Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Time for poetry — a National Poetry Month post

"Tick tock tick . . . Time keeps on tickin', tickin', tickin' into the future . . ." Boy did the Steve Miller Band get that right.


From time to time, I've bemoaned how long a poem can take to write. Writing in a form or using rhyme can take ages. A draft of even a short rhyming poem can take hours, and can span days.

Writing in free verse isn't always a piece of cake, either, although any delays there are based in finding the right image or just the right color of word, not finding the right image and then screwing with it until you can make it fit the form. More on the color of words later (and no, I'm not planning on discussing synesthesia).

I've talked this over from time to time with other poets. And I've eavesdropped on poets talking amongst themselves. And I can assure you that if it takes a long time to write a poem, you are not alone.

For every poet that claims to write a poem a day, there is a poet that writes only one poem in a month. And I'm not comparing one haiku to an epic poem, either. These are poems of roughly the same length. I have heard poets express amazement at the notion that someone has completed, on average, two poems a week — and why not be amazed? After all, that is over 100 poems in one year's time.


All poems benefit from some time "in the drawer"; that is, time away from the poet. Even the rare poem that is picked up, read over, and left alone benefits from having its maker approach it with clear eyes and a fresh attitude. And most poems require tweaking. One wants to follow Strunk & White's advice and "omit needless words," particularly when it comes to a poem. Not just prepositional phrases that could be reduced down, but also articles and conjunctions that should simply go. Perhaps the order needs to be reconsidered, whether for clarity or for flow. And then there's the issue of finding not just a word to indicate what you meant, but the quest for that best word for the particular line.* This is where the issue of finding a word that is just the right color comes in.

Perhaps you've written a poem about a walk in the woods. Here's a possible first draft idea, expressed as a sentence:

Today I walked through the woods as the light faded, heedless of nature until a rustling noise drew my attention to a litter of raccoons near the stream.

There are those who would simply break the line here and there and call it free verse:

I walked through the woods
as the light faded,
heedless of nature until
a rustling noise
drew my attention
to a litter
of racoons
near the stream.

That, my friends, is not free verse. It is a sentence that has been split into bits to resemble free verse. Let us spend a bit of time and tweak it. In this instance, "today" adds nothing to the poem; if the writer were comparing today to yesterday or tomorrow, it would be different, but such is not the case. Lose the "today."

Is walking the best word here? Maybe; maybe not. If you have a strong desire to convey how you were walking through the woods - what it looked or felt or sounded like, you'd want to replace the simple verb with something better. "Shuffled" expresses slowness and conveys sound as well as speed and appearance; "strolled" sounds more relaxed, and loses some of the other sensory connotations; "slouched" ratchets up the visual and the feel of the walk, and implies a sort of shuffling, so maybe it gets 1/2 a point for aurality as well; "stumbled" says something else, as does "hiked," "trod", "tramped", and "wandered."

"Through the woods" is the next bit of the line. Ask yourself if all the words are really needed. For instance, "I walked the woods" can work perfectly well in some contexts, so maybe "through" isn't neede. Then again, perhaps (like some poets I know), you hate to see useless articles like "the" lying about; in such a case "through woods" might be preferable. Or maybe the article invites an adjective as an addition or replacement: "through darkening woods", "through quiet woods", "through rain-damp woods", "through musty woods". See how those adjectives change your conception of what kind of woods these were? Maybe you should address whteher the walker was on a trail or rustling through the underbrush. Perhaps another line should come in. Perhaps one should go.

If you're getting the idea that every single word in a poem needs to be assessed — weighed and measured to ensure that it has earned the right to stay — then you are correct. And that is just for the creation of the poem in the first place. After it's been allowed to rest a while, all these same issues must be revisited again to determine whether the poem is complete, whether it expresses what you wanted (did you just want to tell me you saw raccoons, or did you want to tell me how it made you feel?)

If you wanted to convey how it made you feel, did you want to do so by telling me "it made me feel this way" (better phrased, of course), or did you want to use imagery to take me into those darkening woods with you so that I could see those raccoons, too, and feel it for myself? Both of these are valid choices, by the way, but as the poet, it's your job to make these decisions. Every poem. Every line. Every time.

This is why those who write poetry can be blown away at the notion of someone writing two poems per week. Or even one a month. In the fifteen months since I began the Jane project, I've completed 57 Jane-related poems, 54 of which are useable. I've also written at least 10 other poems, some of which are actually decent. That puts me at an average of approximately 1 poem per week in that amount of time, some of which still require serious revision. Adding it up, I'm pleased with my progress. But on a day-to-day basis, it feels remarkably slow.

I'll be back tomorrow with my rewrite of the above bit of fluff. Anyone else willing to post their efforts in the comments is welcome to do so, and I'll collect them up.

*Samuel Taylor Coleridge defined poetry as "the best words in the best order."

1 comment:

John Mutford said...

Some great advice for sure. I especially follow the "time in the drawer" rule. Often I write off a quick draft and think it's freakin' brilliant. Then I come back to it a year or so later and am embarrassed at how much I dislike it. At that point, I do some editing. I sometimes have a problem revisiting that drawer, but lately I've discovered that my moments of writer's block, are surprisingly great times to do some editing.