Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Poetry and the Feral Impulse

guest post by Kristin Abraham

I wanted to be powerful over my poem. I have learned since that it has a passivity to it. Let not the “shaping” or the “poem-making” or “acquisitive” mind want to shape a poem. Let the poem find its own identity. 

--Donald Hall

I. On Recognizing the Savage 

The wild boy of Aveyron. Amala and Kamala, the wolf children of Midnapore. Peter the wild boy. Kaspar Hauser. Swine girl of Salzburg. Baboon boy of South Africa. Peter of Hanover. The wild boy of the desert. Sheep child of Ireland. The gazelle-child of Syria. The ape-child of Teheran. Genie. The wild boy of Burundi. Ramu the wolf boy. Isabelle. Memmie LeBlanc, the wild girl of Champagne. 


For a couple of days this month, media outlets hummed with breaking news about a girl in India who had been discovered alone in the jungle, apparently being guarded by a nearby pack of monkeys.

Authorities were happy to report that the monkey girl had been recovered from the isolated wilderness and would now receive the ancillary comforts of civilization, what all humans deserve: modern mind/body medicine. She had been snatched from the edge of the unimaginable.

But I was gutsick for the monkeys, despairing their girl.

Stripped of a child—

of a family—

Rescue by force. By trauma.

What wildness.


I write poetry to gather myself up from that, our impossible world.

I write to contend impossible parallels, to commune the feral child / the feral poem. Impossible existences, equilibriums.


In a 1975 article titled “Socialization and Feral Children” (published in Revista Internacional de Sociología) Dr. S. Kapoor writes “The feral children that have been reported to date fall into three categories, viz., 1) children ‘who have wandered away into the wilds to survive by their own efforts unaided by human contact’ (4), 2) children nurtured by wild or domesticated animals, and 3) children ‘shut away from human association by cruel, criminal, or insane parents’ (5).”


“I believe that poetry at its best is found rather than written. Traditionally, and for many people even today, poems have been admired chiefly for their craftsmanship and musicality…[but] I respond most to what is found out about the heart and spirit, what we can hear through the language. Best of all, of course, is when the language and other means of poetry combine with the meaning to make us experience what we understand. We are most likely to find this union by starting with the insides of the poem rather than with its surface, with the content rather than with the packaging. Too often in workshops and classrooms there is a concentration on the poem’s garments instead of its life’s blood.”

 --Linda Gregg, “The Art of Finding”


Although syntactically clear, taxonomically speaking, "the feral poem" falsely invokes category where there is none.

Ezra Pound wrote that poetry is "nothing but a transmission of the impulse intact," meaning that a successful poem translates directly to readers the initial spark (emotion, experience, feeling) that leads the poet to write a poem. In other words, "impulse" is the energy that inspires us to write.

Poems are not feral. The poetic impulse is feral.


“…the target remains to secure the pre-social desires and to channel them toward citizenship. 

“Modern society demands the active participation of subjects in their own subjection, practicing civility as though it were instinctual.”

(Murray K. Simpson, “From Savage to Citizen: Education, Colonialism, and Idiocy,” 2007, British Journal of Sociology of Education)

II. On Taming the Other

If the impulse is feral, then poetry derived from the impulse is, to some extent, a product of domestication.

To write a poem is to tame the emotional impulse, to wrangle an experience utterly independent of language and put it into words.

And yet.

Pound said "there's no use in a strong impulse if it is all or nearly lost in bungling transmission and technique." In other words, even if the language and meter are crafted well, a poem isn't successful if it doesn't make its reader feel the emotion/experience/feeling the writer intends to express.

Tightrope discipline.

Grab at the lightning but use both hands.


To guide a feral tongue / To write a poem.

“…feral man has not had any of the benefits society gives the ‘normal’ person.

“Children…have a task made doubly hard in that they must unlearn animal habits. Then too, most of them have already passed the optimal period for development of normal human response patterns.

“Feral man often shows a profound dislike for human companionship.”

(J. Timothy Sprehe, “Feral Man and the Social Animal,” American Catholic Sociological Review, 1961)


To write a poem / To guide a feral tongue.

“...half the time I don't know where the language comes from. I'll be going along writing shit, just awful, boring dreck, you know, and then, suddenly, a different part of my brain takes over. It's like channeling. Maybe it is channeling. Maybe another me, in a parallel universe, is dictating the words.”

--Kim Addonizio, from an interview with Susan Browne, Five Points 14.1


To guide a feral tongue / To write a poem.

“The attachment of symbolic meaning to a material sign [language]…would have no import for [feral man]; he has no ‘looking-glass self’ [societal other]…that might teach him the meaning of meaning. One finds it clumsy to even think about a thought which has no language.”

(J. Timothy Sprehe, “Feral Man and the Social Animal,” American Catholic Sociological Review, 1961)


The poem, stilted toward refinement. Head-to-toe in wrinkle-resistant khaki, pontoon-boat casual but for the black-tie punctuation and rhyme, high-gloss shine and clack like someone else’s dress shoes. Someone else’s cement dress shoes, and the poem just two-stepped overboard.

“From the very start doctors expressed little hope of Ramu’s recovery, and experts like Dr. Manson-Bahr suggested that since Ramu could not be humanized, ‘the best thing to do was to put a bullet through his head’ (29).”

(Doctor S. Kapoor, “Socialization and Feral Children,” Revista Internacional de Sociología, 1973)

III. On Symbiosis: Being beyond Savage, beyond Social 

“In a sense all my work is...a form of animism, but in it I would replace essentialism or soul with aesthetics or a core that is empty, a kind of holding open to allow poetic tendencies of cadence, form, tone, coloring to move through a flexible core—a force that is both a construction of self and an emptying of self—not autobiographical but autographical—flexible to accommodate figures, things, voices, documentation; to combine, build and dissolve being, boundaries—to somehow let the poem become itself.”

--Peter Gizzi, “An Open Letter of Poetics to Steve Farmer”


When we choose to bring the feral out of the forest, out of the impulse, we choose to be custodians; we must accept responsibility for the outsider. We must attend until.

Tangle with vigilance and permissiveness.

Admit synchronousness, singularity, perspicuity.

Exist in the mystery. Thump with joy.

Kristin Abraham is a Michigan native with an MFA from West Virginia University. She teaches at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne and is faculty advisor to LCCC’s student-produced High Plains Register.

Kristin's poetry and lyric essays have appeared in collections and in Best New Poets 2005, Columbia Poet Review, LIT, and American Letters and Commentary.

She is the author of The Disappearing Cowboy Trick (Horse Less Press, 2013) and two chapbooks: Little Red Riding Hood Missed the Bus (Subito Press, 2008) and Orange Reminds You of Listening (Elixir Press, 2006).

Kristin's poetry has been called “… sprawling and dense, thick-blooded and expansive,” by J. A. Tyler of Subito Press; and by sister poet, Danielle Pafunda, “Heavenly and dangerous at the speculative edge of the West…”

Lucky us--Kristin will be on the faculty at this year's Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference in June (click here for more information on that conference), leading the following workshops:
  • Fracturing Fairytales: Making Proverbial Stories Fresh
  • A Rose Poem by Any Other Name Would Stink
  • Have You Listened to Your White Space Lately?

1 comment:

  1. And oh how we struggle to get that feral impulse, that feral child, to settle down, behave, tell its story, without having to "put a bullet through its head."

    I look forward to meeting Kristin at WWI and learning from her at her three poetry workshop sessions.

    I'll be reading three poems from the 2016 issue of High Plains Register tomorrow night here in Denver, at the Book Bar on Tennyson St.


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