Where Does Poetry Come From?

by Michael Simms

Let’s talk about where poetry comes from… or at least where one poem came from. I offer one of my own, not because it is an example of a great poem (it isn’t), but because I know the situation out of which it arose.

For a period of time a few summers ago, I kept a notebook in which I wrote everyday. Usually I did free-writing: scribbling down whatever came to mind as quickly as I could. During these sessions, which usually lasted only fifteen minutes or so a day, I didn’t bother to think about punctuation or line-endings or poetic form; however the words came out was the form of the piece and I usually didn’t revise. On June 18, I wrote a piece which I knew was not a poem, but which had an interesting tone and rhythm. I especially liked the last three lines:

darkness descends
and the birds become invisible on their branches
their nests like the thoughts of old
                               mathematicians
.

The next evening, my wife, who is a psychologist, and I were talking about writing because she had been asked to contribute a chapter in a textbook of Jungian studies. I mentioned to her that I had been free-writing everyday for several weeks. She said, or at least I thought she said, “Yes, you have to write everyday, because you never know where a poem is sleeping.” The statement made a deep impression on me. I sat on the couch, stunned by the enormity of the metaphor. After a few minutes, I went upstairs to my study. After half an hour or so, I had this draft:

You have to write everyday
because you never know where a poem sleeps

It might be coiled around a branch
high in the air
a snake dozing in the speckled shade

It might be catching a few zees
in the attic

Aunt Zelda loved

or dozing in the picture of your grandfather
in his Sunday best
framed and ready to go
through generations of dust

It might be dreaming
in a story you loved
when you were a mouse
in a wall much larger than now

A poem is a box in a box
in a cloud a boy watches
thinking of sleep
and the one time he went fishing with his dad

But you have to let it happen. You have to listen real hard
The poem can survive if it knows
you’re looking for it
under the stones of the river
in the high ears of the corn field

I needed a strong conclusion, but I was stuck. I didn’t know where to go from the words “corn field.” Then I remembered the free-writing I had done the previous evening. When I wrote the last three lines at the bottom of the new poem, they fit.

I knew I had a poem, but it seemed rough. There were some things I didn’t like, such as the business of Aunt Zelda and the picture of the grandfather. Those characters seemed cliched and inauthentic. (On a factual level, the characters are inauthentic: I don’t even have an Aunt Zelda.) Also, some of the rhythms, line-endings, and shifts of perspective seemed awkward. So I went over the poem, reading it aloud to myself hundreds of times, recopying it dozens of times, each time changing a detail, sharpening an image, smoothing the rhythm, letting the poem emerge from the scribbles of my initial draft. After a few days, I had a finished draft:

Where The Poem Sleeps

You have to write every day
because you never know where a poem sleeps

It might be coiled around a branch
high in the air
dozing in the speckled shade

It might be dreaming in a story you loved
when you were a mouse
in a wall much larger than now

You may find a poem in a cloud
a boy watches, thinking
of the one time he went fishing with a bear

But you have to let it happen
you have to listen real hard

The poem can survive a night
in the woods alone, curled up
under an elm tree
after a day of looking for you

It can even be happy as a stone in the river
if it knows you are waiting for it to come home

And you are waiting
as darkness descends
and the birds become invisible
on the branches
                               their nests
like the thoughts of drowsy mathematicians

Shortly after the poem was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the poet Maurice Kilwein Guevara, whom I had never met before, contacted me and said that he read the poem on his mother’s refrigerator. She’d saved the poem because it reminded her of her native Columbia.

_________

ShareShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+