When The Words Talk Back to the Poem – Notes on Writing Process
To write about the process of writing poetry is to unlock a puzzle. The late poet, Richard Hugo, accomplished just that feat in his seminal collection of essays, The Triggering Town (1979). There, Hugo conceptualized that a poem has two subjects, the “initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem or causes the poem to be written, and the real or generated subject, which the poet comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing” (p.4). Hugo’s tenet applies to both my own process and to the pedagogical approach I take with students in introduction to writing poetry, an undergraduate writing arts course I teach at an upstate SUNY college.
What, then, was the impetus or trigger for ‘The Heart is Improvisational’? The poem was born out of my longstanding admiration of Margaret Atwood’s sister poems: ‘The Woman Who Couldn’t Live with Her Faulty Heart’ and the ensuing, ‘Woman Who Makes Piece with Her Faulty Heart.’ Inspired by Dame Atwood’s gift, I became invested in writing about the heart. Then, the question rose – what angle of the subject would I take? Rarely do I or should I know the answer to that question at the outset. However, with this poem, I had conceived years earlier and left in safe keeping the metaphor, “the heart is a poet in residence.” The line came to me, and I sensed its aesthetic value. It is this line and this metaphor that opened up the very essence of the poem. I would then reveal the heart as a writer, attuned to and shaped by the flux of the reality that comprises our very lives. As I began to write, I extended that role to plural roles. My heart poem would situate the heart as an improviser, capable of playing a number of parts. No typecasting here.
The generating process is usually slow with time and distance between drafts; lines that earlier seem apt can land flat and disingenuous on the page hours later. I read about the subject, in this instance, the heart, for ideas to percolate, but poetry is not about exposition. The research knowledge I acquire can be fruitful but will still need to be transformed into the language of poetry. Inhabiting the world of metaphor, I visualize a potential image, consider the scope of the analogy, its habitat, free play with associations. For the poem in question, the phrase “a fiefdom of tunnels and byways” came to me as I imagined some medieval castle I may have once visited in my travels, whose outer structure I compared to that of the human heart. Another picture flashed with the preceding metaphor “river-barge heart,” when I envisioned a boat tugging and lugging weight (maybe from an Edna Ferber book cover or some MGM classic from the 30’s). I paired that image with the emotional turmoil and anxiety we can feel about love since we credit the heart as repository of those emotions. I hope the reader can see the images; the degree to which metaphors succeed speaks to the quality of any poem.
As soon as I keyboard words, I sound them out and up from the page, because I love the rhythm and inner rhymes, the musicality of a line, the way words bump against and merge into one another. “No cold metal ear will do/ to hear / her elocution” or “She sings a circuit of desire.” As I sculpt a line on the screen and read it back, I select a word, put it aside, and substitute it for another, as if playing on a chess board. (I love the computer for that). In due time, I may discover what works because writing poetry is a process of discovery, as Peter Elbow and Donald Murray explained (1998; 1982). Often, I uncover which diction choice works best by surprise – when sounds echo, and when pictures and meaning complement and enrich the poem as a whole. That coordination is key – as my arrangement of words and space need to serve the whole poem.
Up to now, I have made the process seem all-knowing or fully cognizant. Here’s the catch. There is an enigmatic part of composing poetry which makes audible the distinct or idiosyncratic in a writing voice. Let me address the last lines of the poem, which are perhaps the most memorable. “The heart is improvisational/ a poet-in-residence/ tugging at the likeness of things.” The metaphor heart/poet came rather effortlessly, and as I explained, was essential to the genesis of the poem. The consecutive and final line came too like a gift I had hoped for. As Amy Lowell, the imagist, once wrote, it is as if after dropping the subject in the unconscious, I opened up the mailbox months or years later to find the words there (1952). Imagine an envelope, sealed and addressed just for me. And the words that came seemed to speak back to the poem, dialogue with it. The diction, I sensed, worked then. What does a metaphor do but tug at the likeness of things? Isn’t this element one of the vocations of the poet?
In ‘Short Ode to Summer,’ I concentrated on tactile, visual detail for the first stanza to bring the reader into a fruit garden on a hot, sultry day. The poem moves from the concrete to the abstract or philosophical with the last four lines, which express yearning. “I’d suppress time/ quell its appetite for the offspring of trees/ and the cold, imperceptible stillness/ of winter’s watch.” The lines (ending on alliteration) whispered in my ear and flowed on to the page – knowledge stored from earlier learning but placed in this order at this time with seemingly little premeditation. Angela Hague (2003) tells us that creative writers access a permeable boundary between the conscious and unconscious. I cross these borders when I write poetry. All poets do, I believe.
A final thought about writing these two poems and about writing poetry in general. As much as we hone in on a particular phrase or line’s genesis and evolution, a certain mystery abides as to why a poem works. There is no recipe or simple set of instructions to follow in this complex, individual, and situational practice. Meaning, image and sound intermingle, prompted by heartfelt experience, conjured up by an imagination, and appraised by a critical ear (though these steps are recursive). The poet learns when to sing and when to leave space to be silent, empty space which carries its own meaning for the reader to make. I hope this pair of poems alternates well between the two states of being.
Elbow, Peter. (1998). Writing with Power: techniques for mastering the writing process. Oxford University Press.
Hague, Angela. (2003). Fiction, Intuition & Creativity. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press.
Hugo, Richard. (1979). The Triggering Town Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. New York: Norton. 3-18.
Lowell, Amy. (1952) “The Process of Making Poetry” in Ghiselin, Brewster (Ed.) The Creative Process. A Symposium. Berkeley: University of California Press. 109-112.
Murray, Donald M. (1982). Learning by Teaching. Selected Articles on Writing and Teaching. Portsmouth: Boynton Cook Publishers, Inc.
You can read Carol’s poems in Issue Four / Spring, which may be purchased here.
Carol Lipszyc is an associate professor at SUNY Plattsburgh. She is the author of a book of short stories, The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories, and a collection of poems, Singing Me Home, with Inanna in Canada. www.carollipszyc.com
© Carol Lipszyc, 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis, 2016.