poem, revised

[book cover]Psalm 19 holds one of my favorite metaphors: the sun as a perpetual bridegroom and athlete:

In [the heavens] hath he set a tabernacle for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.  His going forth is from the end of the heaven, and his circuit unto the ends of it: and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.

David writes with unexplored – or, more likely, simply unanalyzed – irony.  How can the sun do this day by day?  The key, I think, is the passage’s object – the tabernacle, or tent. Night is the sun’s tent.  After many readings, I discovered that the passage is more about night than day.  The night makes the sun a perpetual strong man, lover, and life force.

I decided to write a poem like David.  In imitating David, I really set out to imitate David as he exists in translation, particularly the King James translation, with which I’ve become familiar.  Besides, I don’t know Hebrew.  How aware am I of how the King James’s rhythms and syntax have affected my own writing, my own reality?  I thought it would be fun to get a bit more conscious of the KJV’s influence.

I tried to write with something like KJV David’s assertive repetition; his functional, not overly poetic syntax; and his under-the-surface ambiguity/irony.  I wanted the ambiguity to feel like it may be coming from anywhere: the original psalm, the original musical form the psalm was written in, or the translation of the psalm.  I also wanted to achieve something of the KJV’s occasional choppiness, which it achieves in Psalms, I assume, by balancing its sometimes-divergent translating goals of brevity, accuracy, and grace.

My first draft:

Where the sun lies abed, he glows with tomorrow.
His bridal tent distends with the air of tomorrow.

Every creature that swells to attract its lover
makes out to have swallowed him.

The morning’s the heat of his night’s satisfaction.
He discounts the ropes of the afternoon clouds.

Each evening the moon brings off some part of him
and mounts him with bright nails on
the walls of her rib cage.

The first stanza formed around “tomorrow” as soon as I tried repeating the word.  The second stanza as well as the idea of the fourth stanza was a revelation, an unmerited reward for writing the first stanza.  The third stanza was a pain and a contrivance, and I didn’t feel great about the rhythm and wording of the fourth stanza.

I write poetry, I think, for the chance of experiencing the kind of informed unconsciousness that leaves lines like this second stanza in its wake.

I was happy with “distends.”  I found it in a thesaurus, where I had gone in search of a word with the right ambiguity, and I liked the slightly unhealthy connotation the word carries here.  It picks up on “discounts” later, that whole “dis*s” thing and the suggestion of something being less than it seems.  (Writing poetry is like getting dressed in the morning, I think: you want something between loud and plain, between clash and matchy-matchy. And where you fall on those scales’ permissible ranges over the years may amount to your style.)  (I guess the thesaurus is my sock drawer.)

I liked the feeling of things-are-not-all-what-they-seem and foreshadowing that I get with “swallow” (following after “distends” and “swells”), which anticipates the moon internalizing the sun in the last stanza, and I liked the ambiguity of “bright nails” (stars? hammer/nails?  fingernails?) and what that does to “mounts.”

I liked the irony of the moon’s ascendancy: it brings the reader back to the beginning as in a circuit, since the first and last stanzas concern the same point in the circuit – the night.

I tried making the “creature” male with “his” instead of “its,” but then I lost some foreshadowing of the final stanza and I introduced some needless pronoun-antecedent confusion.  So I kept “its.”

I had a hard time with the third stanza.  I knew I wanted the poem structured around a brief circuit, a day in the life of the sun, like my model passage from Psalm 19.  All I wanted from my third stanza was a bridge to get me from the second stanza to the evening.  The third stanza’s first line echoed the second stanza with some more myth-like physical explanation.  To anticipate the sun’s end, I went with a Samson allusion (“ropes”), sufficiently clear only to me, I now believe, for the second line.  Done.

At this stage, of course, I blog it.  When I get no comments within twenty minutes, I panic, and I hate the poem.

Which helps.  I mean, that’s where I am right now.  I’m not patient enough to write any better than I do, so the whipsaw of my reactions to other people’s reactions substitutes for allowing real growth in a poem.  And I’m lucky that this poem came together rather quickly.

After twenty minutes of silence, I discover that the first draft seems to head in three directions at once.  (“Bright nails” does that in a good way.  But the poem, overall, does it in a bad way.)  I have ambiguous/sexual language (“makes out” and “mounts”) and I have ambiguous/imitative language (“air of,” “makes out” and “brings off”).  To top it off, I have my too-vague allusion to Samson, the most famous strong man who meets his match in a woman.

It’s okay to head in three or four directions, but not at once.  Readers like to peel layers, but they don’t like being drawn and quartered, if I may speak for them.  So I’ve got to make decisions about my layers: in what order will homologous readers discover the layers, and which layers are too artificial or contentious to exist?

I tighten the last stanza up by replacing “brings off” with “pulls off.” The latter reinforces the ambiguous/sexual language, which wasn’t strong enough in the first draft. I therefore leave the suggestion of imitation (“air of,” “makes out,” the moon’s reflective nature, and the woman taken from Adam’s ribs) to a reader’s reconsideration (I hope I’ve earned a second reading).

I decide to replace “ropes” with “shafts,” which also carries a dangerous connotation but which one can really see in clouds.  Long “shafts” also anticipate the rib cage, maybe.  Goodbye, Samson.

While the sword’s out of its sheath, I also lop off “abed”: it’s too overtly poetic (and therefore not KJV David at all), and it fights with the “bridal tent” image, somehow.

I start the last stanza with “The moon,” strengthening the line a little and maintaining a modified anapestic meter to permit the reader a slow deceleration from the jaunt the third stanza gives her. (I want my reader carried over that bridge posthaste.)

A summary of my changes:

Where the sun lies abed down, he glows with tomorrow.
His bridal tent distends with the air of tomorrow.

Every creature that swells to attract its lover
makes out to have swallowed him.

The morning’s the heat of his night’s satisfaction.
He discounts the ropes of shafts in the afternoon clouds.

Each evening The moon in the evening brings pulls off some a part of him
and mounts him with bright nails on
the walls of her rib cage.

My final draft, originally posted here:


Where the sun lies down, he glows with tomorrow.
His bridal tent distends with the air of tomorrow.

Every creature that swells to attract its lover
makes out to have swallowed him.

The morning’s the heat of his night’s satisfaction.
He discounts the shafts in the afternoon clouds.

The moon in the evening pulls off a part of him
and mounts him with bright nails on
the walls of her rib cage.

° ° °
I like to write poetry, so I’m drawn to how poets do it.  A lot of poets suggest it’s pure gift and inspiration, the kind of message some Elizabethan and Cavalier poets, who “tossed off with affected carelessness” (as Robert Huntington Fletcher puts it concerning the Cavalier poets in his A History of English Literature, page 87) their work in a spirit of friendly competition, convey.   At another extreme, poetry manuals get down to specifics, but the ones I’ve seen strip poetry of any mystery in the writing of it.  Wanting mystery and skill, I was glad to discover Poem, Revised: 54 Poems, Revisions, Discussions,* edited by Robert Hartwell Fiske and Laura Cherry and published this year, a book too long in coming.  The book is helping me separate mystery from plain ignorance.

I think I’ve learned more about writing poetry from Poem, Revised than from all the other literary criticism I’ve read, combined.  That may be because each of the book’s fifty-four essayists writes only about her own poetry.  The writers therefore know what they’re talking about.  Each focuses on a single poem, and this focus tends to keep generalizations, where a poet may relate them, tied to a phrase or a moment of writing. I’ve learned also from the “shitty first drafts” (Anne Lamott’s expression) – and sometimes shitty twelfth drafts — each poet shares.  Sometimes these drafts bear striking resemblances to my own “finished” poetry.  I’ve found ways, then, of approaching revision.

There’s something about apprentice work, about looking over the master’s shoulder as she’s working, that beats an expert’s explanation of that master’s finished product.  I’d have loved to have watched Shakespeare write, extending a new finger with each bounce of his left hand.  I know he would have betrayed his mortality at the writing table one way or another, and I would have picked up something.  Of course, reading Shakespeare is best.  But hearing Shakespeare discuss his drafts would beat out reading his critics’ commentaries (though I still like reading good commentaries).

Several poets confront me about my impatience with revising.  Lucy Anderton discusses how she felt after a first draft of “Leaving Eden”:

And, stupidly, after some pinching and packing on that day, I thought it was done – something that is also unusual for me.  Looking at it now, I cannot believe I thought this poem was finished, and I take it as a strong warning before I put my other poems to final page. (324)

Peter Schmidt on writing “Sleeping Through the Fire”:

That a poem can take nearly ten years to finish is for me not unusual.  Some have taken longer.  It’s a matter, always, of patience: waiting for the right image, the right conclusion, however long it takes.  True poems can’t be forced, or rushed, or willed into existence.  Eventually, and when you least expect it, they will yield their truths and lead you out of the darkness.  If you’re alert, and ready, they will point the way to their own resolutions. (144)

As if to illustrate Schmidt’s last point, Phil Hey describes his attempts at teasing out why his persona repeats himself so much.  By forcing his lines into a poetic form that he eventually sticks with, Hey discovers that his persona is talking to a dead man.  “I truly had no idea that the villanelle would lead me to his neighbor’s grave,” he says.

That climax to Hey’s experience of writing “Apology to a neighbor who lost his place” mirrors the reader’s gradual realization over the course of the poem.  It also leads Hey to his “Rule 4, something like if you know what you’re going to say before you start writing, and if the poem doesn’t contain a discovery, you probably should write an essay instead” (150).  This tells me more about the process of writing poetry than all of the manual advice I’ve read.

Manuals illustrate the talk without walking it.  But I don’t just hear Anderton preach patience.  I see her give up, in favor of the greater good, one of my favorite lines in the book: “The womb / closed up, as if tucked / under a wing” (325).  (A self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps?)  (Can I have the line since you don’t need it, Lucy?)  Anyway, I see Anderton give that line up!  Such heroism makes an impression.

Some of these guys hold their work for ten years or more, letting their poetry have something like normal childhoods. Susan Rich discusses how “A poem is born, moves into adolescence, and eventually reaches the prime of life” (14).  I’d have the poetic version of the Department of Labor after me for violating child labor laws, the way I’ve been writing.  (I’ve always admired Dick Jones’s poetry, and I’ve seen him revisit poems for subsequent drafts decades after he first writes them, so none of this should surprise me.)

Rich fleshes out her growth analogy with specifics from her thirty-six drafts – thirty-six! – of “Reclamation,” pointing out where she has to discover what’s hiding behind abstract and weak language and where she has to “risk sentimentality” to learn what the poem has to say.

Some poets show me how they tighten a poem’s look and sound over the course of a few drafts to make everything fall over everything else so the poem generates its own gravity and atmosphere and creates conditions for life.  A poem is a tiny, geologically active planet, a slow collision of imagery, sound, meaning and ambiguity.  (I love the volcanoes, the fault lines.)

Poets share nice tidbits, such as the importance of an inspired first line (147) as well as of “plain carpentry” (150), and the use of couplets (17, 280) and of adjectives and ampersands (213). (Dave Bonta’s poetry has also taught me about ampersands.)

The variety and sometimes conflicting nature of these poets’ advice show me how situational poetics is.  Each poem is its own child requiring more than parenting manuals to grow up well.  Tools are great; love – caring and dispassionate – is better.

*Poem, Revised‘s Amazon.com page incorrectly reports that the book has 192 pages. It has 368.

Posted December 1, 2008.