Traffic Signals

Poem-Craft: musings on yarn-spinning, fabric selections, and the like –

No person shall drive upon a highway at such a slow speed
as to impede or block the normal and reasonable movement
of traffic, unless the reduced speed is necessary for safe operation,
because of a grade, or in compliance with the law.

California Vehicle Code, Section 22400. (a)

California may be one of the only states in the union where you can get a traffic ticket for driving too slow. On the morning commute out of the Mojave, we hurtle toward Los Angeles, 80 miles-per-hour, bumper-to-bumper in the pre-dawn dark. Imagining ourselves smugly independent in our separate vehicles, we slalom downhill toward our destinations unaware that we actually travel together. Our fates are tied: we’re always just one blown-out tire away from our lives’ intersection at freeway and collision.

Resisting the urge to speed is difficult. Knowing this, the city recently put in a new (and confounding) traffic circle down the street from my house, at the junction of two highways, where there have been far too many such “fatal attractions.” The results are obvious: before the circle was put in, there were hundreds of failures to “yield the right-of-way,” whereas since the traffic circle’s installation, nary a shrine has been erected to commemorate the loss of yet another family member to these mean streets and the carnage brought on by our haste. The traffic circle arrests us, detains us, makes us slow down and pay attention.

traffic lightIn a similar fashion, we’ve all been taught to read for speed, that is, to quickly pin down the point of whatever it is that we’re looking at. Whether it’s a menu, a computer screen, a novel, a do-it-yourself book, the stock report, or even a movie or television show, it’s all about deducing the main idea, comprehending the supporting details. Just like when we navigate through the surface streets and highways of our lives, punctuation and the particulars of form/genre of a piece of reading material provide us with the necessary conventions and “traffic signals” while “texting.” Poetry, as a genre, is a “traffic circle” – it requires us to slow down, do some sight-seeing, take in the view.

STOPWith regard to punctuation, I liken a period to a “stop” sign. It directs us to come to a complete stop, exhale, and draw in a new breath before proceeding. Similarly, a semi-colon is like a flashing yellow light; it says “stop, look both ways, proceed with caution.” And a comma allows us to perform what’s colloquially referred to here as a “California roll” – that is, a rolling stop (no brakes, one foot on the gas, ready to proceed through the intersection).

When crafting “traffic signals” for readers to follow, poets use the conventional method (i.e. punctuation) most of the time. However, more and more with contemporary poetry, poets experiment with “new technology,” that is, they try to craft new ways to give readers the same kinds of traffic direction, but without relying on the conventional green/yellow/red light signals we’ve become accustomed to. For example, Clint Campbell engineers just such a “traffic circle” in his poem, “Night Follows” by utilizing line breaks to form “flashing yellow lights” and wider than normal gaps between words (i.e. white space) to install “speed bumps” that work together to slow down our habitual “speed reading” patterns, get us out of our “ruts,” and give us signals to follow in the absence of punctuation:

Night Follows

"Night Follows" (2010). Clint Campbell. Brushed air.

Signaling – although there are no commas in this poem, the gaps (white space) within a line mark places where we should slow down before proceeding. Similarly, as there are no periods, there are no “hard stops.” Rather, we find ourselves passengers, rolling along with the poem’s movement right through to the end. As opposed to the iconic traffic jam at rush hour, this poem’s form and surface structure create an experience that can be likened to traffic when it is flowing smoothly.

Intersections – on a very basic level, the “rules of the road” exist to keep us from colliding with one another. These (sometimes unwritten) rules are conventions we agree to follow in order to ensure our own safety and the safety of others. “Safe” in our individual cars, however, we are isolated from our traveling companions. As human beings, our natural instinct is to reach out, to try to communicate with one another, to intersect.

On a literal level, this poem keenly observes several intersections: those that deal with changes in light (i.e. dusk or dawn) as day/night overlap; changes in traffic lights from red to green to yellow and back to red; and the experiences shared by the poem’s speaker and the other person the speaker addresses throughout (i.e. “the skies deep/ as your eyes”).

But the “engines” that drive this poem are found at the figurative (or hypertext) level. For example, the poem’s two central images work toward signaling what lies at the “heart” of the matter: “These hands to clench     a fist/to take money / /These hands to hold with tenderness too/ cut flowers” (9-12). “These hands” evokes an (internal) engine that drives the speaker (as well as the audience), that is, a feeling of tenderness, perhaps even love. “These hands” then intersect with a second set of “engines” – that is, the need or will or desire to succeed (“take money”) and simultaneously, to find beauty (“cut flowers”) in a material or physical world. The intersection of these two “engines” conveys the ever-present tension between our internal desires, or what drives us, and what is driven by us, that is, the external means we seek for fulfilling those desires.

Under Construction – Some might read this poem’s final image: “the untraceable midnight       colors/ toned and slick/ a dark scaled shark just behind/ just beyond” as an omen; others may see an intriguing invitation. Where the poem takes each reader depends on the back streets and inroads found in each one’s imagination. The poet’s work, however, is done in translating the images in his/her mind into words and leaving them on the page as “pick up” lines, ready to be devoured.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by laura on February 14, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    very beautiful piece…


  2. Posted by Nicole Muise-Kielkucki on February 7, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    I had a strange experience with a professor the other day, who told our class through email (and separately to me, as a scrawled comment on one of my reading responses), to ‘beware of overly short paragraphs, and run-on sentences’!

    Now I, being a philosophy major, as well as someone who enjoys reading all types of written word, was in a word, offended. I am rather accustomed to reading, as well as understanding the functions of, ‘overly short paragraphs, and run-on sentences’. I have never been aware of any style manual dictating a minimum number of sentences in a paragraph, nor a maximum number of words in a sentence.

    I understand that certain stylist techniques are not always appreciated outside of particular fields, and that they can easily pose comprehension problems if not correctly administered. But clearly, and especially when paired with clever punctuation, they can provide a function to the careful reader, which is a method of ‘hearing’ exactly what the author is trying to say, and how (in what rhythm) she or he is intending to say it.

    Needless to say, I think signaling in writing is an important and interesting topic to talk about, and enjoyed your analysis of Campbell’s unique styling!


    • Thank you! And welcome — I enjoyed reading your well-reasoned and carefully crafted response to the post. Although I cannot speak for (or against) your professor, I can say this: our language (and our society) is built on the premise of adherence to convention. There are those who would fight to keep the “stylistic” status quo, as well as those who constantly try to disrupt it. This is how our language (and our society) grows. I thank you, too, for contributing to the discussion!


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