Posts Tagged ‘Writing Process’

Writing Poetry: Process and Problematics

In Poems on May 16, 2009 at 10:45 pm

c24998-bMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

Note: This post is an amalgam of two smaller pieces, one on the use of rhyme generally in poetry, and the other on the process of putting words down on paper, and why it sometimes goes nowhere.

Part I: On process and stray lines

I feel blessed to have such poets as M. Lyon and Puritano writing intermittently for Sympathies, and on reading their work with care, I find myself fascinated by the process by which we arrive at a fully fledged poem.  I suspect that an evaluation of the process of each one of us will turn up some broad similarities, but also significant differences (how’s that for a cliche?)–and I’d like to start a conversation on process by posting some stray lines of mine that I like but which have never made their way into a finished work.  Each will be illustrated with a comment describing why, despite what I perceived to be their potential, they never led anywhere.  If readers have their own examples of stray lines, free-floating couplets that need a home, it would be great if you would post them along with a comment.

i) The only single poem of mine made of a single couplet is “The Pomegranate.”  It goes like this:

The pomegranate is essential to the sophisticated palate
Far more evolved than onion, watercress or shallot

Comment: Almost everything I have actually managed to get down on paper starts with a flash of language–usually two lines (a couplet), sometimes four lines (a stanza), that come out of nowhere.  From this starting point, there are three possible paths: i) the original lines give me something to build a whole poem around.  The original lines may be, probably are, the best lines in the poem, but the rest of the thing holds it’s own and may rise to the level of being not obviously derivative of the virgin couplet; ii) the couplet or stanza leads to a series of competent, but basically derivative imitations that may add up to a poem, but fails to fully satisfy and cannot even with good conscience be put up on a blog; iii) the couplet or stanza leads me down a series of blind alleys but continues to tease me; it retains an allure, but cannot, by me, be improved on.  Of the third type, only “The Pomegranate” feels truly finished.


I pissed in the toilet
he pissed in the sink
and said ‘I haven’t got a god above
I haven’t got a drink’

Comment: Here I started with a stanza about my roommate freshman year of college, one J. Riordan (and I await his libel suit).  A remarkable man, about whom I have been trying to finish a poem for well over a decade now–but this promising starting point just cannot be bettered, and I’m still stuck.


I knew a sad sad lady
On a diet of silver spoons
She’d sometimes strip for nothing
In the sultry afternoons

Comment: Years ago, and I still like it, but it was only ever pure Leonard Cohen imitation, and suffered as such–here, the flash of insight which produced this minor-league Cohenism could only be followed by a hyper-intentional process of imitation.  This is as far as I got.


I think about my uncle
when my uncle comes to mind

Comment: This morsel of utter nonsense I cannot shake–but what on earth does the poem that could contain these lines look like?  Beats me.


Elevator music in Illinois
a dateless woman with a hand-held toy

Comment: God only knows where this material comes from, but come it does, and what to do with it?  In this case, I had worked up something close to a start of a poem based around the couplet, but it just doesn’t stick–it’s not bad, but…take a look and you’ll see what I mean:

“Half-Empty Spaces”

In a waiting room in Montreal
rages one of my paranoid aunts
muttering threats and curses.
She eviscerates the man down the hall
upturns her potted plants.

A smoking room full of prescient observations
elevator music in Illinois.
Idle entertainments for an idle age
where perversity, dereliction, and public sanitation
wait upon a dateless woman with a hand-held toy.

It is worth emphasizing that these lines are not really any good–and show no improvement whatever over the original two. And yet, considerable work, I am ashamed to say, has gone into trying to massage the material into something usable. No go; good money after bad.

So, that’s my cards on the table. I actually can’t really “write” poetry at all–all I can do is get lucky with a few lines out of the blue and try to shape them into something approaching a poem. But I am interested in other persons’ processes.  Does the above sound all too familiar?  Or is it completely alien?  Let me know.

Part II: On control, M. Lyon, and rhyme

For such a young man, M. Lyon shows both a remarkable control over form and a willingness to take a chance.  The manner in which he implements his rhyme scheme is certainly of interest.  Here is part II of his poem asking for information about me broken down into the underlying rhyme scheme:
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A Puritano Trifecta

In Poems on May 14, 2009 at 9:17 pm

Note: In another piece of consolidation, I have re-posted three poems from Puritano. It is my opinion that all three of these are particularly strong pieces, though all quite short. It is interesting to note that Mr. Williams appears to work in a roughly similar form most times out, and this leads me to inquire about his writing process. My next post will take up this subject in more detail.

“An accidental alphabet”

An accidental alphabet
dissolving as we spoke
till meaning sighed
had it but choice
and ripped all sense
from sound.


Has solitude outbred itself
as the Mongol ponies did
devoured steppes giving way
to empty afternoons
after ages reversing this
with Napoleon on the march
Moscow burned, homeward bound
ice already on the road.

Note: According to some accounts, the first Mongol invasion failed when the hardy horses upon which the invaders depended could not find enough grass to forage upon.

“Dickinson Lives!”

My life contracted–
at its close
an atom’s breadth– confined
in region infinitesimal
in amplitude– the sun
an ambit individual
a universe– of one.