Joan Colby, “Catching a Poem”
A poem can be compared to a firefly—a sudden flash at twilight, that an observant onlooker might catch and examine before allowing it to once more drift freely over the nightscape, signaling. My point is this: poems are illusive. The idea for one, or a particular image or phrase, can flash into your consciousness and be gone as swiftly, unless you are prepared to capture it.
That preparation involves attention. Where do you get your ideas? people ask. They swarm like a sky full of gnats, but you have to be alert; ready to seize them. These moments of inspiration are apt to occur in unpromising circumstances: at a meeting, in a restaurant, worse yet, while driving.
Thus, tools are essential—always have a small notebook and pen accessible. How many ideas have first emerged on a cocktail napkin? Or have been jotted on a receipt? Writing while driving is not recommended—though in the interest of full disclosure, I confess to having quickly scribbled a line while steering. However, it is better to pull over to a safe parking spot. Consider a recording device.
The idea is to nail the gist of the poem so you can proceed to the next step: examination. To return to the firefly analogy, look closely at the idea—or image or phrase—how is it structured, its color, its locomotion? Precision impels a poem, whereas generality impedes it.
The next step is one of the most difficult. It involves the ability to know whether the poem has arrived intact, wearing its hat and coat, carrying its attaché case, or whether (like most) it will need work—whip stitching buttonholes, hemming cuffs, setting the hat at a jaunty angle. Making that distinction isn’t easy. You can’t automatically “trust your gut” as the same exaltation can arise from a lousy poem as from a good one. The commonly given advice is to put it on ice for a bit to chill your emotional attachment. You may ultimately conclude that the poem is a “given”, one that works so effectively and seamlessly that any alterations will ruin it—the hem droops, the hat falls off. In case, you decide to fool with it regardless, always keep your original version.
I recommend, in fact, that every version throughout the revision process be retained. Those you discard, may contain a phrase or image that you can later hi-jack for another poem. As for revision, it works in various ways. I revise while composing so my initial draft is replete with cross-outs, additions, insertions, and re-orderings. Others might write the entire poem and then begin alterations. First, look at the words. There are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes, you want a specific term, sometimes the poem need a universal one. Let the poem tell you, if it will—poems usually like to dictate. Listen to the poem as well.
As I write, my poems express a certain meter, they like to bury rhyme and off-rhyme, they want to make decisions about line-breaks. Listening to the voice of your poem can embellish your result. Use words that the poem demands. I don’t believe in simplifying language just to make the poem “accessible”, any more than I believe in combing a thesaurus to find obscurant words that imply “profundity.” Verbs are the engines of the poem. Strong, memorable verbs advance a poem’s intensity.
These remarks have to do with the mechanics of writing a poem. The subjects of poems are as myriad as insects. I will add one caution: a poem involves artifice—it need not be truthful, nor moral, nor made in any particular form, though it can, of course, be all of these.
Globe of Earth
Even then that globe was outdated.
Bohemia, Persia, Rhodesia, Siam.
I loved their colored splotches.
The jagged sections as if crayoned by
A child like me, still unsteady,
Intent on staying within the lines.
Even then, Germany had begun to plant its
Crooked crosses over the Slavic plains.
The sky over the Pacific would grow thick
With Kamikazi aircraft.
Soon, Africa would resume its tribal names
As the colonial prefixes ran off
Like wildebeests when the lions came.
The globe on the axis
Of my childhood was wrong.
History can be distorted.
You couldn’t trust what you saw,
You could only admire a varnished world
Suspended in a maple stand
Before a row of venetian blinds
That scissored sunlight into patterns
On the carpet. A child tracing the glamour
Of adventure: Shanghai, Timbuktu, Bombay,
Could, with just a finger’s touch
Set it spinning.
From space, the globe is a blue sphere
Without borders. Nothing but land, water
And the plenteous air secured with gravity.
Joan Colby worked for the Illinois Arts Council for years as a writer in the Writers in the Schools program as well as teaching creative writing at various community colleges. Her background is journalism and she is a believer in cross-disciplinary writing. Currently, she is an associate editor of Kentucky Review and FutureCycle Press.