Looking back, I believe it was with this poem that I first began being a different kind of poet. Shall I name this being “a serious poet”? A “self-aware poet?” I have already said that I began writing poems about 1968, as a sophomore in Temple High School. By the time I wrote this poem, I had graduated from the University of Texas, and then in June 1975, I took off to Texas A&M for graduate school. I had written hundreds of poems in high school and in my senior year at UT; I had written a year’s worth of material in notebooks, and I had pieced together poems for special projects in government and education classes. Now that I think about it, these special projects were in my senior year.
But I say that it was in my second year of graduate school that I first began to be a different kind of poet. I say that because I first began to get sense that poems are constructed objects. They are made and remade, consciously, with some concern about craft. I have about a dozen of these formal poems about love, or some cock-eyed version of love. My feeling has been that people who read my poems are not particularly fond of these love poems from my early twenties, but then so few people, comparatively, read my poems. So who’s to say? How do you judge?
I can say that maybe Robert Bly liked these poems. I say “maybe,” because I had sent the book that these poems are in to Mr. Bly while I had some distant relationship with him through a magazine I edited. One day I received a letter from Thomas R. Smith, a poet whose work I enjoy and who served as an assistant to Bly for some years. The letter said something like, Robert is sorry that he is so busy and can’t write himself, but that he wanted me to know that he has received the book with thanks and that he particularly liked the love poems. To my mind, this poem and the group it belonged to were the only love poems in the book. When I received the note, I thought, rather cynically, “well, thanks.” Did Robert really read these poems and like them? They are in form, they rhyme, and twenty years ago the poems were published Robert was writing free verse. But now, Bly is writing poems with tighter form—tercets, quatrains, and the like. Maybe he did read them and like them?
Whatever the case, my writing these poems, I believe, turned me from a person who writes down some thoughts in a poetic way into a poet who writes poems, with serious intent, something beyond impulse. I think of poets in coffee shops—and I do not really mean this in a mean way—who pull out their notebooks, sip away and watch the world. They write one or two pages, close the book and are well pleased with themselves. They feel good about themselves and the world. They have watched, listened, engaged, and put forth something on paper. And they should feel good about themselves. They have practiced a discipline, much like yoga, or meditation. And it is a good thing, it does good things for them, and, I trust, for those around them. But doing yoga does not make one a yogi, and meditation does not make one a sage. I don’t think we have words that make a similar distinction with poets. But there can be a moment when one becomes self-critical, and, dare I say, “ambitious.” Maybe all I am saying is that one can reach a point in one’s practice where one says, “I want to do this better.”
A poem is more than a record of one’s life passing before oneself. Of course, it is that, and this very book belies the fact that I, too, believe that poems are a record of one’s life. My hero poet is Walt Whitman, whose ever-expanding book The Leaves of Grass is a record of his life experiences and developing life philosophy. Even the work of the very different poet, Emily Dickinson, is a record of her daily life in her private world in Amherst, Massachusetts. It may not be a record of what she did, exactly, as autobiography. But it is a record of her inner life, what she thought about all the things that she saw and heard in her house and yard, in town and in friend’s houses.
What I learned by turning (back) to formal poetry was how to begin to understand revision. I can’t say, even at this late date in my life, that I really understand revision. But what I began to learn with this poem and with others similar to it, was that I could change words and still end up with the same rhyme and similar meter. I remember driving between College Station, where I was going to grad school, and Temple, where my father and step-mother still lived. It was Texas in the middle seventies. We could still drink and drive. I would have an open can of beer between my legs as I drove some of the smaller back roads. Beside me on the seat of the car—I had a hand-me-down Mercury from my dad with a bench seat—I had some sheets of paper folded over and a ballpoint pen. I drove and I recited the parts of the poem I knew and then kept working different lines into the iambic: dumDUM dumDUM dumDUM dumDUM: You know that burning that I felt. dumDUM dumDUM dumDUM dumdum, dumDUM: Not in my heart, nor mind, but you know where. Tetrameter, then pentameter.
I remember a sense of elation as I played with the lines. It was a revelation really. Oh my god, look what I can do. I can write a poem with more or less the same theme with different words and images. How amazing is the mind! And how amazing is language!
I have one notebook that has some various attempts at this poem. One version of the second stanza went like this:
As I had resolved myself to
Die, like Nitzche, bubling mess
. . . .
Cheap fame, I know, but ‘tis fame nonetheless
Another attempt at the second verse was:
It will not kill me. The world will
Not wonder if the poem I did not write/never wrote
What poem I could have written
If I’d lived past twenty.
You can see how I took elements from both and refashioned them with some new material
One ending was:
And though you gave me love not fame
I guess I’ll love you as soon as not.
. . . .
No wait, if you’ll be Zelda, I’ll be Scott.
Actually, I have to admit I rather like the Scott and Zelda reference. If nothing else, all these attempts show that I did have in mind the tragic writer syndrome that so many young writers affect, especially those of us who come to writing from some sense of wanting to know ourselves. I mean, come on, here I am approaching sixty. Although I can claim that I am writing these pages as a statement of poetics and as a guide for writers, young and experienced or otherwise, there is still this bit of hopeful, wistful and wishful thinking that maybe I will come to some understanding of this process and how it works on me. There seems always to be a little wound that needs healing, a little attention that needs to be grabbed, a little nod from the history of writing that says don’t worry, you are one of us.
I don’t know what it was about third lines for this poem, but I seem to have difficulty coming up with them. It seems that I did what is always the danger of writing formal, rhymed verse. The writer will come up with one rhyme word and then focuses his efforts on finding the next rhyming word. Then once that is accomplished there occurs a little back fill. It is an interesting process, but kind of dangerous because that search for the second rhyming words can throw the rest of the poem out of kilter. One begins saying what the rhyming words allows you to say, instead of saying what the poem wants to say.
One piece of advice I read somewhere was always to include an unexpected word as a rhyme—not the obvious first five or ten one comes up with. Then put that word as the second rhyming word. After one stanza, readers will catch on to the rhythm and begin unconsciously trying to anticipate the rhyme. You want to surprise your readers, while fulfilling their expectations. Surprise and satisfaction!
During the three years I spent at Texas A&M, I wrote the dozen or so poems that make up a group I call “Dry Tears.” But I did not share any of these poems with teachers, nor did I submit the poems to a journal, Quartet, that scholar Richard Costas edited there. I remember learning that one of my fellow graduate students had a poem in the journal, and I looked rather jealously, “Hey, she is nothing that special. Why do you guys think she is a poet and not me?” Well, one reason is that I did not tell them I was a writing poetry. How would they know? My take away: be proud, be loud. Don’t wait to be discovered!
I was inspired by the poems of George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Heinrich Heine, and A. E. Housman. Housman said somewhere that when he thought of a line of poetry, he knew that it was poetry if it made the hair on his neck bristle while he was shaving. A good line of poetry is a shock. Robert Graves takes that idea and postulates that that physical reaction is our body’s reaction to the visitation of the Muse, the Goddess of Poetry. I find it interesting how sometimes it is the most conservative artist (Housman and Graves were formal poets) who have the most radical ideas (saying poetry is inspired by goddesses is not a scientifically provable hypothesis.)
Assignment 1: try your hand at revision. Take a poem that you written. Scratch out all the words except for the last word in each line. Now write new lines that end with that last, saved word.
Assignment 2: Pick eight words you like. Make a list of rhyming words for each of these eight words. From those lists, select the most unusual surprising rhyming words in the list. Now write a poem using those rhyming words. Always make your second rhyme the surprising unusual word. Next write a poem with the same words but make the unusual word the first word in the rhyme pair. What is the difference the effect as you read? Is there a difference?