I have a student who is very smart and studies the way the brain works and has asked me very pointed questions about process. Because we’re online, I’ve been writing her quite lengthy emails about how MY brain works when I sit down to write a poem. It’s been very interesting to write it down for someone else. Usually this kind of discussion happens in office hours, so normally for me this talk of process is spoken, which means it disappears after the student gets up and leaves.
This past week, she asked me about the role of “ideas”, which is a curious word, I think. Many students talk about having ideas when they sit down to write. Generally they say, they have trouble writing until they have “an idea” what they want to say. It is a way to begin, certainly, but over the years I’ve seen how having an idea before you write can limit the kind of exploration you might engage in. Almost always, an “idea” means “a thing I already think is true” —like “love is a painless joining of two people that makes all other problems meaningless” or “if I just work hard enough, all my anxiety about the past will disappear” or “my mother is a monster”. Then they go on to write a poem that proves that’s true in some way.
But what’s lost most often is exploration. How, if a poem is just about proving an idea is “true”, does anything new or surprising happen in poetry (or in one’s own imagination)?
The more I teach, the more I’ve become interested in the terms idea, meaning, and sense, and how they differ and overlap in poems and the process of making art. Anyway, that’s a long introduction to this email I sent my student and which I post as a way to help me thinking some of these things out.
So, when you say you think about “the ideas”, what does that mean for you? When you say you have a mental image, do you mean an image comes to you or you’re struck by an image as you walk by it? Because either way is a certainly normal way to begin writing.
But then you say you “build an idea around that”, and I’m curious about what that means.
If you see, let’s say, a pigeon on your window sill, and you write
I see a pigeon on my window sill
what kind of idea do you build off of that? I’m asking because the word “idea” feels too clinical to me, although you might not be using that way. If you mean you want the pigeon to immediately stand for something else–be a metaphor for something else
I see a pigeon on my window sill
and I think about my own lonely soul
That is a way to proceed. Is that what you mean by an idea–that you start to build a meaning around it? You take a thing outside yourself and immediately use it to say something about you or to stand for a idea about yourself that you have.
Because the thing I’d suggest trying when you find that image like the pigeon is you explore it as a literal thing first
I see a pigeon on my window sill,
gray and fat with a touch of black
on its wingtips, its beak a fierce yellow,
his eyes watching the street.
Do you see what I mean? Now, once you get that image to be full, to feel like a thing that you’re actually seeing, you can go in and notice that there are also some nice sounds from fat and black–the short a sound. Maybe you like that sound, so you keep it in the back of your mind, and maybe even make a list of other short a sounding words in the margin.
But in all of this, I’m not really creating a meaning yet. The pigeon is just a bird I’m watching, something literal I’m paying attention to. I haven’t tried to impose a meaning on it–that it’s like my soul or anything like that. I want to just watch it as a literal thing and maybe stop every so often and notice if a group of sounds are happening around it. I notice the long ee sounds of beak and fierce and street as well in the second example. I don’t know what I’ll do with that but I just notice.
Now, I “might” have an idea that I’m also thinking about–let’s say your idea about how emotion and conflict can have a genetic/generational aspect, how trauma can be passed down.
And there might appear as I’m writing about the pigeon some opening or moment when I think about what this pigeon knows about the world at birth and what he or she might have to learn, and maybe even what it might know that looks like instinct or handed-down knowledge. Maybe I’ll suddenly wonder how to tell what’s genetically encoded knowledge and what is something that is present in the external world that has never gone away and so every generation has to experience and deal with it. Now I have a question rather than an idea. But I don’t try to answer that immediately either.
I’ll never know that in a pigeon, unless there is research that deals with it, so I might ask a question about its instincts, its view of the world, the origins of its skittishness, of the long history of pigeon-nervousness, and then go back to just describing it to attend to it again as a literal creature with its own mind.
And then do that back and forth. Maybe I’ll wonder even why I’m wondering about a pigeon’s history and think about my own and why I’m asking that question about inherited emotions. Maybe that might lead me to think about my own family and what we’ve inherited and how when something difficult to process happens, we tend to go off alone, like this pigeon has.
Do you see what I mean? It’s a kind of wandering around, trying to stay close to the original image but allowing yourself to ramble a little in the draft of the poem, just to feel out a number of things. The writing can get “fluffy”, in fact, but in the original draft it doesn’t really matter. You put down everything and edit later. It can in fact be later, when you find some fluff, some silliness, you can ask yourself: why did I write this fluffy stuff? Often fluff appears when you don’t’ know what to say–in the uncomfortable moment of having nothing, our minds often turn to cliches and silliness. So finding silliness or cliches can in fact help you know where you need to dig in more–you might be distracting yourself from a very uncomfortable fact that you don’t want to say out loud. That happens all the time.
This is another long email but I think what I’m saying in a practical sense is this: in the beginning stage, when you’re composing, you put everything down. Don’t edit yourself too much, just kind of follow your brain and what language comes to you even if it’s silly. Don’t get too attached to anything, especially some idea that the poem has to say something about an idea. In the second stage, that’s when you read things over and begin to separate out what’s interesting to you and what’s not. What’s a surprising thing that came up in the draft? That’s the stage when the poem can begin to come together. In third stage, which is often a multi-stage, you really begin to notice the sound, the shape of the lines, the line breaks, and all the smaller things.
If you already know what you want to do–say, you see a pigeon and you think How can I use this pigeon to get across an idea I have–you’re already at a disadvantage as a writer because you’re only using your subject to make a point you already know is true. And then you are not discovering anything. Does that make sense?