I’ve been working on what turned out to be a short ten-line poem for the past three days. Several times a day, I told myself to just throw it away and start something else. Yet something else, writer’s instinct—for lack of anything better to call it urged me not to. This morning around 4AM I woke with not just the two final lines, but a deeper understanding of what the poem wanted to be. I also woke to a flood of memories from my first year teaching Freshman English and Creative Writing at Memphis State University. But first the poem:
On This Corner Of Quiet Streets
On a plum tree
Outside their garden wall
In the still April air
On one branch overhanging
A small bird calls and calls
An unopened letter beside her
Waiting to confirm
What her heart already knows
Back when I taught college freshman and sophomores about poetry, I began by dividing all poetry into poems of statement or non-statement—illustrating this principle by contrasting two brilliant poems: W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” and William Carlos William’s “This Is Just To Say.”
Auden’s poem expresses what he wants to say directly, while William’s poem works by implication. For the past two years, most of the poems I’ve written have fallen into the poetry of statement category. Lying awake in the early morning, solution at hand, I realized I’d shifted to a poem of non-statement.
I had no such thought (or any other I recall) when I wrote the first line of this poem, nor did that even turn out to be the poem’s first line ultimately. On the contrary, I stilled my thoughts and let words rise to consciousness. Then I started the more conscious process of working with what came.
Only instinct born of a lifetime of writing kept me at it. Even with that, I felt frustrated with myself and this lousy poem that was going nowhere more than a few times. Yet something kept drawing me back to the words and the images—until gradually they formed themselves on the page with a certain inevitability. And I knew it was done (well, more or less).
Writers depend on many things: their instinct, intuition, experience, craft, knowledge of the work of others, and, ultimately, something mysterious and wonderful and larger than our little selves that draws us ever forward to discover what else we might contain. Encountering the mystery is the biggest part of why we keep writing.