Friday, March 25, 2011

My Poetry Year: Entry #8

In which Your Humble Blogger finally starts to feel that there may yet be some hope for progress in her art:


For miles the train, in its old, churning rut,
Has stuttered along, rhythmically grinding
A thin steel sheen onto the rusted rails.
The cars rock as they're led in line between
Stone shelves full of bottles, bottle caps, cans,
All the stuff of life. There is no hurry,
Except for the man who dimly answers
His phone with the necessary questions --
When? What hospital? How did it happen --
Whose dark face wears the rails' hardness and dull
Reflection, who sits still by the window,
Reminded that the train will always come,
If not on the schedule we expected.

* * *

I once heard that writing in form, you know, using meters and rhyme and all that, is something that young or beginning poets do. Only when a writer trusts that the language at her disposal is substantial does she have to confidence to let it out to play in the realm of free verse.

Maybe there's some truth to that, maybe not as much -- there are some fantastic new formalists out there -- but it seemed to apply to what I had been doing. And I wanted to try free verse so badly. Actually, I did try it. And it was horrible:

...At four in the morning, comfort is
A tentative thing. The way the walls meet
Makes me understand the spider
In the corner. Even coffee cups are nestled,
One inside another. Everything is embraced....

Ah, gawd, I can't even post the whole thing! It's terrible! I had forgotten how bad it was until I typed the beginning just now! I think, just by looking at it, I tainted whatever I might have written for the next week!

So I wanted to feel a bit more liberated when I wrote, but free verse and I weren't ready to be together yet. What could I do for a compromise? I don't remember how the idea came to me, but somehow it did: Instead of trying to force a certain meter and a rhyme on top of that, what if I just used a set number of syllables per line?

I don't remember how the idea came to me, but I do remember the choir of angels that appeared.

So I took an event that I actually did witness on the train one day, framed some thoughts around it, and wrote it all down to the tune of ten syllables per line (with a little bit of fudging of the pronunciation). And that's how "Certainty" came about. It's not as precious as I once considered it, and I'm happy that I think I use language better now, but I'm still proud of the first time I managed to narrate an event in poetic form with some degree of success.

Note #1: I thought I was all brilliant for having come up with this idea of writing with a set number of syllables per line; my ego got popped right quickly. In his lovely book The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Ted Kooser, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, mentions that entire books of poetry have been written in syllabics, which is the technical term for what I did. Down, ego, down!

Note #2: Writing by syllables is still my default approach when I'm not sure how to begin a poem. It seems to provide both challenge and comfort.

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