Happy Friday, Reader. Did you know that in some species of insects and arachnids the females eat the males after or during the act of procreation? I have been thinking about this lately, not because I’m eyeing my spouse thinking ‘snack.’ No. Rather, because I’ve been cannibalizing old poems. Let me tell you a little bit about…
being the cannibal The Manuscript That Will Never Say Die, Or For That Matter, ‘Done’ (as I fondly refer to my manuscript) has been sniffing around my desk asking to be fed and watered. Dear Manuscript, I sometimes feel like saying, I have nothing more to give. Except that I’ve learned again and again when I feel that way it’s time to go back.
By this I mean go back to old poems, old not-quite-poems, and old just-writing-in-my-notebook-not-even-close-to-poems. Because, guess what: the different, fresher, stronger, more resonant images that you think you need for what you’re working on today might be there.
In other words, let your poems be cannibals. Let them go back and eat the pinky finger of the poem you’ve decided is just not crucial enough to work on anymore, but whose seventh line you know is really strong.
And also, friendly reminder: All the poems in the ‘I Abandon’ file? Those, as you page through them, will tell you the story of how you got to the poem you are writing this week. Oh yes, the poem I finally wrote that stuck has twenty-seven failed poem attempts behind it. Nothing is wasted.
Which is not to say you never have to push through to new lines, images, metaphors, etc. It’s just to say: don’t forget what you already have. And, to repeat: Nothing is wasted.
(I can never think of the phrase “to repeat” without thinking of this scene in When Harry Met Sally).
sensory detail and the brain (and also the heart) So, I’ve been memorizing a new poem this week (the poem’s not new; the me memorizing it is). It’s Jack Gilbert’s “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” and if you glance at it you’ll see that it starts out making an argument, and then moves into a meditation on language. An image-heavy meditation on language. A full-of-sensory detail meditation on language.
And I’ve noticed an interesting thing about memorizing the poem. Usually I go in line order to memorize. But this time, I’ve learned the last half of the poem first — not for want of trying to memorize the lines in order… it’s just that the latter half of the poem has stuck with me in a way that the first half has not (yet).
Which made me think of a Poets&Writers article I read last summer, “The Heart and the Eye” (sorry, not available online). In it, J.T. Bushnell explains the neuroscience behind the power of sensory detail:
“When we read about an odor (or image or sensation), it engages the exact same part of the brain as actually smelling it (or seeing it or touching it), and those parts of the brain reside in the lower region, alongside our emotional centers.”
This, Bushnell says, is why writing full of images, smells, and other sensations “can take such precise aim at the heart.”
This (I think) is why I’m having a hard time remembering the more rhetorical lines of Gilbert’s poem, but also why when my husband sends a text that he’s at the airport in Singapore getting on a flight to come home, the following line from the poem comes out of my mouth before I realize it, “My joy is the same as twelve / Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.”
And it’s why when the air cools and the ginko trees begin their slow walk from green to gold I can cry out (to the embarrassment of my children), “O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper”!
Note to self.
the title for this post has too many words in it What can I say, I’m tired. But I’ve been thinking about titles and what they can do for a poem (or how they can sabotage a poem) — pithy titles, mysterious titles, unique titles, boring titles, luxuriant titles, and especially the title of a Jane Hirshfield poem, which is “For the Lobaria, Usnea, Witches Hair, Map Lichen, Beard Lichen, Ground Lichen, Shield Lichen.”
This poem is in her collection Come, Thief. Both in the table of contents and in the magazine it was first published in, it was titled “For the Lichens.” Space constraints, I’m sure.
But I’m so in love with its long, luxuriant title, which adorns the page above the poem in the book. Say it out loud! It’s amazing! And I like the poem, too — the way it’s a celebration of lichens but also of language and of survival. And, beyond that, of plain old keeping at it.
Here it is in The Atlantic.
May you have a luxuriant weekend. May you always keep at it, whatever ‘it’ is.