I apologize for the delayed response. Busy week last week. A memorial service at the end of it for my uncle who had passed away from complications due to Alzheimer's. Then about an hour after we got back to the valley mandatory evacuations were placed on towns immediately to the south of us because of erosion threatening the emergency spillway of the Oroville Dam. We were not in immediate danger, but close enough (the Oroville Dam is only about 30 minutes south of where we live) that news of impending disaster was more diverting than usual.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about what you wrote in and around the other kind of thinking that you do when death complicates already complicated relationships. And there is a connection for me here, but in order to get there I have to start with what is for me the foundation of everything by answering your comment: “[Composite] is concerned with identity in terms of its mythic, elemental, and spatial associations.”
Yes and yes and yes. Except for me I would simply say: Identity in a poem is myth. The reason I would eliminate the other two words from the description is because element (read: object) and space between object and individual (read: geography) are the two necessary components of myth. I’m kind of shooting from the hip here. I don’t have anything to back me up on this except intuition and observation.
But instead of trying to justify my claim, I’m going to press ahead with this and try to relate it to what we have been talking about in terms of revision. I think the question that we have been asking (directly or indirectly) is: what am I revising toward? Or, what is my end game and how do I define that without sucking the life out of the poem by overwhelming it with technicalities on the one hand, or not giving the poem all the life it could have by using artistic voodoo as an excuse for lazy writing on the other?
For me the end game is myth.
For example, my uncle died back in November, the day after Thanksgiving. Very soon after hearing the news I grabbed my camera and went for a walk. We were at my in-laws who live right next to Mount Diablo Park and going out and taking pictures in the park seemed the only appropriate response to what had happened. My uncle was a gifted photographer who had a spiritual kind of connection with nature.
And so my initial motive to go for a walk in the park was to be alone and ponder, not necessarily to write a poem. Although having said that I must acknowledge that part of me is always looking for a poem. It’s what makes writers such lovely friends, that ghoulish character who peers out from a dark room waiting for someone to trip or do something horrific or embarrassing just to be able to get the details of what it is really like cause, who knows, it may come in handy one day.
Anyway, when I got back, I decided that I needed to write a poem about my uncle and, for reasons obscure even to me, I decided it had to be a sonnet. I think I scrawled out three or four drafts before I realized that the reason why the words kept circling tighter and tighter until they imploded was because the poem was never meant to be a sonnet. I gave the poem up for lost.
After a few days I realized there was still something there that needed to be excavated so I put pen to paper and decided that the best way to find it was to feel my way through it like I would any other image that I felt needed to be worked into a poem.
So here’s why I bring this up (and I’m thinking here of what you wrote about your experience writing the “Blackberry” poem). Primarily two things kill a poem that I am trying to write: expectation and emotion.
If I bring to a poem the belief that it should be a certain way, I often fail at it. Right away I need to draw a distinction between this and being told to write a poem in a certain form. In the case of the latter (as for a prompt, for example) I find the material comes to the form once I understand the form well enough to feel where the edges are, if you know what I mean — to see what fits.
But in the case of the former, I’m speaking of taking preexisting material that should be developed on its own terms and trying to make it fit into a form that may very well be alien to it. This usually happens when I don’t fully comprehend what the material is. In the case of “Paths” (the poem I eventually wrote out of all this), nothing could have been more misguided than to try to write a poetic argument about a relationship that ended without conclusion or perspective. I’m not saying another poet couldn’t take the same material and write a sonnet about it. I’m just saying I couldn’t.
It’s like you said, “Why it took nearly a dozen revisions to simply write the damned question down, I don’t know.” I don’t know why I brought the expectation to that poem, it seems so silly now, but whatever the reason it nearly killed it. I had to get some distance before I could approach it like I would any other poem, which is to say, calmly.
And that brings me to the other thing that usually kills a poem for me: emotion. If I’m writing in the throes of some emotion or other, the poem is doomed. Sometimes when this happens I don’t even dredge it for salvage. I just toss it aside and go on to something else.
For me, there is something about emotional immediacy that is blinding. If I try to make emotional immediacy work, I usually end up trying to explain myself. As a result the language follows this down hill into abstraction.
When I returned to write “Paths” again I knew I had to drop expectation and I knew I had to steer clear of the emotional landmines laid out in the material (and there were many). So then what was left? The individual’s relationship to object and the space between them: myth. The myth of me, the myth of my uncle, the myth of Mount Diablo Park.
I found myself combining imagery from the walk I took and from various memories. I found I was thinking about that particular quality of light that photographers (of which I am barely one) refer to as the golden hour. Evening. I was drawn to shadow and light in such a time when there is no direct source of light visible. I was drawn to these things in memory because they were present during my walk in the park. So I just worked with what was around me, my relationship to object (trees and my uncle) and geography (Mount Diablo Park and San Francisco in memory).
I received an unexpected validation of this approach at my uncle’s memorial service. One of his friends, speaking of his philosophy of photography said that my uncle did not shoot subjects, he shot shadow and light. The cloistered ghoul nodded his head with approval. I had got it right.
I read a couple of pieces from you recently that illustrate for me how myth takes over in poetry and how it leaves in prose. The poem I’m thinking of is the one involving the speaker’s father and crows, and the prose piece involves the speaker (who I guess in this case is you) sitting in a class room worrying about whether or not the light will go off and he’ll be discovered sitting there in the dark (I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten the titles).
I loved both these pieces, and I was really struck by the emotional honesty of the prose piece. It seemed to me at the time that you were writing about relational things deep in the minutia of marriage.
I felt more comfortable with the poem than I did with the prose piece. I felt the kind of queasiness I get when I’m saying something from the heart, something I haven’t had time to mentally edit, something I might hear later in memory and regret.
This caused me to wonder about my own writing and particularly about certain poems I have not put out there because they cut a bit too close to the bone. There is certainly a different approach to subject matter than the mythic, and one approach is not more valid than the other. But I wondered for myself to what extent my rejection of emotional immediacy uses myth (as I’ve defined it above) as a mask or a shield.
I’m curious. Why did you decide to approach the one piece as a prose piece, and the other as a poem?