9:51 AM Posted by James Owens

I told this story at a reading the other night, during the patter between poems:

The painter Edgar Degas struggled to produce sonnets, and found poetry discouragingly hard to write. To his friend, the poet Stephane Mallarmé, he complained, "What a business! My whole day gone on a blasted sonnet, without getting an inch further... and it isn't ideas I'm short of... I'm full of them, I've got too many..."

"But Degas," said Mallarmé, "you can't make a poem with ideas — you make it with words!"

This reading was in a small, “intimate” setting (which I liked) where the listeners felt free to reply to and comment on the poems. One lady said she disagreed with Mallarmé because “poems certainly do communicate ideas, and emotions, too, even more than ideas!”

Well, yes, but…. A common mistake, one that plagues many “creative writing” students: she was confusing the audience’s experience of reading or hearing a poem with the writer’s experience of making the poem. I am left stuttering and confused when people ask, “What do you write about?” Of course, poems do communicate ideas to an audience, but is that ever where poems (good poems) start? Do poems ever begin in the desire to explain? Say, the causes of the War of 1812, or fluctuations in gasoline prices, or the process of cellular division?

If one wanted to explain something like the above, it would be supremely foolish to try and do so in a poem, where so many other aspects of the writing would get in the way.

I think Mallarmé is right: you make poems out of words. One carries around a little pouch of saved-up words that one wants to use in a poem someday — “dew-spangled toadflax,” “darg,” “willy-nilly perforations” — until something (an image, a rhythm) one day accrues around one of them like (succumbing to cliché) a pearl growing around a bit of grit. And that is where the poem starts. And if it ends up as an exposition of carving techniques on Easter Island, then that exposition functions mostly as excuse, as pretext inserted—in Derridean legerdemain—at some late stage in the composition. In my case, I almost never, if ever, think about what a poem "means" until after it is “finished.”

I don’t think poets have always written this way, and I don’t think this is necessarily the best way to write. But it is my practice (to the darkish extent that I understand my own practice), and my sense of other poets I know is that they experience something similar. Perhaps some start with an image, or a music, or a shape on the page, if not with words, but almost never with an “idea” in the way that Degas seems to mean “idea.”

Tell me, if you write poems, how do your poems start? Do you have something to say, and search for a way of saying it? Or do you have a “way of saying” that you want to use and hope that it finds its way to a meaning by the end of the poem? (Or am I mechanically introducing false distinctions into an organic process that doesn't really permit analysis?)



Sorlil said...

'willy-nilly perforations' - nice one! I do the same, collect words / phrases that have that weird something about them that I know will grow into a poem somehow.

For me a poem begins invariably with an image, word, observation. I very rarely know what the poem is going to be about when I start it.
I generally have a current obsession / muse which my poems always end up intentionally and unintentionally coming round to.

Mostly I try to let sound associations lead me in a poem, keeping with sense of course, and in that way I'm often surprised at how the poem turns out. Normally around two-thirds way into the poem I suddenly realise what it's about and try and pull it all together at the end.

Roxana said...

Paul Valery said that every poem starts with a line, a phrase graciously given by the gods, and then the poet tries to build the text around, or upon this unique expression without being capable of attaining its inital perfection anymore.
do you write by hand or use a computer? I know many poets talked about their hand, that at some point the images and the words seem to flow directly through and out of it, as if there were a mysterious connection between brain and hand, and sometimes the pencil also... as if the words write themselves through the hand, and the poet is just a spectator...

anhaga said...

Sorlil: Yes, sound almost always comes before meaning. I think there are poems that are alive for me as sound, even though I couldn't tell you what they mean. And surely this is the way most young people first come to poetry. I remember being 11 or 12 years old, having stumbled (somehow) across The Waste Land and ending up with big chunks of it memorized, though I can't imagine that I understood it at that age. What Eliot himself called the "auditory imagination." This still leads me when I am writing. If a line doesn't "sound right," that's a sure sign that I am saying somethimg stupid.

anhaga said...

Roxana: Writing by hand or keyboard --- a more complicated question than it seems. I usually write first drafts on the computer, quickly. But then I must print the poem on paper and revise, slowly and over and over, by hand. This revision process eventally means a completely different poem emerges from the draft, and in revision I do feel something like a close connection between hand and mind.

It's still more complex that that, though. I can't commit to words on paper or computer screen without walking first and thinking. It is the rhythm of the walking that feeds into the first draft, then the rhythm of the hand and the breath that sets a tone for revision. Writing is a very physical act.