Salvage and Reconstruction: Thoughts on a Poem in Progress
By Michael Diebert
Two years ago, when poet Andrew Hudgins led a workshop at the college where I teach, he showed us work he'd been doing on a poem. He had written it in blank verse, unrhymed and rhymed iambic tetrameter, and with two- and three-beat accentual lines. He'd even cast it as a prose poem. As the forms dictated, he’d added words, took them out, moved them to other lines, and indeed redefined the line for each occasion. The impulse was largely metrical and musical, but if form dictates content, he was also tinkering with meaning. His patience astounded me. After all that work, he concluded it was probably a failed poem, a good subject for a lecture such as the one he was giving.
Recently, I have been working on a poem modeled after Bob Hicok's poem "A primer." Hicok's poem is a relatively succinct 44 lines. Mine currently stands at about three single-spaced handwritten pages. It is a shambolic stab at Tennessee facts and history, a chagrined interrogation of my hometown. I am trying to be funny, and I'm falling flat. I am trying to be probing and exact and fair. I am trying to, as usual, account for the unusual and the otherwise overlooked. In its current form, the poem is untenable; only recently have I realized this. I still like it, and I still think I'm onto something. After my usual practice of putting the poem away for a while to let it marinate and age, what do I do now? I have rewritten and expanded it at least twice, to little avail. The same flailing, the same chest-beating is there.
Within the last two weeks, though, I've started to go the other way, toward not just cutting but concision. This is, I admit, not my usual strategy--I pride myself (and chide myself) on my masochistic desire to write through a problem, to add volume first and worry about depth later. But fueled by a couple of other recent poems where I've striven for economy and precision, I am now trying to capture in fewer than 20 lines what I've been shooting for in 100-plus lines. One benefit in trying to write this poem long is that I now see whole lines I want to keep! This means the poem has probably been there all along, just not in the form I envisioned and, indeed, have labored so mightily to realize. There are usable parts; it's just taken me a while to discover them.
If we poets are priests, marrying form to content, beauty to truth, then surely we are also scavengers, hovering raven-like over the broken bones of our failed drafts, using what's usable. Or we are salvage artists in a junkyard, looking for an intact carburetor, a front bucket seat with fabric that hasn't faded, all for the purpose of reconstituting, of making them new and workable again. To salvage is to save.
Our workshop at Writers Circle on July 25 will be devoted to the art of poetic salvage. We will work with your own failed or stuck poems, poems with usable parts or recoverable bones; we will work to identify these pieces and construct new organisms. Please email me either 1) a whole poem or 2) a document of poem parts no later than Tuesday, July 21 and I will make copies for the group.