The Righting Life
I just wrote a really bad poem.
Revised it, too.
It's 57 lines long. Even after reworking, the language drags, it uses abstract imagery (which I detest in the concrete), and mines themes and motifs I've developed more successfully elsewhere.
It started off well enough, but about ten lines in, it took a turn for the worse. Five lines later, I knew it was still technically alive, but no amount of CPR was going to make it come back.
I kept writing anyway.
I put it away, added a few more leaden lines a day or two later, and repeated the
add lines-stop a day process until it ground to a halt of its own accord.
If it had been a horse, I would have shot it. If it had been Catholic, I would have called a priest to perform last rites. If it had been a train wreck... Wait. It was a train wreck.
Instead of being humane, I revised it. First, I tried simple editing--changing words, sharpening language, taking words out and putting words in someplace else. I tried rearranging sentences and readjusting the narrative line. Still no success. I rethought big-picture issues like theme, point-of-view and use of extended metaphor, alliteration, repetition and other poetic devices.
I spent as much time revising that poem as I put into the original composition. And after all that work, I had... a car wreck.
There was good news. I had a lot less twisted metal to dispose of.
It seemed like a really good idea at the time. It shouldn't have been a disaster.
So what went wrong? I really don't know–there are just so many wrong ways. I suspect (strongly) that the gap between conception and composition caused the problem. My muse drops off ideas around 5 AM [My muse is a bastard]. When I get the 5 AM mail call, I'll play–think of an opening, an image, clever language and then drift off to sleep again. When I finally get up, the idea is still there, but whatever sparks I generated didn't make it out of bed. If I start development right away, I might be able to scare some of the lost material out of a dark corner. If I don't, the enthusiasm I felt at 5 AM gets lost too, and that makes for a less than enthusiastic poem. Sometimes I recapture the enthusiasm and turn out a pretty good poem. It may be different than the original conception, but still good. I just have to be patient and trust my judgement.
So why did I revise it, if I knew it was going off the rails? Well, it wasn't the fault of the original idea. I treat all ideas with the same respect and process, unless I don't start at all (a different issue). Plus, it might work (with care). So it was revised (keeps the revision tools sharp). Also, I put it the car wreck in my mental
practice pile, along with prompt writing and intentional practice writing..
Were there any other lessons learned?
--G.K. Chesterton noted "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." I didn't do it badly, it just turned out badly. I think this W.C. Fields quotation is more appropriate: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it." I need to be able to decide when it's time to move on, and make that decision stick.
--Make sure the needed resources are available. If my brother-in-law is going to build a chair, he makes sure he has the wood, equipment, hardware and space he needs. If it's a desk, he gets different stuff. If I'm going to build a poem, I need certain things on hand beyond the idea for a successful project.
--I need a better capture process. I've tried keeping a pencil and paper on the nightstand, but either I can't reach them or knock one of them to the floor, or the next morning I find
gort floozle Thomas herp-hop on the pad.
--I now know what I'm capable of. Yes, there are highs, or I wouldn't keep writing. But there are
clank moments as well. Sometimes you have to write them out to get them out (of the system).
--We can't all be homecoming queens. Sometimes a poem is dull and ugly. It's supposed to be trash can filler. Or it was never going to reach full potential. Life happens sometimes. I recognize it for what it is. I wrote it. I own it. But that doesn't mean I let it run around in public.
--I can't let one bad poem derail my writing or be the star in the
what a terrible, useless person I am movie running continuously in my head. Now, if I have a long stretch of disasters, I might want to revisit this avocation, or do something differently. But until then, I keep at it.
Time to take all this input and go write a poem.
And no, you can't read the poem that led to this essay.