Sunday, May 22, 2011

Turning a Poem onto its Head

Yesterday's writing episode began with me flipping through my notebook for the odds and ends of poems I'd jotted down recently but hadn't worked with yet.  I had a couple of starter-pieces in there, and my hope was to find something worth continuing on a fresh page, thus allowing me to X it out of the old, already sweated-over pages of my notebook.

What I ran across was the start of a poem that centered on the star jasmine growing in front of my house.  For whatever reason, I'd wanted to write about that thing for weeks -- probably since it had fully burst into bloom -- and seeing my first go-at-it there on the page reminded me that I had yet to properly work up the idea.  The problem was my opening lines stunk:
With its white cluster of tiny trumpet
bells, this jasmine lingers on the sleeve
I brushed against it, unknowingly
at first. . .

Now I liked (and have kept, at least for now) the image of the trumpet bells, the words linger and sleeve, but I disliked that ignorant word unknowingly and that flat, opening preposition With. I didn't care for the line breaks either.  Creating no desirable effect of their own, they put the pace of the lines in too much conflict with the natural rhythm of the language. And none of the words received pause or attention because the rhythm was gangly instead of musical -- all of which I blamed on the line breaks, right or wrong.

The ensuing lines and few stanzas suffered the consequences of that sad opening and aren't worth discussing further. I liked a few of the sentiments that had turned up, however, a few of the jumps the poem made as it strove for new images and content. So, I made the decision to salvage what I could.  The question was, how?

And the answer was to turn the poem onto its head, effectively starting where that initial string of ideas (it hasn't been accurate, really, to call them a poem) had ended -- the last line.  Actually, the last line was "and they bloom, the silent speak." So, I restarted with the penultimate line, which I broke: "Drought pushes these loveliest of flowers / to the edge" and so on, working my way backward through the piece by every two lines or so, keeping what worked, dumping what didn't.  Old connections were cut; a new logic formed. Even better -- whatever original emotional attachments I had to the jasmine and, thus, to the poem became severed by this new arrangement, allowing me to explore emotions and ideas that wouldn't have otherwise arrived in the poem's original form.

Sure, restarting a poem with the end is a bit arbitrary, but its effect -- the poem opens itself in a new way -- is not.  Often that's the trick: to see the usual as unusual, the familiar as strange.  As a writer and reader of poetry, I prefer not to know a poem's ending before I arrive at it -- the experience isn't surprising that way. But as the poet-in-process, I particularly enjoy not knowing how the poem is about to begin.

No comments:

Post a Comment