I’m always a puzzled by how writers can plan out a poem or story before even attempting the first sentence. Some do complete outlines, right down to the actual ending. Others have ideas they want to develop into a poem or story, which suggests control over the content. To me, these methods feel too engineered, preventing the unconscious to have much play in the process.
For me, the fun of writing comes from NOT knowing anything before I start and letting the words lead me deeper into whatever mode I’m writing in. Poems work best for me when they’re more stream of consciousness, both as a reader and a writer. I’m looking for the gaps in between the words/images to tease out whatever is waiting there to be released either into the poet or reader’s mind. While the words/images can be guideposts, they’re only one part of the whole.
To illustrate, here’s a poem by Cole Swenson, recipient of a Guggenheim who has published several poetry collections as well as translations from French works:
“Work in Progress: Dusk,”
Because there is a band playing
in the park the people linger
so their children keep on running,
charcoal smudges going
deeper into the paper
disappearing into the fur
of the dark and then
emerging. Small druids
in their bodies whenever
their parents aren’t watching.
No, just smudges growing
arms and running closer
the way form spreads across canvas
even while the painter is watching.
Something ominous looms over the seemingly innocent scene of families lingering to listen to a band playing in the park. We don’t know what kind of band is playing; nor do we know what kind of music it’s performing. It could be anything from a brass band with horns and drums doing time-honored songs like a Sousa march, to a rock or jazz group. The type of music doesn’t seem to matter: the group becomes a temporary focal point for this scene, binding together the participants.
Yet everything remains unspecific here—people, children, park, band, painter. We’re floating in the amorphous world of the general noun, blobs of impressionistic color guiding us rather than clearly delineated forms, acting at a particular place and time. The wonderful and scary thing about such generality is that it isn’t grounding; it isn’t concrete. It forces us to work a little harder as readers and to remain with the uncertainty of not having a tangible situation to react to and with. We’re kept outside the fences of language, the images “charcoal smudges going / deeper into the paper / disappearing into the fur / of the dark and then / emerging.”
These lines speak to me of how a poem can work on us, the paper the poem is printed on like a vast forest and not just the individual tree that produced it, the page having depth and dimension that mirrors our depths. These words we rely on to convey meaning and imagery are elusive, penetrating the dark and at the same time extracting something that darkness contains—what we hope art will do. In this case, the children become “small druids / in their bodies whenever / their parents aren’t watching.” So for a moment the children shift shape, turning into these forces of nature that can lead us into a fuller appreciation of it.
Then they come into focus again, not just smudges, but “growing / arms and running closer.” We can’t hold onto the children any more than we can hold onto the meaning of these words that penetrate the paper and our minds, everything being elusive, out of our control, “the way form spreads across canvas / even while the painter is watching.” We’re helpless to do much more than apprehend, recognizing that anything we try to contain in art or nature will escape our clutches.