Ideas about meaning and music underpin the poetry of Nick Twemlow. Asked about shifts in meaning in his new collection, “Attributed to the Harrow Painter,” Twemlow considered the ways he talks about poetry with his students at Coe College where the Writers’ Workshop grad has taught for five years.
“I tend to start out by asking students to think about basic concepts like what does something mean,” Twemlow said. “Is a word the actual meaning or is a word just a description like a name might be for somebody? Is their name, for example, who they actually are or is it something we use to call on them and note them in the world? ... Pretty early on in the classes we tend to try to strip our sense of what words are as denoting things, and I try to get them to pay attention to the musical properties of language, for example. Poetry, to my mind at least, is very much bound up in its musical qualities.”
And music has a kind of meaning that is separate from language.
“The metaphor I use, which is certainly not mine, is that the words, when you take the meaning away from them, at least temporarily, become similar to notes on a staff in music. And you start to think, well, how can I arrange them to create a sound and therefore sort of a meaning out of it?”
But Twemlow and his students don’t abandon meaning for good. Rather, they start to seek examples in which “words both have the musical qualities and the meaning, and then start to see how they interact.”
For his part, Twemlow works to shape that interaction in ways that might, to use his word, “rupture” his original conception of a poem.
“I looking for way when I’m writing to change my own sense of where I’m going. … I’m looking for surprise. I want to be surprised by where I might arrive.”
Those surprises are often facilitated by what the poet calls “hinges” — words or phrases from which the meaning can change direction in a poem. Those shifts align with his thoughts about the efficacy and limitations of language.
“I guess I trust and don’t trust language all the time,” he said.
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Much of “Attributed to the Harrow Painter” is grounded in autobiography, including memories of his father as well as moments with his young son to whom he said he was writing toward. But the collection isn’t a memoir in the form of poetry. Accuracy and artistry are blended. He talks about this frequently with his students.
“Give yourself permission to write not toward accuracy of your recall of events but toward allowing the music and allowing your memory, which is hard to trust in many ways, to alter as needed … If you’re writing about a memory, allowing the language to take it to some other place if it heightens the experience or dramatizes the experience or conflates a bunch of different memories into one … There’s some sense that there is autobiography in the poems, but there is some sense that there’s fiction, too.”
The fiction, Twemlow might argue, is inevitable. “Part of the project of the book is that I’m not sure that I trust any memories that I have of my past. And so I’ve tried in literally hundreds of images throughout the book to conjure the past, but it all seems sort of new to me, too, and novelistic.”
Throughout the collection, the poems acknowledge that they are poems, referring to each other and calling to the world outside the page. He suggests this is “calling attention to the apparatus,” which he believes can be a useful endeavor.
“I’m always interested in how any work of literature might think of itself, if it does think of itself … How are they imagining themselves as being in the world? Almost like they’re living things, but they’re not. But they might be if some other person reads it and then activates the poem, in a sense. Given that, I find myself stepping outside the poem and including those notes or that sort of thinking within the poems.”