Poem genesis

So how does a poem get started? And how does it get polished and revised if not perfected?

There’s a lot to be said for raw energy. I know poets who put out daily (one of them calls his output, which he puts out on his iPhone, his “daily drivel”; another pours out slam poetry, which slams against the brain, I would say, the way pop music does).

In my case, there’s an impulse, an idea or image or story. It’s raw stuff, yes, what Henry James called, in the case of fiction, the “germ” of the story. But whether I have a narrative or not, I generally start with a germ. Here’s the latest example I can offer. The other day, pruning a Chinese golden raintree in my garden, I noticed how many spindly, flailing arms the tree had. And wondered, not logically but magically, but metaphorically, what would people be like if they had that many arms to wave or employ in god knows what endeavors?

Li Bai Strolling, by Liang Kai (1140–1210)
Li Bai Strolling, by Liang Kai (1140–1210).

Nothing happened with this germ until this morning, when I connected the idea of the Chinese tree with the Chinese poet Li Bai, about whom I’ve been reading a bit. Not that I know much about Li Bai, except he was one of the most famous Chinese poets, from the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century CE, and was translated by Ezra Pound, among others, and I had studied Pound a bit in graduate school at UT-Austin and used one of his translations of Li Bai (or Li Po) in my wedding ceremony, “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” which ends plaintively like this:

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Chō-fū-Sa.

So, knowing I could do worse than invoking Li Bai, I wrote this (which reflects quite a few little changes and is not, I’m sure, yet finished):

The Tree

The Chinese raintree at the garden pond
flings out its weepy arms as if it were
a woman, say the river merchant’s wife,
imploring the return of her long gone man.
Seventy summers and winters having come
and gone, I might like to do the same, grow
how many sets of arms, my hair down to
the ground, flailing and beseeching the return
of the things I’ve lost or never had. Where
was I? Ah, yes. Until that day, if and when
it comes, I could do worse than remember
the days when I was young and held her
in my arms, the days I would read Li Bai
and think of coming out to meet her
as far as Chō-fū-Sa.

There’s something missing here, I fear. What, for example, are “the things I’ve lost or never had”? Enigmatic, yes? What do you think? We’ve all had them.

At any rate, you can see here something of the process of generating the idea for a poem and then a pretty good if not complete draft of the poem itself. The lessons, if any, for poets in general, or readers for that matter? One, be alert to the clues that life flings your way, whether in the flailing branches of a tree, or your reading, or your memory of events from long ago. Two, be aware as you struggle with writing or reading a poem that the big majority of them come out not full blown or grown, the way the genius Mozart might have produced his musical works or freaks, but half born, sometimes even apparently stillborn; that the form you see, that is, is the result of lots of formal work, playing with the sound and shape and layout of words, to give the impression that the poem emerged full blown from the poet’s brain, like Aphrodite from Zeus’s head.

Author: Greg Zeck

Greg Zeck taught college English in Michigan, Iowa, and Minnesota. He also had a career in freelance business writing and communications. He's retired now in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with his wife Jennifer, where he continues to read, write, bike, hike, and garden.

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