Monday, January 30, 2006

How (not) to Write a Poem: Part 3

…again, continued from the previous post.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that every poem I write goes through such a tortured process, although most poems do start off in the way I’ve described. It’s just that some of them, like this one, require a lot of revision over a long period of time before they begin to work, and others (more rarely) work almost immediately. The Hedge Artist, for example, was written in about 40 minutes, and it was more or less a complete poem. I made a change or two later, but nothing major.

Anyway, back to the poem I’m discussing. Now that I had the ending, I felt (wrongly) that the poem needed only a few tweaks, and I didn’t plan any more major revisions. I went through the last draft and decided to cut lines that weren’t pulling their weight. So out went:

“…And when I think about it” and “… that night was typical of the man.” (S1)

Getting rid of these phrases helped the syntax which was unnecessarily complicated. Also these phrases don’t communicate anything. They are chatty, but that wasn’t what I was wanting any more.

Also out went:

“We stalked him for a fortnight.” (S2 L1) – there was no reason to have stalkers in the poem. It only begged the question of who the stalkers were and why they were stalking. They were certainly distracting from the poem’s subject.

“…that glinted like carving knives caught in the spotlight.” (S3 L3) – I had the sense to get rid of the carving knives and glinting teeth straightaway.

“Pomegranate pips peppered” (S3 L4) – too many –p sounds. It’s a loud sound is –p, a bit like –s in that respect. I remember Thomas Bates going on about how over-enthusiastic alliteration immediately shrieked AMATEUR about a poet. Of course, I am an amateur, but I like to disguise the fact when I can. I’m not convinced that “peppered” was ever the right word anyway.

“met his quickening silhouette” (S3 L6) – “met” seems kind of lazy. It’s OK but boring.

I changed another couple of things. I moved the line about filling the fruit cocktail cans and extracting cherries to nearer the beginning, as it seemed important to quickly establish the context where the later action would take place.

And in the final strophe, to “His last words”, I added, “as he fell”, so that it was clear when he was shouting the words.

This is the fourth revision:

GIVEN TO EXAGGERATED GESTURES

He rode an apple cart to work though his onion-strung bicycle
would have done. He filled cans in the fruit cocktail factory,
extracted each cherry before sealing. He lay out
on the strawberry patch by the landfill site
to count pigeons in the haze.
One night, in the pub, he aimed his white rum and lime
at the moose head with the bottle-cork eyes and plastic antlers
and swore he’d shot it clean through the nose first time round.

On the morning of his death, he sucked
a pear drop he’d stuck, half-eaten, to the dashboard,
twelve hours before. He picked up a tramp, dumped him
blindfolded under a date palm on a roundabout
island in a far-flung corner of the city; sent him into orbit.

Given to exaggerated gestures, he strutted along
the factory balcony, peach skin caught between his teeth.
He spat. Pomegranate pips grazed uncovered heads,
and seconds later, the scrubbed concrete of the shop floor
pillowed his diminishing silhouette sixty-eight feet down.

His last words as he fell –
a glorious death is bolder than life
half-lived,
or some similar gripe. His last request –
a burial in the radiated strip by the power plant,
where the apple tree withers and neon-bright rodents
gnaw on roots grown soft as old carrots.
Instead, too mean to buy a stone, we cast his ashes
to the wind. Now, with every breath, a part of him slips in.


This was a decent enough interim revision. It cleared out some of the dead and careless phrases that had cluttered up the poem before. Of course it wasn’t enough. I had persisted in hanging onto too many images that weren’t needed.

I sent the poem out to editors a few times along with other stuff. It soon became clear that even editors who accepted some of my poems weren’t picking this one. I wasn’t clear on what the problem was. Sometimes it might be that editors don’t like a poem, but that doesn’t make it a bad poem. I wouldn’t change a poem because an editor asked me to unless I felt the poem was improved as a result.

So more months went by and I ignored it. I got on with other stuff. Then I had another look, and I remember it being suddenly clear that, however much I liked the images of the pear drop under the dashboard and the tramp orbiting a roundabout, S2 had no reason to be in this poem. What difference did it make to the poem if it disappeared? None. In fact the poem was improved, because S2 wasn’t slowing it down any more.

I also got rid of the phrase, “Given to Exaggerated Gestures”. It seemed too lightweight a phrase for a poem about someone’s death and his friends’ betrayal of his wishes after death. So I changed the title too – to Every Breath.

That was one of two bad decisions I made for the fifth revision. Giving away a key phrase from the final line of a poem in the title is just plain daft. The other bad decision was an inexplicable change in the linebreaks in the final strophe. I have no explanation for this, and I can’t remember what possessed me. It didn’t last any longer than this revision though – number 5 - pretty much revision 4 without the second strophe:

EVERY BREATH

He rode an apple cart to work though his onion-strung bicycle
would have done. He filled cans in the fruit cocktail factory,
extracted each cherry before sealing. He lay out
on the strawberry patch by the landfill site
to count pigeons in the haze.
One night, in the pub, he aimed his white rum and lime
at the moose head with the bottle-cork eyes and plastic antlers
and swore he’d shot it clean through the nose first time round.

On the morning of his death, he strutted along
the factory balcony, pulp caught between his teeth.
He spat. Pomegranate pips grazed uncovered heads,
and seconds later, the scrubbed concrete of the shop floor
sucked up his diminishing silhouette sixty-eight feet down.

His last words as he fell –
a glorious death is bolder than life
half-lived,
or some similar gripe. His last request –
a burial in the radiated strip by the power plant,
where the apple tree withers and neon-bright rodents
gnaw on roots grown soft as old carrots. Instead, too mean to

....................................................................................buy
a stone, we cast his ashes to the wind.
Now, with every breath, a part of him slips in.

Almost there now. But with one key change to come, a change that would have saved me a lot of trouble if I’d thought of it earlier. If you look at the poem now, where’s the dead wood? I sent this revision as one of the poems in the manuscript (perhaps with the linebreaks improved in the final strophe) for HappenStance Press. The editor, Helena Nelson, wanted to do a chapbook with me and wanted to use this one in it. But there was one big problem, easily fixed…

6 comments:

Dick Jones said...

Fascinating. You're a damn sight more thorough than I am. I'll have poems going through painfully slow drafts over years. I seem to work on a sort of slow ageing-in-oak process, a bit like with a good single malt (although rarely as fine!)

I'll be back...

David said...

Hi Rob,
Very interesting to get a glimpse under-the-bonnet of another poet's ways of working. I, foolishly perhaps, write straight to my blog most times. Then there follows a period of re-drafting / editing / 'oh my God' removing and reposting / that can last on and off for months!

BTW, Martyn seems to have fallen off the edge of the blogosphere. Any idea what has happened to him?

Anonymous said...

The first strophe. Remove it, precis it, and make it the title.

Rob

Ok I cheated just a little.

Messalina said...

I was really sorry to see the pear drop and the tramp on the island go :o( They were two real bright spots for me in the poem - strong images that communicated such a lot about the character.

I'm having trouble seeing where the fat is in the latest version... If I had to pick something, I'd say "His last request – / a burial in the radiated strip by the power plant, / where the apple tree withers and neon-bright rodents /
gnaw on roots grown soft as old carrots" in the final strophe but - I like the withering apple tree and the "neon-bright rodents".

Next episode please! :o)

Rob Mackenzie said...

dick, david, other Rob, messalina

Thanks for commenting. The final part is now up. I guess I can still use the discarded material in another poem, although I've said that many times before and rarely manage to recycle things successfully.

Rob Mackenzie said...

dick

I enjoyed reading in your blog. I'll try to link to you later today.

david

I don't know what's happened to Martyn, but I hope he's back soon. I know he lost his entire blog a month or two back and had to start again from scratch. I hope lightning hasn't struck in the same place twice.