Mini-Essay:

 

 

 

The Anatomy of a Poem

I thought I would walk you through my process of writing a poem. Though each poem carves its own way, they all have some similarities in the revision process, and—as I often quote (though I thought for years it was Ciardi who said it but found out last year from a a friend that it was Ciardi channeling Valery) “A poem is never finished, it’s abandoned.”

Well, I haven’t abandoned this one. . .yet.

This particular poem began with a picture posted on Terri Windling’s blog Myth and Moor. The picture is of a gnarled old tree in Devon, think Arthur Rackham, think every spooky, twisted Ent you have ever envisioned.

And these lines came to me:

 

The tree is the mystery,

its roots knotted

as surely as love.

 

I thought I was going to write a whole poem about that tree. The next three lines–about the leaves hanging heavily and some awful metaphor about fruits of ardor or some such–were so quickly erased, I have only a vague memory of how bad they were.

Then the poem took off in its own direction. They do that, you know.

 

The same blog entry featured Terri’s dog, a lovely and friendly female black lab mix named Tilly, which is why (I think) the poem ends the way it does.

As soon as I gave it a title, the rest came out in a rush.

At first I wrote the whole thing without any stanza breaks, possibly because the time I would have had to take making the spaces was possibly the sinkhole that would eat the poem before I got it down paper. When I am writing in a white hot heat, I rarely remember much of what I have just written. And whole it always needs careful pruning after, there is usually some good stuff I’d hate to lose.

And then I let it sit for several hours.

Some poems sit half-baked for days, weeks, months. Some are done and dusted in the first rush of poetics. Some never get out of the starting gate. If this essay were a poem and not a journal entry, I would never let this many unattached metaphors live in the same place. But I digress.

In the next round, I began to break the lines apart. Why? Because with that many discrete metaphors, each needed breathing space. Separating them helped emphasize them individually.

It’s easy enough to skip lines when reading prose. When reading poetry, skipping can be easier. The lines are shorter, faster to race across. Dense poetry without line breaks positively invites skipping. But a poet doesn’t break lines without good reason. My reason was that I was offering a tasting menu to my readers, andI needed to encourage them to get to the final, longer, key stanza, the one that tells the reader what the entire poem has been about. The shorter early pieces are discrete, pretty, but we are heading for the punchline, the pinchline, the one that wakens you into the actual dream.

And so I got this:

 

The Mystery

The tree is the mystery,
its roots knotted
as surely as love.

 

The spring flowers are the mystery,
without calendar or clock
they announce the season.

 

The rill is the mystery,
holding trout in its deepest,
darkest heart.

 

The fern is the mystery,
knowing how to uncurl
with no teacher but the sun.

 

The path is a mystery,
worn down by many feet
yet still willing to support them.

 

The gate is no mystery at all
for we have put it there
to signal that house is near,
though dog has but to lift his snout
to know we are already home.

 

 

I posted it on Terri’s blog. Then I let it sit again until it was time.

Time?

It was time to read it aloud again, not once but several times through, testing each small stanza with a combination of logic (Is the true to the nature I am describing? Is it leading me in the direction I want to go? Is it the way the poem wants to go? Are those two roads compatible? Can I cut any words out? )

Eventually I got here:

 

The Mystery

 

The tree is the mystery,

its roots knotted

as surely as love.

 

The spring flowers are the mystery,

without calendar or clock

they announce the season.

 

The pond is the mystery,

holding trout in its deepest,

darkest heart.

 

The fern is the mystery,

knowing how to uncurl

with no teacher but the sun.

 

The path is the mystery,

worn down by many feet

yet still willing to support them.

 

The gate. . .

                  the gate is no mystery at all

for we have put it there

to signal that house is near,

 

though dog has but to lift his snout

to know we are already home.

 

All poems ©2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

 

Let me tell you about the changes and why. Or at least as much of the why as I know. The rest is the true Mystery. And I would have to kill you if I told you! (Actually, a lot about writing a poem is a mystery to the poet as well.)

As you can see, much stayed the same, though I changed the mystery to a mystery over and over again, re-reading it both ways in silence and aloud until I was sure I wanted it to be the. It needed to be particular, not general, a singularity not one of many mysteries.

I decided while rill is a prettier word, and a bit old-fashioned which suits the idea of the poem’s numinous reach, trout really don’t hide in rills which are the fast-running part of a river, but in the hidden places of pools and ponds. And I am still actually wrestling with whether to use pool or pond. Pool/holding have a nice slanting rhyme thing working for them but pond is bigger in meaning. And I am also not sure about deepest, darkest which may be too over-used and too childlike (I am a children’s book writer after all!) for what I am doing here.

And as you can see, I changed the form of the final lines to signal how different they are from what came before. Perhaps I’ve done too much breaking apart, and I’m still wrestling with that as well. But you may find this last interesting or amusing, or both at once: I originally ended that section with the dog lifting his nose, not his snout. Eventually, I decided that nose was too refined and too human-like and I wanted him to be all animal, sniffing out the meaning of home faster than we humans who—after all—have to set a gate there to remind ourselves that we have come home.

This second version (though it is possibly about an eighth version) is the one I sent out to my daily poetry subscribers. Still, it’s clear to me I’m not yet done with this poem. But I haven’t abandoned it.

 

 

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