“Late Night” is a poem written totally by ear. By that I mean that I did not try to duplicate a particular line meter, a particular number of accents or syllables per line. The way I indented it was something new for me. There is a kind of structure that says that the lines beginning on the left margin are the main ideas and the indented portions are subordinate ideas or subordinate pieces of the sentence.
The subject matter is, of course, the dark night of the soul, as St John of the Cross would call it. It is also about depression and mid-life crises.
But what I wanted to achieve most in this poem was a kind of unadorned straight talk. I wanted the lines to direct. There is no convoluted syntax, no doubling up on sounds, no tricky images. I wanted to speak directly about that oldest of metaphors—life as a journey—in a very contemporary way. We hear stories of men who tell their families that they are going to the store for cigarettes. They drive off in the car and keep on driving. Nathaniel Hawthorne has a story, and I forget the title just now, about a man who walks out of his house and then twenty or thirty years later just returns. And offers no explanation. (So I guess the anxiety isn’t that contemporary, but driving around is.)
When I read the poem in public, sometimes I will read the phrase “fucked up” and sometimes I’ll say “screwed up” and sometimes I’ll say “messed up.” In print, I keep “fucked up.” Some of you may ask why. The answer is that I think it is the right word. Why don’t I read it aloud like that all the time, no matter the audience? General politeness and curtesy. When people are reading, they can stop reading. When you are reading publicly, it is pretty clear what the general attitude of a group is. I don’t see much reason to strut and fret in front of them unless it will take them to the places emotionally that I want them to go. Some people can’t go emotionally to places where things are “fucked up.”
I’ll give you an example of this in my life. I just purchased the new cd by Outkast. On it there are several songs and monologues that are very overt in their sexual content. The artists on the cd had certain points they wanted to make. But now I will download the cd on my hard drive and then make a personal cd of my favorites, which will not include these songs that demean women. I understand, I think, what the singers want to do by including such words and images in their songs. But I cannot habitually think of women in the way that they seem to want me to think.
Anyway, my main point in this little lecture was to be about the way the lines were laid out in basic grammatical units. After each of the lines there is an implied breath or half breath.
If you would also notice though that there is a kind of repetition of a triplet phrasing. Basically, English word rhythm works in two beat and three beat groupings. You can think here of music: 2/4, 4/4 are two beat rhythms, but ¾ and 6/8 are three beats rhythms. In English prosody, we have two beat measures and three beat measures. iambic and trochaic are two beat measures and dactylic and anapestic are three beat measures.
Iambic is short/long as in “distill.” The accent on “still.”
Trochaic is long/short as in “wonder.” The accent is on “won.”
Dactylic is long/short/short. This is the waltz beat.
Anapestic is short/short/long
My point is that in the poem “Late Night” the triplet structure in central to the construction of the lines:
So a man / drives around / late at night
avoiding / all the streets / that lead home
He knows lights / are still on
that those / who love him
are gathered / round the table
talking / wondering / what could have / gone wrong
You will notice that some are two syllable measure. Still the three syllable measures hold up pretty consistently throughout the poem.
Did I do this on purpose? Did I think, “Hey I want a consistent three syllable unit that creates lines of nine and six syllables? Not at all. What I did was work in my head with my own sense of rhythm, just like someone noodling on a guitar listening, not planning, for the right melodies.
Again, what I was looking for was straight direct, conversational English that let the basic metaphor of life is a journey control all the images and facts that I could include: maps, matches, flashlights. And I remembered my own driving around late at night and looking though people’s windows and seeing people at the kitchen table or watching tv, etc.
Poetry Assignment: Write a poem about a single moment of conflict that many people have. Write about it in direct sentences. Speak directly and straightforward. Let the metaphors and diction that are native to the event carry the poetic center of the poem. The purpose is more to speak honestly than to speak poetically.