Frequently I’ve gotta do all of this work first, and then just wait and listen.
I’ve been working on a poem since last Easter. Not unusual. Most of them don’t come quickly. Well, they may start quickly, but they don’t often come all at once. This poem was almost all there, but it had some issues. And the ending, well, the ending was more like just a stopping. It was true. It was what happened, but it wasn’t right.
So I was working on other poems this evening and decided to pull the Easter one up again to see if it wanted to play. Oh lord, the first line was a stumble, not just the ending, but the very first line. I made a note beside it saying, “This meter is all wrong,” with a little illustration showing that it was neither iambic, anapestic or any other ‘ic.’ It was just ick.
I had built this edifice of a poem and I didn’t want to Jenga it to pieces. Nudge, nudge, gentle tug, and wouldn’t you know it, the words just rearranged themselves. Two of them dropped into the next line. Well, that changed the whole stanza, which changed the next. This line could go. This word had to go. A new verb stepped in like it had just been out for a smoke, but knew right where its spot was, an X taped there on the poem’s stage. It was all prepared without me. Well, not really. More about that in a moment. I shrugged. I was happy.
But there was that ending again. It was poignant—sad, sweet, and true. But it was a dull ending, just rolling into the final margin with a clunk. And then, it hit me. The event happened, sure. I was telling it all mostly true, but I wasn’t capturing the feeling it gave me. Then I remembered what I always tell myself—I’m not a historian.
And the poem said, “Hey, David. You know what I really want? I want the narrative to end like this . . . ” And what it whispered in my ear stunned me. Totally unexpected, but perfect. It was simple, natural, and magical. And not at all from my own head, or so it seemed. Okay, Easter-ish poem. Do what you want. I like it. Just let me go to bed now, okay?
So what’s the lesson here? You don’t have to work, just let it flow out however it wants and it’s sacred? Oh, hell no! Quite the opposite. You listen, and then you work. You pause again to listen as you continue. You get down what you can. You write every detail. You do it. You have to do it before it will do itself, even if just by practicing in your head sometimes for those poems that seem to come on their own .
You have to arrange the words before your instinct knows how to rearrange them. You are likely to cut out a lot of them later. A lot. And once you’ve done all that work, the poem decides you’re really serious about this. It stops being so distant and, if you’re listening, it lets you in on what it wants to do. It’s a paradox; you have to work in order to let it work itself out. It’s just your brain unfreezing anyway. Instinct and training like an archer’s hand on the bow. It’s not flow or inspiration, or magic.
Well, it might be magic. But the spell will cast itself only after you’ve done all the preparation, the study, the sweat. Sweet dreams, friends. And keep writing.