How do I come up with the verses that appear on occasion here? Good question! There are several answers:

For me, a less-unsuccessful poetic effort often begins with a notion that grips, gripes, gropes, grinds, grabs, galls, calls me. Maybe it's a sound that startles ... or a phrase, a silly string of words that resonate together to my inner ear ... or an image, like the toss of a head that makes hair fly up and then settle down ... or some seeming similarities between a couple of disparate things, like a meal and a marriage.

Whatever the trigger concept, it's no good if it's forgotten. A big win, therefore is to catch candidate poetic wisps of thought whenever they float past. Usually that's when I'm on the road, or in the shower, or stuck in a boring meeting. A scrap of paper and a pencil stub is enough. A notebook is nicer, as long as it is always near to hand. I've been thinking about getting a little voice recorder; the late Bill Burke (physicist, outdoorsman, and creative genius; more memories of him another time) told me ca. 1978 that he kept a tape machine at the ready on the seat by him during long solo drives. Good idea.

Perspiration follows inspiration. It usually takes me several hours of work, spread out over days or weeks, to turn a concept into a draft that's not too shameful to share. Most of that time is spent on false starts: writing candidate lines, striking them out, moving them around, varying words, experimenting with images, and so forth. The real trick here is to be both patient and alert, like a cat watching a mouse hole --- so that when a fortuitous combination starts to crystallize it isn't allowed to dissolve away again.

Let felicity dictate form. When a lucky phrase appears, I try to take the design it implies and grow it. If a chunk of words suggests a particular meter or rhyme scheme, can that shape be spread? Can nearby lines be rewritten to propagate the pattern further? Or can the template be varied in a progressive and attractive way? Here seems to be where some of the best results emerge, and on particularly golden occasions there's a flash-bang that makes the whole structure come together. On the other hand, when a pattern fails to thrive it's vital to set it aside and experiment with other things; perhaps it can be used another time, in a different context.

When is a poem finished? I don't know --- but after a while the sequence of drafts reaches a point of diminishing returns, at which stage it's time to say "Enough!" to the work and freeze it, publish it, and move on to something else. One can always come back for version 2.0 later.

There are other poetizing principles percolating around in my brain, but I haven't yet had enough experience to sort out the Good from the Bad among them. Or should I pun, in a pseudo-Teutonic accent, and say that I can't yet tell the Better from the Verse?!

(see also comments by Robert Pinsky (RulesVersusPrinciples, 23 June 1999), Kenneth Koch (LyingVerses, 15 March 2001), and Judson Jerome (IambicHonesty1, 23 Apr2001; IambicHonesty2, 27 Apr 2001; IambicHonesty3, 6 May 2001) ...)

TopicPoetry - TopicWriting - 2002-02-23

(correlates: BillBurke, LatentJoy, GoodFortune, ...)