Craft Note: Duet (Part 3) — Beginning and Ending With A Reader’s Comment

Jake Adam York
May 22, 2012
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In a comment on our last post, “Craft Note: Duet—Part Two (Ending With A Post By Tarfia Faizullah Ending With A Line By Vallejo),” Judith wrote toward an undeveloped idea that will move us into a third (and probably last) note on the duet.

Judith called “anathema” the teleology I claimed for the poem that announces in its title an aspect of its ending. What about, instead, “writing a poem that has a surprise (to the poet) at the end and then titling the poem giving the surprise away?” She continues:

In other words, going backwards toward that end as if you knew it all along? When poets talk about their poems they often sound like they knew what they were doing all along to cover the traces of scary emptiness that actually accompany composition. Or maybe we only can understand our process in retrospect?

Judith gets to a vital point: in writing about poems, in talking about the craft of a form especially, we’re usually writing about the final poem as readers instead of as writers: we’re talking about the product rather than the process.

So, yes, when we talk about our poems, even our own poems, we do often sound like we knew what we were doing all along. But even if this speaks to the fact that we often relate to our own poems as readers after they’re done, it also says something about the power of the discovery that finally orders a poem: if that ordering is successful enough, the discovery seems, in retrospect (Judith, you got it right on), inevitable. So, our retroactive or revisionary confidence.

Most of us, I imagine, write our poems out of order, so to speak, but the final order defines the poem. As Emerson wrote: “The thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form.” Which is to say, once we have that big idea, everything falls together, as if at once, as if in an order, a line, in a time where all seems deliberate and inevitable, so it’s hard to single out the moment or location of the surprise or genius, but it is there in what we might call the pre-history of the poem.

I’ve been thinking about two other “duet” poems that dramatize this effect, working with quoted text, but re-ordering what is borrowed, finally instituting a new order of time on language that already had an order.

The first of these is Wayne Miller’s “Poem Slipped Between Two Lines By Vallejo.”

This poem both begins and ends with a borrowed line, so one might imagine it both departs from a given note and bends back toward a borrowed note. One might imagine that it has a fairly determined itinerary. And, in some ways it does. Miller’s poem follows Vallejo’s performance of an already failed wish to be elsewhere and a lingering desire for the wish nevertheless to be fulfilled. Vallejo’s poem (section XXXIII of the long poem Tricle) pauses on a threshold Miller’s poem then occupies, turning as well figures of departure and arrival:

this abandoned pool—the water
now dust—the yellow light

in a window one notices
only when it goes out. The voice

of a gunshot, an unraveling
contrail. The widower’s remove,

like virga. Each time
I step through myself, I land

in the next step that steps
through me again…

The figures, the images are Miller’s. The mood is borrowed.

But the mood is also expanded. One of the geniuses of this poem is that the lines between which it inserts (and asserts) itself are, mostly, identical. Vallejo’s poem translates (per Eshelman) as:

   It will not be what is yet to come, but
that which came and has already left,
but that which came and has already left.

Miller’s poem breathes in the space between the first iteration of loss and the subsequent insistence to which Miller’s attention finally turns:

Again, your words arrive
for me to fill silently

with my voice—not the voice
I’m speaking with now,

but that which came and already left.

Even here, as Miller quotes Vallejo and returns to him, the poem never ceases to be Miller’s, and though Vallejo’s poem historically precedes Miller’s and acts as a catalyst or cause of Miller’s, Miller’s poem now reconfigures Vallejo’s pause and his ending in such a way that Miller’s meditation now seems to motivate and explain Vallejo’s refrain, effectively turning the tables on the order of history, obscuring the order of genius.

Many poems, whether they’re these duets or not, undergo the same transformation, establishing a beginning and end for the order of the text that may not have been the beginning or end in the order of composition. Richard Hugo speaks in his book The Triggering Town of the difference between the initiating or triggering subject, which gets you writing, and the poem’s true or final subject, which helps you finish the poem, to put it into order.

The other poem I’ve been thinking about in this regard is Terrance Hayes’s “The Golden Shovel,” which creates an acrostic of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool” on its right margin, each line of Hayes’s poem ending with a word from Brooks’s poem. So, Brooks’s poem is the beginning of Hayes’s, as its inspiration or impetus, and also the end of Hayes’s poem, rather literally. But this poem is so completely Hayes’s poem—a powerful meditation on fatherhood and the lingering memories of a father’s absence, sometimes physical often emotional, key themes in Hayes’s work—one can begin reading the poem and not notice the acrostic until one is several lines in.

So, to return to Judith’s comment again and to clarify the idea Tarfia and I have been developing, what may be the beginning or end of the text may not really be the beginning or end of the process. Poems get made in many different ways and in many different orders: it’s only the final order, so carefully laid, that makes things seem sensible, that make the harmonies sound clearly, as if they were known from the start.

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