How do you eat an elephant?
The writer approaching blank paper may be said to be like the diner approaching an elephant. There are so many considerations; there's so much meat. Where does the writer begin? There are many decisions made consciously and unconsciously as a work of poetry (or prose poetry or even, sometimes, inspired fiction) writes itself down. Inevitably, questions of tone, diction, syntax, line, form, meter, matter and meaning arise.
Perhaps the writing begins with a word, jotted on the back of an envelope, or in the writer's ever-present small notebook, or a song lyric or a letter to an imaginary friend, a consideration of the weather, or an epistolary prose poem about the weather:
How do people who live in the north ever talk about anything but weather? All night we could hear the cold let go an incessant drip and splash. This morning was windy and almost warm (over 35 maybe) and sopping. The river rushed in a widening channel, eating up more edge-ice with every hour. The snow softened and grayed along the curbs and traffic spat up slush against the parked cars. Stepping was a great adventure sometimes the snow crust split and down I went to wet. The next moment I'd be aloft, off toward whatever my destination on hard-pack.. This afternoon it's snowing again, coming down in big, wet, air-popped flakes. At noon, sure that mud season had begun, I got a short sleeved tee shirt for the warmer weather which should be happening now--just when we're buried in white. Virtually seasonless, I never knew what was missing. I imagined a fall thrill when the Bradford pears went bare, but can now see there must be treasure in nights clear-cold as glass. This spring nonsense, though, is astounding. No wonder people behave madly. It's wet. It's not. It's cold and cool and windy, rain and melt and snowing---again, I'm completely engaged--the engagement caused by a difficulty not possible in Sun Belt climate.
Perhaps s/he has stumbled upon a poem by Tristan Tzara, Lyn Hijinian or John Ashbery, or has begun her own line by laying aside description and image and rationality and saying a little prayer to Eshu, the Yoruba God of indeterminacy, asymmetry, and odd numbers to come up with something like this fragment from the McArthur Award-winning Arkansas poet, C.D. Wright's,
EVERYTHING GOOD BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN
Has been written in mud and butter
and barbecue sauce. The walls and
the floors used to be gorgeous.
The sock off-white and a near match.
The quince with fire blight
but we get two pints of jelly
in the end. . .
Or perhaps the writer decides to follow the Plain Style of poetry. In the opinion of Verse Magazine "The plain style poet expects the reader to slide with ease across her words in order to focus better on her content..." because, as Alice Fulton observes, "Simplicity is prized as a symptom of sincerity..." Any writer might do well to think about what they are up to in the matter of complicating their language.
When I thought about the subject almost two decade ago this is what came up:
Words like cochineal (red dye from an insect, a scaled one)
float at my shoulders, tempt me to shrug them on,
their costume feathers, like a boa tickling my nose.
But I'm not sold on masquerade, language
lives not in complexity but in ability to shift emotion.
I can make my point without vermilion.
Finally, complicated or plain, formal or wildly imaginative, whatever a writer believes s/he is doing when confronted by the appealing/appalling white paper or blank screen, the result may be something quite different. When the writer sits down to read or write s/he must put aside any preconceptions of what the 'product' of that effort will be.
Single-mindedness is the luck we get; clarity is the result we need; time makes clarity possible. The writer must allow the writing a week, a month or even as little as one full day in a drawer. Then--WOW--a bit of revision. Consider this allowing enough time for a poem to reach its full flowering. Then the writer can hope her writings have the air of both inevitability and surprise.
Imagination, according to Dean Young, "...is the highest accomplishment of human consciousness". According to Robert Frost, "no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." A new written "thing" takes time to surprise us, to become our "highest accomplishment". We say some poems come to us "in a flash" but, in general, the reader/writer must sit with a poem, her own or someone else's, in its least parts until understanding (surprise!!) flies off the page. Nothing is quite so meaningless as a poem written in a flash and not revisited. Nothing is quite so lifeless as a poem which knows what it will say before it begins to be.
How does the writer eat his elephant? Slowly, slowly.
Wendy Taylor Carlisle will be teaching a poetry workshop at the Writers' Colony on Sunday, November 18, from 2-5 pm. The cost is $25. For more information contact Alison Taylor-Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 479 292-3665.