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PUZZLE

At the suggestion of a friend, I gave my students a Seamus Heaney poem, “A Personal Helicon,” cut up into a puzzle of words, running the gamut from eight “a’s” to one “you” and “your” apiece. Put together as Heaney had it, the poem told the story of a dry well discovered in childhood, ending with a dark metaphor that came equipped with a shiver. It’s such a clear, masterfully detailed poem that I didn’t have a clue how my students could make something new of it.

THE BEST WORDS

Sometimes I’m haunted by Coleridge’s nifty definition of a poem as the best words in their best order. If I try to say it quickly several times in a row, “order” starts to sound like “odour.” Sniff, sniff, this particular word stinks to high heavens, but that one smells like a rose after rain. A bit of fun, though the word “best” can become bothersome, the knowledge that somewhere out there looms the one and only word that will do. After awhile, you start not to trust language. “Seep” is a good word, for example, but isn’t “leach” even better. And what about “ooze?” Nothing is ever quite good enough. The possibility of a higher rung keeps me searching until I realize that I can’t get past the first word.

IDEAS

I keep a list of things I think I want to write about. Back when the list was a more manageable size, I’d tackle my ideas at enough of a distance for me to have processed the simple stuff, the details, and to be ready to make new discoveries. But as ideas are known to do, they began to multiply. It could be years before I actually get to an idea. Writing a poem about Lou Reed’s death, for example, might have to wait so long that, for a moment, I’m liable to forget, not Lou Reed, of course, but the connection to him that I’d wanted to explore when I first wrote down the idea.

Oh, Suspense!

In some literary circles, "suspense" is a bad word. Some feel that rich language and interesting characters should be enough to engage a reader's attention, and those who need a little pep in their fiction are lowbrow types. While it’s all lovely to enjoy the poetry of the words and observe interesting characters, you are not serving your reader if you don’t offer at lest a nominal amount of suspense.
 
At its simplest, suspense is built when a character wants something, but a forces or circumstances impede his ability to achieve it. Will he or won't he succeed?

POET FOR HIRE

I heard a few days ago that a colleague did a major job of editing that took the better part of a year to complete for a mere five-hundred dollars. I happen to mention this to a friend who works as a mechanic for the Board of Education and he was flabbergasted. How can anyone be so undervalued? Five-hundred dollars doesn’t even cover half of an average annual house insurance bill. “She must be crazy,” he diagnoses. I don’t dare tell him of the major judging job I took on last year for no money at all, although I got to keep the books.

REVISION

It’s a risky thing to put a poem out of sight in order to let it germinate or steep, whatever the science of hope might call the process. Some poems only turn up posthumously and are declared masterpieces or strange mistakes. But I don’t really care about the pages that might outlive me. What really bugs me is how a poem can go from promising, even a touch prideful, to absolutely terrible by just sitting in a drawer. Something bizarrely chemical seems to be going on: metaphors staling with every passing minute, leaps of language collapsing, profound thoughts found out to be merely painted on with a coat of fool’s gold.

PERFECTION

I’ve been running a writing workshop all winter and, once again, marveling at the courage that it takes to tackle the tricks and complexities of the English language. The writers are exposing themselves to the possibility of failure week after week, hefting the weight of expectation and the discipline to persevere. “Perfect” is a Calvinist hairball of a word and has created nothing but self-doubt and misery. Perfection is overrated.

MADNESS

Catching up on the frippery of “Downton Abbey,” I enjoyed Maggie Smith’s trenchant Dowager Countess of Grantham listening to her son wax a mite lyrically about land and history and then exclaiming that the last thing her family needed was a poet. Apparently, poets are contentious, indiscrete and unpredictable. “One needs look no further than Lord Byron,” she continued. “Need I say more.”

In Nicole Hofcener’s hit film, “Enough Said,” Catherine Keener plays a rather swishy character who Julia Louis-Dreyfus snorts at when she answers the question “What do you do?” with the statement, “I’m a poet.”

TOUCH OF CLASS

The other day, I agreed to read one of my own poems at a sixtieth wedding anniversary. There were fewer trees on the main street of the small town just north of Toronto than the last time I’d been there, reminding me of the ice storm we had back in December. Immediately, I wanted to stop the car and write some notes about the presence of such absence, how my own trees, further north where the damage was less, had glittered for days, making the street look luxurious when the sun came out. What I was doing was stalling. I was already ten minutes late. Despite the fact that the married couple were relatives of mine, I still felt like a hired entertainer.

COMPRESSION

In Stephanie Bolster’s “A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth,” the writing is acutely compressed, each word standing in for what in another poet’s hands might take pages. There’s no room for sentimentality. These poems have been tightened like the lug nuts on a racecar.

Why is this so exciting for me? I grew up on the Bible’s repetitiousness, the “begats” flying. I gravitated towards poets like D.H. Lawrence, Purdy and Ginsberg who threw so many words on the bonfire that sparks flew everywhere.

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