“Found Things” is one of the last poems in Text and Commentary, and it is a poem where I was trying to find a new way to think and to live. I had been in a competitive situation at ACC and I had come out losing that competition, and had resigned an administrative post I had. I had been editing a quarterly magazine on the side, and the Bush I recession hit and all our advertising money disappeared. And I suspected that my marriage was ending. And I was nearing forty. So I was experiencing loss and trying to find a way through it. “Found Things” is my philosophical gambit to avoid depression and loss of self-esteem.
Recently, Naomi Nye, of San Antonio has requested to reprint the poem in an anthology of poems for adolescents, Is this Forever, or What, poems and art from Texas. Naomi is one of the state’s and the nation’s best poets so I was quite honored.
I structure the poem as I do many poems—a set number of lines per stanza and a set number of syllables per line. Although I will write to you to pay attention of meter—iambic or trochaic, etc.—I tend to prefer the method call syllabic poetry. (The poetry based on meter is called accentual poetry. Accentual poetry is more natural for English, which is a strongly accented language.) Syllabic poetry is more French in modern origin (and Japanese—haiku and all that). In this poem, if you count the syllables, I am pretty free with it—seven or six or five syllables per line, but I am pretty much based on the six syllable line.
I should answer the question you may have: “Why do you do that? Why count syllables and make lines more or less regular in length?” I like what it forces me to do—to consciously shape the content and form of the poem. I know I have only a certain number of lines—most of the time I have to cut material to fit in the stanzas or the poem. Generally, this is good. Poems are acts of concision. For the most part, poems are not beer; prose is beer. Poems should have more power, should intoxicate more quickly. So poetry should strive to be wine at least, hard spirits at best, and occasionally Everclear. Like I said, a certain number of lines and a certain number of syllables make me pay attention to the rhythm and balance of ideas and music in the poem. I can’t say everything I want to say. I can only say the best of what I have to say.
The first stanza, then, establishes the main idea, which gets loaded as the last word of the stanza—“empty.” The second stanza is the reaction—searching, panicking—and it explains how things come to us—“found things, gifts and thefts.” The universe (god, if you like) provides and takes away—destiny and fate. The third stanza represents a turning point for the poem and for me. My typical poem, up to this point, would have said, yes, now he is empty and lost and depressed. But I consciously made a decision that I did not want to write another purely poor, poor pitiful me poem. So I wrote—“This has happened too often.” [Actually, the line printed in Text and Commentary say “so often.” But I have a “so” in the next line; therefore, I have made this edit post publication.] “Too often” says something to me about our habits. We do keep finding ourselves dealing with the same problems over and over—bad choices in dates, bounced checks, homework not completed, speeding tickets. Therefore, I made the choice here: I was going to make my life go in a different direction, by writing a different ending to my poems. Stanzas three and four, then, act together as a new solution—I have not lost anything; I have given to the universe. There is someone out there who is receiving the psychic treasures that I have carelessly misplaced—what a miracle that person must feel! After all, I found these treasures and now someone else will find them. What is more, the finders will make grand stories about these found items—kites set free. Still at the end I have to confront my emptiness, but rather than look at it as emptiness, I choose to look at it as readiness. Like they say, only the open hand can receive a gift.
I have to admit that it was after I wrote the poem that I discovered (found) the sound pattern in it. Over and over, I alternated “i” and “e” sounds with “o” sounds. “Foreign coins, knotted string, / a pocket knife and a hollow /silver locket” “discovered his clothing empty,” “Found Things,” etc. All I can say is what I said in another lecture—I am convinced that if you practice, practice, practice, (and read, read, read) then the music becomes second nature and naturally comes to you as you write. The poem will sound right as you write it. For this kind of music, I suggest e e cummings and W. H. Auden, or Shakespeare. Robert Frost, I guess. Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens come to mind. As many of you know from other comments, I don’t necessarily suggest Poe. I think Poe is a little flashy, and if I can say, a little simple. But, yes, Poe is great with vowels and consonants, also.