Monday, March 11, 2013

How a poem comes together (sometimes)

I just found these old notes on my hard drive while looking for something else. They must have been something I started doing for a class at some time. I seem to have been following the genesis and development of a particularly slippery poem. The notes were apparently originally handwritten, and then transcribed over.  I have no idea how much time went by between one and the next. I'm guessing that the lines of poetry and the metrical notations were the handwritten notes, and the exigeses came when I typed them all up.


I was thinking of writing a ghazal, and since I’ve been thinking a lot about a possible  connection between ghazal and blues, I began with

                the blues

and then tried to fit a couple of lines to it

The first crack of light in the morning was the blues
When all shadows were shadow, that was the blues

and at the same time, I written a phrase I liked the sound of

striped like snakes

and I started thinking of light – morning light, maybe morning light across a bed, striped like a snake, and the next line I tried was this:

She woke up in the morning with her arms around the blues
The morning light lay like a striped


that seems to be as far as I got with that thought. I was in the process of deciding I didn’t want to use “blues” as the monorhyme end word in a ghazal. The next couplet I tried was (brackets around works that were crossed out):

Morning [began] started like a [striped] snake across her bed;
When all shadows were shadow, the dark was her bed.

So I’d gotten rid of two things I really thought I wanted to work with, the blues and “striped snake.”

The next thing I was going to get rid of was the ghazal. It wasn’t working for me; I didn’t feel it. But I still liked the formal regularity of the line, and I knew that the lines and rhythms I was hearing were formal. I decided to try a villanelle.

Day slipped like a snake across her bed.
When the shadows clustered into shadow
She pulled the darkness up around her head.

Then, on the back of the page, a bunch of scattered notes. I was trying to find rhythms that I liked.

  -     /     -        /    -    /      -   /       -    /
day slithered like a snake across her bed

   /        -         /  -    /       -   /      -     /
Day slipped like a snake across her bed.

    /     -       /      -     /   -    /    -
Shadows clustered into shadow

and a bunch of possible rhyme words for the B rhyme:


and under the list of rhyme words, another line:

hair like snakeskin stretched across her bed

which seems to mean I was moving away from the snake-as-sunbeam image, and this is maybe an example of letting a fine isolated verisimilitude go by.  I think snake-as-sunbeam may well be a pretty good image. But I was allowing myself not to be locked into it, to look around for other possibilities.

So here’s what fills up the rest of this page:

Like a snake she’d let into her bed

which I guess I hated. I hate it now, looking at it. The metric pattern forces the line to sound stilted and awkward – “LIKE a SNAKE she’d LET inTO her BED” -  which puts that horrible, ugly stress on TO. So under it, I have a note for the stress I want:

/    -   into bed  (DA – duh INto BED)

and under that, a line that fits the meter:

Like a snake she’d followed into bed

which I also liked better as a plot line, but I seem to have abandoned it. I go on to try a couple of other lines, using one of the “B” rhyme words. I didn’t have the whole lines, just this much:

-    /     -    /   pretended she was dead
/  -    /    -   , made her skin like tallow

and then filling out the lines (indicating words crossed out, words stuck in, and in the third line, a stressed syllable that had to go in, but I didn’t have yet):

For two days, she pretended she was dead,

[made] her arms ^  like clay, [her] breasts like tallow,
Hair [hung] like snakeskin   /   across her bed.

Then, on the back of the page, a couple of lines that don’t seem to be going anywhere, and I think I knew they weren’t going anywhere:

When she was seventeen and newly wed,
 What men were   /    -    pierced her like an arrow


By now, I had the beginnings of a poem:

The day slipped like a snake across her bed,
And when the shadows clustered into shadow,
She pulled the darkness up around her head.

They challenged her to prove she wasn’t dead.
She showed her arms like clay, her breasts like tallow,
Her skin shed like a snake’s across her bed.

And it was working pretty well. Except I didn’t like it. I liked the image of breasts like tallow, but “arms like clay” didn’t do much for me. It seemed to be just there for the meter, to fill out the line. “They challenged her to prove she wasn’t dead” seemed like a nice line. It was metrically regular. It said something interesting. Why didn’t I like it?

Looking at it again now, I do kinda like it, and I like the formal poem that’s starting to take shape. But at that point – and I hope my instincts were right – I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t like the form, and I really didn’t like the meter. I wanted to break free of it...into free verse, as a matter of fact. I guess that’s why they call it free verse.


So I changed “wasn’t dead” to “was alive,” and I broke it into two lines, to shake myself loose from the metric regularity:

To show them she was
alive, she wriggled free from
her skin, like a snake, and now
her new breasts were soft, like tallow,

So I’d completely and finally abandoned the snake-as-sunlight image. Too bad, maybe. Or OK, maybe. Anyway, I needed to start stripping things down. I knew I liked the image of breasts like tallow to suggest a new, moist, not-quite-formed body emerging from the shed outer layer of skin. Here’s the next start:

To prove to all three of them she was
alive, she shrugged free from
her skin, like a snake, and when
she turned around, her new breasts
were soft, like tallow,
[and her hands]
[and] her hair was downy, and white like milkweed,
and she blinked in the light.

But she was fast, she had
pads of air under her feet.
[and] She could move in any direction,
she could spin and dance like a leaf.

I tried out the “three of them” to see if they’d open up an interesting plot line, but they didn’t, so I let them go. This was pretty much the last hand-written draft.

That's the end of the notes I have in this file. If there were more intermediate steps, I don't remember them. But here's the finished poem.


They asked her to prove she was real,
so she shrugged out of
her skin like a snake, and when she
turned around, her new breasts
were soft, like tallow,
her hair was white like milkweed,
and she blinked in the light.

But she was sudden, she had
pads of air under her feet.
She could move in any direction.
She could flip and scoot like a leaf.


Raksha said...

Tad: I've had your blog bookmarked for a couple of years now, but it's been awhile since I actually read one of your posts. I'm very glad I decided to read this one.

Being allowed to hang over your shoulder as it were, watching as you consider and discard and reconsider both lines and verse forms, gives me much-needed insight into my own parallel thought process. I don't think I've ever tried to verbalize this process before, not in the kind of depth and detail you did anyway.

Although I rarely even attempt to write poetry these days, when I was younger I wrote it compulsively, but then I read the work of real poets just as compulsively. Even at fifteen or sixteen, I knew instinctively that you can't write poetry if you don't read it. Not that I could have stopped myself from doing either one at that age.

As you know very well, there are certain inevitable pitfalls and advantages that are part of the process of assimilating the work of other poets into your own. They are part of the process of learning the art and craft of poetry through imitation of the masters, which I assume is the only way anyone ever learns it. All of it (especially the pitfalls) goes double and triple for an adolescent who doesn't know any better--about life or love or poetry, or much of anything really.

For the usual reason, when I was fifteen and sixteen I especially identified with the passionate love sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Edna St. Vincent Millay. I first learned to sound out, and eventually duplicate, the beat of iambic pentameter by placing beat marks over my favorite lines of Millay's sonnets, the same ones I accidentally memorized by reading them over so many times.

I learned the difference between an Italian sonnet and a Shakespearean sonnet by marking the rhyme scheme (a-b-c-a-b-c) next to the same lines I cried myself to sleep over more than once in those days. Even through my tears, even though I didn't know or care, I still honed my analytic skills to better express myself at some future time.

I should probably stop here, even though I haven't come to the point of what I was trying to say when I started writing this comment. I realize I'm once again indulging in my unfortunate habit of hijacking the comment section of someone else's blog in order to begin a blog post of my own right here and now. As usual, I didn't realize I wanted to write this post until I started it.

I trust you don't mind too much, but if so I apologize.

Raksha said...

Tad: The blog post I started to write uninvited (comment above) on your blog was meant to link to this old post of mine:

If I knew how to embed the link in my previous comment I would have done it, but I don't so I'm posting the link separately. I know how to embed a link in a blog post, but not in a comment. Thank you for letting me borrow your blog, even if you didn't give me permission. :)

Raksha said...

One other thing: I forgot to ask you what a ghazal is and haven't had a chance to google it yet. Just from the name, it sounds like an Arabic verse form.