Anatomy of a Poem: Umlaut

Anatomy of a Poem: "Umlaut"

by Michael Channing

Last year, I wrote a poem called Umlaut. Because the writing process was so odd, I wrote an essay describing the birth of the poem and a few thoughts on some of the phrasing and images. I don't plan on doing this for every poem I write, but I may do this again sometime in the future. The poem is posted separately on the site, but here it so you don't have to shift back and forth. Then afterward, the commentary commences.


i try to maintain an elevated chin
stay on speaking terms with the clouds
ingest at least an ounce of beauty every day
but damn if the darkness don't drop
like a spider
flood me with its toxins
wrap me in apathy
i watch the surface rise as my emotions flatten
and the music needs to be louder
has to be harder
to reach my drowning heart
enough Anthrax and i can survive an outbreak
enough Death in my system and the reaper will walk
it is a kind of beauty this howling gutcheck of a playlist
it lives on basement dank and starves
its own dreams just to make them stronger
it wears its bones on the outside
tap the volume and shackle my nerves
to a savage calm
in the car in the cubicle
wherever i carry myself through the world
with a fist only i recognize as clenched

The third line was the the first to make itself known, but I didn't like it as an opener. I wanted to hold it back as a sort of punch line and build up to it. So I tried out several opening lines, never pleased with any of them. Then the one you see here appeared. I liked the silliness of it, the way it twists a familiar saying into something odd.

I carried those first few lines for a couple of weeks. While they felt right, I had no idea where the poem would go. It was obvious, though, that it should turn, pivot from positivity and face the darkness. Whenever I tackle a poem about my own sadness or depression, I’m afraid it will end up sounding self-obsessed and maudling. I look back on the depression songs and poems I wrote as a teen and cringe. They tend to spin off into abstraction, so when the the spider imagery arrived, I was interested. I like the idea of sadness dripping down from a single thread and lancing its poisonous pincers into your neck. Plus I liked the alliteration of “damn if the darkness don’t drop.” At first the line was to read, “damn if the darkness don’t drop down.” I’m a sucker for alliteration, but that was a bit too much, so I sawed off the extra word. I also liked the sound of the line “wrap me in apathy.” It’s an inner rhyme in a rhymeless poem, another oddity that marks the arrival of another turn.

The metaphors muddle here as I draw on some simple imagery to imply sinking underwater. I feel flattened at times, nothing like the noble-faired, long-haired leaping gnome I prefer to be. Plus the flattening of emotions line sparked the turn to the theme of music. This is where the poem surprised me, where I really began to like it and understand what it wanted to say. I do indeed listen to heavy metal in an effort to wake myself up, to shake my emotions like a jar of flies. If I can stoke my soul to rage or righteousness, then I can begin to rise to the surface again and slough off the depression.

So that’s what this poem wanted to be about. I named dropped two specific bands because I’ve been injecting them into my ears on a near daily basis. And yes, as the last few lines suggest, I rock out to them at work. But back to the timeline of creation. I really like the idea of music inoculating me against whatever might hurt or kill me, especially if it offers protection from whatever the band is named after. I might actually listen to Poison if it meant I could take the iocane powder challenge against a Sicilian.

I was on a role at this point, washing baby bottles in my kitchen and writing in my head. It was flowing well as I moved into the lines describing my playlist in surreal terms. For some reason I associate the phrase “basement dank” with Henry Rollins. He wrote a lot about living and touring with Black Flag, and it involved many basements and much sweaty dankness, but I don't think he ever used that exact coupling of words.

The poem was hot now. I began to speak it aloud, quietly, though, as my wife and daughter were both asleep. But when I spoke the line “it wears its bones on the outside,” I hit a wall. It was an amazing line. Pure heavy metal. I kept looking at it, admiring it. I'd take a few steps back, run through the preceding lines, enjoying the heft and flow of them, then I’d get stuck. “It wears its bones on the outside.” Damn what a good line. But I couldn’t couldn’t get past it. It was like my brain had clocked out and went off for a glass of milk. Its job was done. The poem needed to continue, but after that line, anything was let-down. I tried again and again, but nothing came. I was stuck. Disappointed, I typed out what I had into my phone and reluctantly filed it as incomplete.

Then my daughter woke up. Maybe it was the teething. Maybe she had a bad dream. Maybe she was gassy from the black bean quesadilla she’d half-eaten before rubbing the other half into her hair. Or maybe, using her baby powers, she sensed me enjoying myself and knew she had to put a stop to it. My wife was up, too, as her mom powers alerted her to our daughter's waking moments before it happened. We bottled and bediapered the baby, put her in her stroller with the seatback down as far as it would recline, and I slipped into my boots and pushed my daughter up and down our street, sticking to the darkness between two street lamps. It was how I got her to sleep the first time around, and now here I was again.

Perhaps due to the change in location, the night air warm and weighty, the poem suddenly jarred free. I did have to try out several verb phrases to take the place of “increase the volume,” but the rest clicked into place as I pushed my daughter back to sleep. I like the phrase “savage calm.” I feel that way with metal music pumped into my brain. The noise washes the world to grey, and I my tension releases. “Wherever I carry myself through the world” sounds weary to me, as if I can’t walk without support, and the only one willing to help is me. The last line is special to me. I try not to show my anger, but I am an angry person, lost and aimless, unfulfilled. Mad mostly at myself. Music gives that rage shape, helps me mold it into art. Otherwise, it would eat me alive.

The final step was the title. I toyed only for a few seconds with naming it “They Wear Their Bones on the Outside,” but that would ruin the punch and power of that line. The title “Umlaut” fluttered through my mind, and I brushed it off with a chuckle. This was a serious poem; I couldn’t undercut that with a joke title. But it kept returning till I finally accepted that the poem really wanted to be called that. The title, of course, refers to the penchant heavy metal bands have for putting useless umlauts over random letters in their name. Spinal Tap made fun that by putting one over the “n” in their name. The joke there is that the umlaut only goes over vowels. So maybe the heavy poem does benefit from a small dose of comedy. It shows I don’t take myself all that seriously and that I’m only 90% doom and gloom. Or maybe 45% doom and 45%- 50% gloom.

Further Introspection on the Act of Creation

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Vestigial by Michael Channing

February 23, 2018