Why doesn’t the poet just say what she means? Why take so much time to get to the point? While such questions may surprise the working poet, who understands the significance of delay and even expansive digression in poetry, such questions can and do arise in undergraduate poetry writing classes, in which students are still figuring out the relationship between suspense and surprise in powerful, moving poems. One way to answer such questions is to address them directly, by teaching a kind of poetry that depends upon, and even revels in, delay: the filibuster poem.
The glossary of the U.S. Senate’s web site defines “filibuster” as an “[i]nformal term for any attempt to block or delay Senate action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by any other delaying or obstructive actions.” The history of Senate filibusters is replete with extravagant delay strategies, including Louisiana senator Huey Long’s extensive and creative filibusters (one lasted 15 hours; and Long became famous for reading recipes for oyster dishes during another).
In recent poetry, the filibuster most often refers to a personal delay strategy, a tactic for putting off something one does not want to admit or face up to. Inevitably, though, the filibuster poem finally does reveal what it was trying to avoid. Thus, the filibuster poem consists of a two-part structure: an extended transcript or a record of the delay, followed by the ultimate delivery of the material the poem’s speaker had wanted to avert or elude.
As its title indicates, Courtney Queeney’s “Filibuster to Delay a Kiss” (from Filibuster to Delay a Kiss (New York: Random House, 2007)) exemplifies this structure. The speaker of this sonnet goes to great, Huey Long-style lengths (among other things: reading sections of the dictionary, reading “ingredients from a cereal box side panel,” reading “one page of the phone book,” arguing “against drilling for oil in the Arctic,” waxing eloquent on “ocean reeds,” reciting lines from Woolf and Shakespeare) all in the hopes that a certain “he” would “lose interest, wander off,” and not stopping (though the poem itself does stop at this point, the sonnet’s final, perfect-rhyme couplet) “because at any break / I knew there’d be the hand over my mouth. / There’d be his mouth.” Another excellent example of the filibuster structure is Austin Smith’s “Instructions for How To Put an Old Horse Down” (from Instructions for How to Put an Old Horse Down (Green River, VT: Longhouse, 2009), which begins, “This is what you need to do: / wait…,” and then offers a list of desperate, heartbreaking avoidance strategies before arriving, 33 lines later, at the devastating conclusion: “[T]hen lead her in. // Then lead her in.”
So: Why doesn’t the poet just say what she means? The answer the filibuster poem provides is to remind beginning poets that we do not always say or do what we mean or intend, that we very often prevaricate and try to avoid difficult situations, and that poems, which themselves often employ commonly-used speech acts, also can employ these avoidance strategies to admit the truth and to reveal the power, by recreating the drama, of such delay.
I’ll present the above short paper as a part of the Pedagogy Forum Session: Poetry at this year’s AWP conference in Washington, D.C. Stop by, if you can!