The old poet who thinks he is young remembers the young poet who used to be wise.
Though I had my suspicions last fall and tried to hope it along this spring, the venerable holly tree is dead. Most of its leaves lost, yellow paint chips on the ground, the ever and green are missing from “evergreen.” And so the bark sloughs off, the punky white wood is useful to spalting fungi and insect larvae. The woodpeckers follow. A pileated visits Holly’s Diner, chisels like a true craftsman, searches earnestly for sustenance her young need to survive. The tree loses its twigs, then its smaller branches; its once red jeweled crown is usurped by Time itself. Vultures stretch now in the candelabra; dawn’s light wakes and warms them. It becomes a spire pricking some cumulus animal before it finally falls with an indistinguishable thud in the background hymn of highway traffic.
Ever feel that you have poems or a novel scribbled on a napkin languishing in sarcophagus-like desk drawers? Don’t despair. Those don’t-go-anywhere efforts can be revived or at least reincarnated in some different costume or context. I cannot conjure a poem a day, and I do not use prompts for the sake of writing one. The world impinging on my life is prompt enough. I don’t literally have a folder labeled “Dead Poems”, but I have accumulated quite a fat one of half-dones and so what? pieces nonetheless. Many are relegated to back rooms that require a Frankenstein or Bionic Man kind of fix. I bet you have some too.
Regardless of how the original impetus takes finial form and presentation to the world, I humbly recognize that revision is one of my useful talents and abiding interests (that Buddhist notion of watching the process and not being attached to the beginning or ending). Paul Valery’s “poems are never finished, just abandoned,” be damned! How could I forsake my children for some other need? I was impressed as a young man that Dylan Thomas would revise a poem dozens of times. I have taken the process of revision to heart.
The point is, don’t give up on a dead poem. When I don’t feel particularly inspired by some pressing need for expression or don’t have an image to hand, I often return to “duds” I judged them to be years ago. I re-read them to pan for nuggets in the stream of babbling words (in my case), and I am often surprised that I find a glimmering image. I may consult my phrase books, vocabulary lists, and curious-facts notebooks as a kind of match-up. How do I expand on that salvaged idea? After all, much poetry deals with correspondences: O those metaphors! Everyone has their own approach to revision and I don’t intend to suggest how you should do it here. I want to point out that your fragments, like pottery sherds, buried in dust having lost their immediacy can still be made useful, glued together again. There must have been something that prompted you to write or type those words in that moment.
Good poems never go out of date. Though plumb-bobs are no longer in the mason’s, surveyor’s or carpenter’s toolbox, they still can be used for their purpose. Gravity is still with us.
Fundamentals, once learned, live in memory no matter how latently. Remember the adage about learning to ride a bike? The danger, of course, is that the spontaneity can be revised out (“revised to death”) more often than not by adding qualifying adjectives or complicated abstractions. Find and maintain the thread (theme) of what you are expressing, but tinker with it, adding and subtracting ideas and images.
As it turns out, a spring storm has felled a black cherry tree which landed between my woodcarving studio and my truck causing, as luck would have it, no damage to either. A sudden death to be sure. I spend two days reducing it to the useable: firewood for a neighbor and a mound of compost—twigs and leaves. Maybe inspiration for a poem someday.
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