blackbirdonline journalSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

Where Poems Come From

I think it’s safe to say we don’t actually know where poems come from. If we did, we would likely plunder the place, because we’re basically clever monkeys.

I like the thought that I’m a primate wearing a corduroy jacket, though.

Poem-making must feed some kind of primal appetite, because I dedicate inordinate amounts of energy to rearranging symbolic frameworks. I do this to make little fables and word-machines that please me. I often ape poets I admire. If I had to use pinecones to do this, I probably would. But words are better. I have access to the same lexicon, more or less, as Emily Dickinson did when she coined “Narcotics cannot still the Tooth / That nibbles at the Soul” and “My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun.” So the ingredients are sound.

As a building material, words have the advantage of being lightweight and easily transported, yet sturdy enough to create lasting structures. They are invisible when spoken, yet weighty enough to crush us into paste. They are also more or less free and don’t need to be gathered in baskets. On the other hand, if every writing session had to be prefaced with a walk through a misty pine forest, slinging cones into a basket hinged over my forearm, I wouldn’t mind.

Ms. Dickinson wrote a letter in August of 1876 in which she mentioned her sister’s new cat. (I’m not making this up.) She said: “You remember my ideal cat has always a huge rat in its mouth, just going out of sight—though going out of sight in itself has a peculiar charm. It is true that the unknown is the largest need of the intellect, though for it, no one thinks to thank God . . . ”

My ideal poem has always something in its mouth, just going out of sight. When I write, I follow it into the woods. I have only its tracks. Sometimes the path seems clear: footprints in fresh snow. Or there’s blood spoor. Other times it loses me by doubling back at the river. It’s smarter than I am. And so I can never quite offer up the thing itself but merely evoke the chase.  end  

return to top