Dirty Work

Writing a poem can be dirty work. I’m not talking about the gifts, those poems that sing their way into consciousness, every word slipping gracefully into place. I’m not talking either about poems that commute to destinations well marked but colourless.

What I do mean are the poems pulled from musty darkness. Like a tuber buried in earth, on the page a poem hides beneath the words, pushing to emerge. This poem is three-dimensional. It has a definite shape and texture, even a scent. It is uncovered a word at a time, finished only when fully pulled free.

These poems the pen must dig for, dumbly sensing that something (what?) beneath the surface presses to speak. And when first yanked out, what a mess they appear: images muddied, rhythm tangled, lines full of clumps and hairs.

Rhythm guides us from there. Every lump and bump in sound tells that a line isn’t right; the idea needs to be smoothed. Try a different number of stresses (yes, even in “free” verse). Pull like vowels and consonants into intentional harmony, or scatter them in discord. Break lines to gradually widen and build a crescendo, or to chatter in staccato, or to gradually narrow as a diminuendo.

Over and over, arrange, rearrange, listen, and look. Beneath the words such meanings intertwine—what literary critics love to name and probe. As poets, we need to discover these too: the first shoots of what the poem wants to grow into. For instance, “the rain tumbled” can lead to children falling over themselves, or to agile acrobats (“tumblers”), or even to the complete stillness of a glass (“tumbler”) on a table. Each image sends out buried runners that sprout in other parts of the poem, a hidden network of life. The poet is a gardener, drawing each image into the light, and defining the garden by what stays beside what, or is weeded out.