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Friday, May 3, 2013

Overlooking the Obvious: Jettisoning the Genesis

I've been working on a poem for a couple of weeks. It began with a podcast quote I've been thinking about. So I wrote that as the first line, italicized it and noted that it was a direct quote in my poem notes.

Then I wrote eight lines in an oddly syntaxed form that I thought reflected the essence of the quote, with a twist. I was very pleased with the juxtaposition. This all happened in about two sittings (which is super fast for me with regards to drafting a poem--I almost never draft an entire poem in a single sitting).

Then I needed to write the ending. First, I thought I'd return to the conversational style and syntax of the first quoted line, and repeat some of the key words in a different order with an inflected meaning. I spent about a week working fruitlessly on that. Next I decided that instead of repeating the words from the first line for the ending I would use different imagery to say the things, wildly imaginative imagery. For nearly a week I wrote such alternate endings, and while I got some interesting lines, none of them fit. Then I decided to state outright what I thought the poem was about instead of letting the reader intuit it (or not). This is always a bad idea, and this time was no exception.

So I gave up. Maybe this is one of those poems that never gets finished, I thought to myself.

Then, in a liminal sleep, I realized that I could write the ending in the same broken sytnax as the main body of the poem. It came to me immediately how to do that. It was suddenly obvious to me that it was the thing to do.

Then what about the opening line? Wouldn't it seem like something stuck onto the poem now, without a bookending similar line? It would. But I could make it an epigraph to the poem instead of the first line, or I could just cite it as inspiration in my notes. The whole poem had evolved so far from the quote that I could have just dropped it entirely, but I have this weird need to examine by influences and impulses when they are identifiable. So I went with citing the inspiration in the notes.

So obvious! But I had gotten too wedded to what I'd already done to see the obvious. This reminds me of a time an editor returned a poem to me with the comment that it seemed to him that it began around the fourth line. Which it did--the beginning lines were the genesis of the poem that didn't need to remain once it had gotten going. I chopped those, and then added four more lines later to the poem (since it was in form and I wanted to preserve the form) and in adding the four later lines I added an interesting dimension to the poem. I sent it back to the same editor and he published it.

Reminder to self: Don't overlook the obvious. And don't forget to jettison the genesis of the poem if/once it has been outgrown.

(And this isn't a new idea to me either. Long ago I read Frank O'Hara's "Why I Am Not a Painter" (linked here at and knew this, and yet have to learn it anew every time.)


Tressa said...

Excellent post. Good advice.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Thanks, Tressa. Too bad I keep having to relearn this...hopefully this time it will stick!