Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How Does a Poem Get Started?

A recent letter to my local paper rebuked the Vermont state poet’s failure in his monthly columns to “advocate for all poetry, not just poetry he likes.” Duly chastened, then, I’ll here be discussing Edgar Guest’s “It Takes a Heap o’ Livin’ to Make a House a Home.” No, wait: how about my friend’s ten limericks about her Brittany spaniel?

I play at absurdity only because my critic’s own directive is absurd: would we expect a medical columnist, say, to “advocate for all medical procedures"? ("Today I’ll consider the intriguing practice of bleeding the patient….") It is also, well, impossible to honor: how would a single man or woman in any field command its entire range? Anyone  –poet laureate, dentist, farmer, potter, on and on– will have his or her personal preferences. The best such a person can do is to acknowledge that they are personal, as I have taken some pains to do in these columns.

In short, I have no interest in posing as a man who knows How To Do It, because there are just too many ways to do it. For similar reasons, I have largely shied away from talking about my own work, either in the column or on this blog, lest I appear to be holding myself up as some sort of model. But I make an exception now, prompted by a question I was asked for the thousandth time during my last library visit prior to my temporary absence from Vermont,  from that monthly column, and from this blog: how does a poem come into being?

I emphasize the frequency of that question not to dismiss it either as irrelevant or shallow. The opposite: I stress just how important it seems to be to listeners, as evidenced too by how many further questions it prompts. I’ll try to touch on several, if you will pardon a little rambling, but I have no choice in this respect but to discuss a poem of my own; again, since I’m the only one I can safely speak for. If a reader can profit from my comments, I'll be happy. If not, that won't be my long life's first failure.

I remember that store, and the nasty redneck whose stink
seemed a challenge to everyone in it.  The scene
is decades old, but I’m still confused that no one
took up the challenge --  including me, though I liked
an occasional fight back then.  The prospect of pain

meant less to me once, I guess.   An aneurism
had just killed my brother, so the pain I’m talking about
was my body’s.  I breathed up another pain that day.
I checked the man’s beat pickup;  why would he want them,
those skunks knee-deep in its bed?  I left the lot

still more confused, my sweet retriever shivering
on the seat beside me.  The godawful smell still clung
to the dog’s wet coat, and my own. There’d be no more hikes
for us that morning:  rain had arrived, bone-chilling.
If you killed a skunk, why would you keep the thing? 

To kill some time, I stopped at The Jackpot View.
We’ve always called it that.  Five mountaintops bled
into mists to my east in New Hampshire.  The sudden squalls
spilled leaves on the woods-floor’s pall of nondescript hue.
Now he was dead.  Now my brother was dead. 
I can’t define any God, but only this morning,
I caught a whiff of road-killed skunk and thought
I could speak of Him or Her or It as surely
as I could tell you the slightest thing concerning
the man I’m remembering now, the one who shot

or trapped or clubbed those miserable reeking creatures.
The smallest enigmas we ever encounter remain
as hard to explain as all the epical ones.
I’ve failed for years to fathom the death of my brother;
but it’s just as hard to understand why a scene
in an old Vermont store should linger like dead-skunk odor,
which if you’ve lately been tainted comes back to scent you
whenever a rain blows in --  or like some pains
you may have thought you’d forever gotten over,
but which at some odd prompting come back to haunt you.

On the most basic level, this poem started in the way I suggest in stanza five: "only this morning, I caught a whiff of road-killed skunk."  I was simply driving down to Newbury village when I passed the roadkill, and the odor– isn't smell the most suggestive of the senses, the least willed?– took me back. I thought, as I had for many years off and on, about the man who, so very strangely, had all those dead skunks in his truck; to recall that episode was to recall that it had followed hard on the death of my younger brother. The poem ensued from this association.

According to my Draft Copies folder, I began “Fathomless” in May of '09 and got it to the version above in October. The folder shows 24 stabs at getting it right. To be sure, some of the changes in late drafts were pretty minor, a word here, a phrase there, but that much revision is not uncommon for me. And, perhaps oddly, revision is the part of making a poem that I most enjoy. It is the process whereby I discover, so to speak, what the poem wants to be. If I know that too clearly before I start, there is no thrill of discovery in the writing, and thus the result, as a rule, will be wooden and labored.

Which leads me to the issue of inspiration. How much of a poem, people want to know, is somehow granted to me and how much the result of persistent effort?  Again speaking only for myself, what some call "inspiration" is really the operation of selective memory in my case.  Certain experiences suddenly come back to me in odd combination, ones often having nothing, apparently, to do with one another.   The poem is "about" what in fact they do have to do with each other, which has to be something after all, merely because I'm the one to whom they occurred.

Technical decisions are crucial here, though to distinguish between content and technique is an error that we English teachers too often make. How something is said is part of what we may refer to as its meaning. I, for example, tend to be something of a formalist poet, neither so gifted nor so meticulous, of course, as a master like Frost. This has nothing to do with ideology– nor even with taste. I am as moved by an excellent Allen Ginsberg poem as I am by a fine sonnet by Richard Wilbur. It’s simply that formalist inclinations are the ones I find enabling; many do not, and I haven’t the least impulse to fault them for alternate approaches.

The form in “Fathomless” seems obvious enough: five-line stanzas, five-stress lines, and rhymes or slant rhymes in lines 2 and 5.  I wrote, as always, a very quick draft of what came at me.  I saw that I had drafted X number of lines (more than are here now) and fooled around with finding a common divisor that would break the draft into stanzas of equal length. (I should interject that two of the meters, tetrameter and pentameter, come at me much more effortlessly than any free-verse mode, a fact that even I don't quite understand.)  Then I noticed that those second and fifth lines rhymed, or nearly did, in one of the stanzas, and I fiddled around with making that true of them all. And so on. 

Mere doodling.... which may sound mechanical as can be, which it likely would be for someone else.  For me, to doodle in such a fashion is to engage in play, and to abandon myself to what are, a bit fuzzily, called the "musical" properties of language. Above all, the playing around provides me a way to get past any too strenuous effort to mean something. In a word, this non-method allows the language and its formalities to lead me by the nose, so to speak; I just tag along wherever they take me –sometimes to a poem, sometimes to a mess– and I usually like the ride in any case.

In most cases, as was true of the poem above, it is well to let a poem “sit” before I send it off for editorial consideration. My revisions tend to be both sporadic and long-lasting: I’ll drop the poem into a desk drawer for greater or lesser spells between revisions. Yes, each of of us who writes with any persistence knows that now and then a poem seems to arrive at no cost to our energies, almost as if some Muse were rewarding us for all the hours we put into the other kind. But these freebie poems are the exceptions. We are fated to revise, which, etymologically (and tellingly), means we must re-see. And new vision is easier to come by if we have looked away for some time.

At one point or another in many a Q & A, I’ll be asked to talk about fact and fiction and how a poem negotiates these values. That depends, of course, on the poem’s own intentions.  In the case of “Fathomless,” everything is fact; or at least that's true –to use circular logic– of the factual parts.  If I say here that I lost a brother, for instance, that must be verifiable.  This is not a moral stance, though I do feel some unease when writers fake experience by way of making themselves look admirable or (pleeeeease) sensitive, so much as it is a stance, once more, that enables me. I am, I guess, a realist Poet, to use a reductive label, though I’m happy to follow William Blake or James Merrill into many an “unrealistic” domain.
For whom, I may be asked, do I write? Well, the reader I envision is usually one neighbor, or a composite of several.  Many of these men and women represent crusty, feisty, laconic and occasionally even xenophobic Vermont hill farm stock, or what's left of it. They are in most cases dear friends, though they’ll never read a word of mine, unless maybe something in prose.  For the umpteenth time, however, I must stress that this trick, this conjuring of such neighbors, is only one that enables me; I know it makes no sense on earth, and it surely would not work for many a different author.
Another question I often encounter has to do, too, with visions and re-visions: do I ask for outside opinions about poems before I ask for an editor’s? Well, some: my wife knows me better than anyone, so she's in many ways my best critic.  She can tell me, chiefly, when I am faking it, maybe even trying to make myself  look "sensitive" in that phony way.  I tease her that she's a recovering lawyer; in fact, she's a professional mediator. She is also brilliant and highly literate, but –and this is important to me– she is not literary.   Fleda Brown, one of my favorite poets and friends, one with whom I collaborated lately on a book called Growing Old in Poetry,  is of course literary, and she also sees much of what I do; so does Stephen Arkin, who's not a poet (he taught literature for four decades at San Francisco State and was my closest grad school pal) but is exquisitely attuned to language and is another keep-him-honest reader, knowing me as thoroughly as he does.

The French poet Paul Valery once said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned.  True enough. I made “Fathomless” as good as it was going to get, given such capacities as I own. Then I moved elsewhere, as I seem to keep doing.