Thursday, February 02, 2006

How (not) to Write a Poem: Part 4

This is the final part of this series of posts. Continuing from the end of part 3...

When I wrote the bulk of S1, the poem was about an eccentric man who kept half-eaten sweets stuck under his dashboard to eat later and enjoyed victimising tramps. He was to dress up as a giant tangerine and throw himself from a factory balcony. The juice from the tangerine rose, threatening to drown everyone else. All those details – apple cart, strawberry patch, landfill site, moosehead – are decent images and seemed to work well together.

So why was I surprised when Helena scrawled on the manuscript: “the poem starts here” alongside the second strophe? It just hadn’t occurred to me before that these details now had no place in the poem. None of them contribute to his death or explain the death. They are in character enough to explain why he wants to buried near a power plant, but without them, the poem takes on a mysterious quality and may set off questions in the reader’s mind as to why anyone would want such a burial. Leaving out S1 also focuses the poem on death choices – the suicide and the odd request for burial – and gives the final line greater poignancy.

Helena had told me to ignore her comments if I didn’t agree with them, but I was sure she’d got it right here.

On that final line, “part” was changed to “bit” for sonic reasons – “a bit of him slips in” is a subtle improvement, but stronger, I think. I chopped the final strophe in two. And the title was changed, using a line from the axed S1. So the final version:

The Man who Filled Cans in the Fruit Cocktail Factory

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 bit of him slips in.

If you compare this version with the first draft, you’ll see that they have nothing in common, not a single line. That isn’t normal for me. Usually even after a radical re-drafting process, the final poem will resemble the original draft in certain key areas and key lines. Here it became a new poem.

However, it does occur to me now that I should use the penultimate draft of S1 to construct a new poem, and perhaps use the sweet under the dashboard and the tramp circling the roundabout too because they are viable images that have potential. But I think leaving them out was the correct decision for this one.

I’m glad not all my poems take so long to complete. I’m glad that not all first drafts end up without a presence in a final draft. But perhaps that’s wrong. Maybe the presence is there in some way even if not a word remains. Maybe that giant tangerine is still hovering overhead.


Paula said...

Quite a metamorphosis, Rob. In the long process, you wrote a fine final poem and have material for another.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Yes, I'm happy enough.

Other times, I've spent a long time on something and then realised I have nothing at the end of the process worth saving.

So I should be grateful for this one.