Thursday, August 23, 2007

Work in Progress #2

This is the second in a series of posts about the process of writing a particular poem. If you need to catch up and the first post has slipped off the bottom of the page, you can find it here.

I was really happily surprised by the response to the first post which seemed to touch a nerve with a number of people, so I’m encouraged to keep going. Some people seemed rather touchingly worried that this was really ’exposing’ myself a little too much - perhaps worried by the quality of the poem so far - so I should be perfectly clear; what you are seeing here is, to continue the painting analogy I used in the earlier post, like the rough sketches in a sketchbook before beginning to paint a full-sized work. A great number of those, obviously are poor, rough little things which are sooner or later in the process either completely discarded or re-worked until the ideas are sharp and the direction clear. So fret ye not, I am not about to publish such scribblings as a completed poem.


There were two point which I felt very strongly about the lines so far written and which I didn’t put down at the end of the post. Both of them were picked up very strongly by one of my email correspondents and he said both of them far more articulately than I could:

**The imagery of the lightning-struck tree seems promising, and clearly points the way to jagged growths suggesting antlers. However, for some reason the metaphor to me appears too mature. (I immediately think of ancient trees, gnarled, decaying and stricken by lightning) …
…if the metaphor suggests, as I think it presently does, something huge and ancient, then there's the possibility of a disjunction in the imaginative leap of the reader when applying it to the transforming boy…

…I loved the brief description of the your own experience, and I feel that a gritty, urban tone (I know you described it as being suburban, but you get my drift) is presently missing from the poem, which quite quickly becomes steeped in 'woodland' descriptives…

…The excitement of the 'real' story whereby a boy sneaked from a house by night on illicit business, had a frisson for me which is presently missing from the beginning of the poem.**

(with apologies to the author of those notes for editing them to make them seem far less kind and constructive than they actually were.)

Feeling both these things, and thinking the second point was the one most in need of addressing immediately. I turned a page in the ‘sketchbook’ and started from what I felt was the beginning of my own part of the story: the boy lying in bed in a slightly grim feeling suburban bedroom.

He lies under a half-peeled skin
of white sheet in strange damp folds
sweating into a spilled puddle
yellow from the near streetlamp.

Clearly this is dreadful and re-written into the stronger form of 8/7/8/7 metre which I was using it became:

A half-peeled skin, a white sheet, wraps
him in damp-feathered folds
sweating into the yellow spill
of streelight through the window.

What I find most interesting about this part of the process, that I hadn’t fully appreciated until writing it down here, is the roll played by continued rewriting, not just making changes to words but fitting a kind of long, rambling smear of words reflecting an image, into various different ‘forms’. The fact that this slight re-write above was a little better than the first spew of words meant that I carried on a little…

This is that uncomfortable time
of sweat in the yellow spill
of neon through the black window,
his own stink on his fingers,
his joints cracked, his headache pushing
through the points of his forehead.

…and then wrote all these little snippets of a few lines each out again, with the indentation that I was intending to use and which I can’t display on Blogger!

A half-peeled skin, a white sheet, wraps
the boy in damp-feathered folds.
This is that uncomfortable time
of sweat in the yellow spill
of neon through the black window,
his own stink on his fingers,
his joints cracked, his headache pushing
through the points of his forehead.

Every time I write it out again - and this is a part of the process which only works when writing with a pen on paper and not onto a screen - small changes crop up. The almost subconscious substitution of ‘the boy’ for ‘him’ in this little rewrite, although a tiny change, made quite an impact to the tone of voice in the poem.

Looking over this I felt that it was the correct place to begin the poem but that it was deeply unsatisfactory and, not being entirely sure why, I became very frustrated and stopped writing for a number of days…

…some time later…

The only conclusion I had come to about why the poem was unsatisfactory so far was that it lacked a sense of authority in the voice - which, given my vagueness about what poem I am trying to write was hardly surprising. Also, I had the strong feeling that one remedy to this might be to increase the sense of ‘telling a story’, of talking more directly to the reader, so I decided to simply write, whatever came, based on the scene described in the stanza above, and to have no regard for line breaks or any particular form. And this is what poured out:

Imagine this, imagine the half-peeled
skin of sheet wrapping him till
his thin chest can barely rise,
and the sweat, his own stink
on his fingers and the yellow spill
of neon through the black window.
Imagine the crack of his joints
his headache pushing through
the points of his forehead.

(is is possible I wonder that writing in pencil rather than pen can have a dramatic effect. This came very fast and rough and there was a kind of physicality about the writing of it which would have ripped the page had I been using a pen.)

I liked this enough to want to shape it a little and see what it looked like. The 8/7/8/7 form I’d been using didn’t seem right. The poems I know (and others I’ve written in that form) have all had a slightly delicate tone to them which isn’t what it represented here. So I went through and made arbitrary breaks every 10 syllables:

Imagine this, imagine the half-peeled
Skin of sheet wrapping him till his thin chest
Can barely rise, and the sweat, his own stink
On his fingers and the yellow spill of
Neon through the black window. Imagine
The crack of his joints, his headache pushing
The points of his forehead in this sleeping house.
Imagine the scream building in his head.

I went back and made small changes to this. ‘his own stink’ became, ‘the sweat stink’ because I felt the repetition of ‘sweat’ in that line enhanced the slightly breathless feel of the stanza. ‘the cracking of joints’ rather than ‘the crack of his joints’ to eliminate one of the too-many ‘his’. I moved building to the end of the last line because it seemed to scan better, seemed less like ordinary conversational speech and because it gives a weight to the word ‘building’ which hopefully emphasises the ‘building’ of the tension in the poem as well as of his scream.

At this point I started running-on into the next stanza but I’m going to skip the construction of that stanza to a point because the process was pretty much the same except I knew from the start that I was going to look towards a 10 syllable line. After a little jigging, I had this of the second stanza:

Into the acrid streets of midnight, pale
As smoke, through gardens, gates and garages.
The fox in his wake jerks quick a black nose
Into the oily scent of puberty.
Still the scream is knuckle-bitten silent.

And whilst I was writing this I was still thinking about what form this needed. So I went back to the first stanza and wrote it in a loose, disjointed form (with the small changes that come with every rewriting) . Getting the look and visual flow aligned with the textual flow and tone of the poem to enhance each other in this kind of form is always difficult. Of course, dear Blogger won’t let me do this on the screen so for those of you who are still with me, it is posted as a *.pdf file here.

The intention, with a more finished second stanza would be to see if that too benefits from being broken and if so, to carry on as long as the poem will take it in that way.

So we have one and half stanzas of potential, plus some of the material from the original post to be re-sketched. We have a possible form. And at this point I began to feel I wanted another stanza in between these in this post: something which tells us a little more about where he is coming from at the beginning of the poem so that’s what I’m working on next.

No comments:

Who links to my website?