Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Slants on Process

My writing life has grown stagnant as an algae-covered pond. The undulating snakes and teeming fish of my imagination have been smothered by a thick coat of reality. Of course, I’m being melodramatic. But the last few days, due to circumstances just beyond my control, have been less productive than I would prefer.

I haven’t made my word count in my top-secret novel since Thursday, and I wonder if I’ll a chance before this Thursday. More, since then, I’ve only managed to work on one poem: a pantoum of all things. Like the villanelle, a pantoum uses repetition of lines in conjunction with a fairly simple rhyme scheme. More, like the villanelle, it is a circular form that, essentially, ends with the lines that began the poem. At the moment, I quite like the little beastie. Of course, in time, that love will fade and I’ll be able to recognize it for the date to the prom with a bucktoothed, pigeon-toed, alcoholic cousin who smells of turpentine that it actually is. In the meantime, I’ll take some solace from my lack of productivity in the fact that I’ve been able to write a villanelle and a pantoum in the space of two weeks.

Although I’ve worked for most of my writing life to be a fairly adept formal poet, I’m still surprised by the recent flurry of poems written in form. Sure I’ve had a plan for about three years to write this form and that form for a particular project of verse, but as the fact that I’m over thirty and less than 100 pages into a first draft of a first novel should indicate, I’ve never been adept at following through on those grand schemes that come to mind. Once, during my second tour of life in Dallas, I planned to launch a webzine, not unlike the New Yorker, focused on the arts and nightlife of my hometown. And even though, I was making such plans at a time when people still believed that the Internet could make you rich, the notion never left the planning phase. Now, as I approach middle age, I’m becoming more and more convinced that one of the myriad secrets to success in literature (aside from knowing Oprah Winfrey personally) is simply having the wherewithal to follow through with your dumb ideas.

I’m not sure what corner of my brain triggered this sudden burst of formalism, although I am fairly certain that it wasn’t the scent of vanilla. I am, however, also certain that such work is not yet another of my dumb ideas. Perhaps the collection for which the poem is intended may one day seem like another point on that timeline of dumb ideas, but working on a formal poem—even one that may never see the light of day—will help me further develop my ear and, ironically, should help hone the skills for crafting a competent poem in “free verse.”

You see, for me, writing in any kind of form is deeply different from my normal writing process. I do not follow the runaway train of my thoughts. I do not focus on the “poemness” of the object when revising—focusing on alliteration, assonance, and consonance with tiny spices of rhyme to make sure that the lines are more than broken prose. I do not scan the piece in search of something like a meter, since a meter has been built into the first draft. I do not worry over the use of prepositions. I do not linger over entire stanzas, poised to strike the delete key in search of some essence of thought.

Although it is not as convoluted as the bizarre falsification as Edgar Allen Poe’s claim in the essay The Philosophy of Composition that we should begin each poem with its ending, I think that my particular way of composing a formal poem is a tad convoluted. First, I have to decide, as I have recently, that I want to write in a particular form. Then, since my memory is shot, I have to look up how to write that form (unless it’s a sonnet). Generally, I’ll use Lewis Turco’s New Book of Forms, which is a fantastic catalogue of forms in English—many of which seem never to have been used by anyone other than Lewis Turco, who peppers the book with examples written by “L.T.,” “anonymous,” “Wesli Court” (an anagram of Lewis Turco), and a variety of poems from earlier epochs that illustrate. Then, after I’ve refreshed my memory, I get down to the business of the poem, starting with a line—most likely in iambic pentameter—that seems vaguely related to whatever subject matter interests me at the moment. I find that, if a rhyme scheme is involved, the remainder of the initial draft is dictated largely by my effort to find rhymes that aren’t idiotic and will work with the content.

Now, it is late, and the dogs and my wife are sleeping well—I think. Archie has spent the entire day trying to remove the bandage covering the catheter in his front leg that the vet left in—just in case he needed more hydration. With my wife’s help, I removed it this evening and re-bandaged the tiny wound. Archie struggled against my embrace, snapping at me occasionally if the pain or the fear became too much.

Tomorrow, I suspect, he’ll spend much of the day trying to rip off his new bandage, and I’ll spend much of the day commanding him to leave his leg alone, until my wife returns home from work. Then, I’ll work for money, lamenting the lack of time for following the ideas that part of me—a part I’m learning to ignore—clamors on and on about it being a bad idea.

2 Comments:

Anonymous me said...

Isn't it more common to begin writing a poem and then decide "this would work well as a ____"?

10:27 AM  
Blogger Les said...

I think that's far more common. That's simply not my experience.

It's happened to me twice.

11:10 AM  

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