What goes into creating a poem?
By their very nature, poems spin such a diverse range of being that it is nearly impossible to pin down an exacting way of creating one.
Poems materialize in such myriad flavors that one writer’s approach to writing poetry usually differs radically from the next writer’s approach.
Still, I think it’s crucial for a writer (in any genre) to learn from other writers. Sharing methodology, styles, and inspiration can steer a writer toward a happy new direction or affirm what he or she is trying to write.
Nothing is improbable if a writer is listening and taking notes.
In this first installment of a new series, “Anatomy of a Poem,” I’m going to briefly break down considerations I gave to writing a new poem, “Sky with an ‘X’ in It.” It’s a January 2016 poem. And it has a special place in my recent work. You’ll see why.
I know I’ll intentionally leave some things out, although I hope to cover essentials. Near the end, you can read the whole poem.
Recently, I experienced the fifth anniversary of my father’s death. Number five. The years since my family sat beside him in an intensive care unit on New Year’s Eve 2010 are starting to blur. New Year’s has never been quite the same. My mother, sister, and I, bouncing between my father’s room and a waiting room, watched the galas on a mounted TV, no hoopla on our end.
My father died January 12, 2011. He was 79-years old and many things: industrial engineer at Procter and Gamble (30 years), former journalist, teacher of hearing impaired (20-plus years), church vocalist (many years), multi-instrument-playing musician (all his life), and political official in the village of Lockland.
My friend, Cincinnati Enquirer reporter and book author, Mark Curnutte, wrote a gorgeous tribute to my father, in which he quoted me: “’He was the most active man I’ve ever known,’ Hillard said. ‘He loved the [retiree-oriented] job of driving [cars]. It kept him on the road and seeing things.’”
“Seeing things” – my father seeing things – struck me when I was just a few lines into my poem. I saw something the day after his funeral. This was the bare-bones impetus for my getting into “Sky with an ‘X’ in It.” My remembering an unexpected and strangely magnificent ‘X’ in the blue cloudless sky helped provide a few initial lines to get the poem going. I wrote hurriedly in my palm-size notebook.
I began it more from the unforgettable image of two criss-crossing contrails in the sky than from the raw notion of my father’s death. The aspect of a strangely appearing “cross” moved me. My imagination let loose. Contrails forming an ‘X’ – right stuff for my poem. My father was very spiritual. I remember how long I stared at those contrails and thought about his absence.
Here are five considerations I embraced and tried to flesh out during my drafts:
- I wanted to convey a sense of my father’s absence without sentimentalizing that reality. To “speak” for some sense of absence and nostalgia, I put the poem’s speaker in one place on an extremely cold January day, with not one other individual was around. I used the presence of a dog, a long-vacant, huge factory, a lone flag, and the reality of losing my father in a hospital room to conjure some level of loss. The day after the funeral accented absence. Too, there’s an absence relative to the speaker’s emotional isolation. In drafting, I began to see how I could manipulate a theme of absence, among a few other subtle themes.
- The more lines I wrote, the more I could see a tercet (three-line stanza) structure take shape. I felt my images would be more pronounced in tercets – in short stanzas. Crafting a poem in a particular structure is very subjective. Gradually, I went with my instinct: tercets.
- By using three-line stanzas, I better managed the poem “down the page,” as the late major poet Stanley Kunitz used to say. How a poem “moves down the page” is important. What matters here is the growing emphasis on openness in the poem: big, vast blue sky, one solitary person in a park and its quietness, except for the echoing highway traffic in the distance, extended vacancy of long-gone factories nearby – a ghostly presence near the lone flag.
- Creating sound was key. I began to see decent sound emerge with clauses or phrases like, “Bare spots on the dog’s head…” and “ice settles into crevices….” Each tercet carries some kind of sound or slight wordplay.
- It was important for me to convey how memory molded the speaker’s experience at this time by the flag, as he watched the sky. It is his contemplating the ‘X’ that illuminates other details and how he processes his father’s passing.
Only in my attention to taking a good deal of time writing the poem did these things come into play. The more I wrote, the more I saw. A poem doesn’t happen quickly for me. I ponder possibilities and come up with incremental distinctions.
Here’s the poem in its entirety:
Sky with an ‘X’ in It
Cold January easing into an even colder grip,
it releases me for a moment under
the town’s American flag. Half-mast, bruised stars
flapping in honor of your community service, I see
where dirt from highway traffic has encrusted
the stripes. The whole of it, so alone in winter
in this little corner park. The day after your funeral
ice settles into crevices. Every footprint
plants its own name on icy grass. A wandering
dog coming toward me licks gutter water.
Bare spot on the dog’s head, an absence
of fur. Closer, I pet it, and I think how
your absence from me now, the gone-ness of your
breathing even into a ventilator, is your
flesh more like a large brittle plate
I fumbled, watched it fall and break. I can only
recall shards of you, your whole gone-ness
taken by ground, stolen by sky. This cross, hanging.
I can’t reconcile the clatter of billiard balls
in the pool hall where you hid from church, at fifteen,
until your mother appeared and tugged you by the ear
down the sidewalk. I can reconcile the clatter
of grandma’s black, old lady’s shoes as she
walked to me, held me, elbows pressed into my cheeks.
Why do I even stare at the sky and look foolish,
If not to wait for two contrails in a perfect ‘X’
to break apart like two nails soldered and framed?
The bridge to you is like this flagpole
that abruptly ends thirty feet off the ground.
As if I’m lucky to see loose threads in the already
slightly faded flag. Hiss of cars on the highway
below the overpass. Sky takes in the ‘X’
and it lingers, not ever hiding, though fragile.
And soon the white cross: It scatters.
I follow. Twisting clouds drift beyond
the vacant factory, so many bricks and broken windows.
I think of you as expansive as any new
blue appearing: unending lake of blue
holding you now, and me lost, staring at sky.
There should be another name for glory.
But one far less bright.