Saturday, March 6, 2010

Writer's Block? One Poem May Be Hiding Another!

"One Train May Hide Another" is a brilliant poem by Kenneth Koch. It's one of those poems that is intuitively so right that upon reading it, one may have the thought, "I could have written that." In fact, given the title, without anything else, I dare say that many a poet would write some of the lines in it, or very nearly. But none of us did. Perhaps there were other poems in the way of it like:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line--
Then it is safe to go on reading.

Today I had the experience of one poem hiding another, and I offer it as yet another way to break through (or to allow the poem to break through) the proverbial writer's block.

I am in the second day of a three day writing vacation that I have been planning for over a month. (I haven't taken enough time lately to focus on generating new work, and I have been looking forward to holing up in my downstairs study, with nothing to distract me from generating some new work.) In preparation, I had started two separate poems (which I oftentimes find will merge into one), both using the technique of starting with another poet's line. Yesterday I spent about eight hours trying to add something cogent and exciting to each. I ended up with four lines on one and six to eight lines on the other that I wouldn't show to someone who had never heard of poetry, much less to anyone from my writing group.

This morning I pulled out yesterday's horrific beginnings with a fresh attitude. After a few minutes it became apparent that lightning was not going to strike either of these two damp strands of tinder. So I just stared a while at the one I had entitled "Poem Beginning With A Line From Malena Morling" which began (and I'm not embarrassed about this line because it is hers): "Tonight, because all matter crumbles." And the next lines read "I want to insert something personal, a prayer/rising like the flame of a candle, roughly shaped/like a tooth worn down for all the souls locked away in purgatory."

Meditating on these lines told me that I hoped to find some substance to add to Malena Morling's great first line, in order to create a poem that evolved from hers, but that was truly mine. This thought reminded me of St. Paul's definition of faith: "For faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." The substance of things hoped for--yes that was what I was looking for. Then I remembered the gospel song sung in all the churches of my youth: "His Eye Is On The Sparrow (and I know he watches me)." I wrote: "I grew up believing that God had his eye on the sparrows," and I was off and running with another poem. It took me less than five minutes to write the first draft of "The Substance Of Things Hoped For," and another fifteen minutes to generate six separate drafts of what sets before me as an eighteen line poem. The drafts are far from over, but I now have an entire piece to edit for the next month or so.

What about the lines I wrote yesterday? Maybe they will become poems and maybe they will not. Perhaps they will reveal other lines and entire other poems that they have been hiding. Maybe they will be abandoned forever, having served their purpose.

It is told that a pupil of Allen Ginsberg once came to him in frustration over not being able to come up with the right ending for a poem. "I can't seem to finish this poem," he told Allen. "Can you tell me what to do?" "Certainly," Allen replied, "just write another poem."

One poem may hide another. Or as Kenneth Koch concludes his poem on the subject:

When you come to something, stop to let it pass
So you can see what else is there. At home, no matter where,
Internal tracks pose dangers, too, one memory
Certainly hides another, that being what memory is all about,
The eternal reverse succession of contemplated entities. Reading A Sentimental Journey look around
When you have finished, for Tristam Shandy, to see
If it is standing there, it should be, stronger
And more profound and theretofore hidden as Santa Maria Maggiore
May be hidden by similar churches inside Rome. One sidewalk
May hide another, as when you're asleep there, and
One song hide another song: for example "Stardust"
Hide "What Have They Done to the Rain?" Or vice versa. A pounding upstairs
Hide the beating of drums. One friend may hid another, you sit at the foot of a tree
With one and when you get up to leave there is another
Whom you'd have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher,
One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man
May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.
You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It can be important
To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.

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