books. Such a level is usually avoided by magazines and presses that seek to publish mature, contemporary work—yet, in this poem, it adds a layer of complication and complexity that actually elevates the reader’s experience.
We’ll explore just how that works a little later. But first—
And All the Images
Take a look at the progress of the imagery in “Would You Have Told?”: cookies from the donation bag, donut bag, vodka in suit pockets, thick mouth on your neck, no trespass signs, nipples, eye twitch.
The imagery holds modest from beginning to end, mixing in clear noun-objects and body parts throughout, and I’d actually argue that the weakest moments in the poem arise when the imagery strives further than the baseline established early on (see some of stanzas five through eight).
Importantly, none of these images require a college degree to imagine or understand. Just like the poem’s sound, the imagery doesn’t strive too far beyond a simple measure of elementary language. As we read, we’re surrounded not by ephemeral flights of spiritual fancy, but by solid, earthy things, objects we can reach out and touch: bottles of vodka, thick mouths, lipstick, no trespass signs. For good reason.
Create the Tension Between Style and Subject
Poems that seek to address sexual assault, sexual abuse, often pierce their author all too raw. They hold too close to the poet’s heart, and the reader’s experience can be undermined by the overwhelming subjectivity of the poem’s machinery. Perhaps their purpose is served regardless—but such a poem doesn’t demand publication in the same way other good poems do.
“Would You Have Told?” overcomes this obstacle with wonderful tact and expertise—the uncomplicated quality of its rhyming and imagery perform a necessary and surprising spatial distance for the reader.
The elementary quality creates a useful tension between the poem’s subject and the poem’s style.
The subject of the poem is an act of physical violence—the style is nursery, child-like, innocent. Between those two, violence and innocence, the reader can enter a geography of immersive discomfort. For editing, I’d ultimately recommend honing in on this discomfort with every line, every word.
That immersive discomfort, enjoyable and an end in itself, is all too rare in submissions—it’s my hope that by examining it here with Melisa, how it’s been developed and performed, we can all walk away with a new understanding of how to approach difficult emotional subjects in our writing.
A Few Further Notes
- Based on the overall performance of the poem, some sound play, some imagery feels soft, first draft-ish. Especially stanzas five through eight: what is a “guest pass fine”? an “ocean’s retribution”? These moments could use some tweaking in order to emphasize the tension at the center of the poem.
- The pronoun switch in the middle of the poem could be cleaner. The original “you” is opposite “him,” so the reader will assume to be in the role of the “her”. Then, the you becomes opposite “her” in stanza five, seemingly putting the reader in the role of “him.” This switching is initially confusing and the purpose unclear.
- The ending could land harder. The tense switching from “would” to “did” doesn’t quite punch. I’d recommend trying out sound or image play in those last few lines—just to see if it buttons up the piece in a satisfying way.
Thank you so much Melisa for sharing your work with us and inviting our deep thinking and feedback on your words. It was sincerely a pleasure.