I’m no poet, and I know it. (That rhyme and meter, right there, is me stretching my poetic talents, rubber band-like, as far as they go; any farther and I’d risk putting my eye out.) But I’ve occasionally written doggerel for the blog site The Last Word on Nothing as part of a recurring feature I call Bad Science Poet (“Remember: It’s not the science that’s bad—it’s the poetry!”™) Here’s one example:
METAPHORS IN NATURE
I thought that I should never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
But when I did I dared to say:
“I see you, poem, plain as day!
Your leaves of grass so brightly green,
Your snowy woods a frosty scene,
Your candle burning at each end—
But wait! What fate can blaze portend?
This can’t bode well for poem or tree….”
And now it’s both I’ll never see.
I reproduce the poem here, on this august website that concerns itself with matters of serious writing, not because the poem is beautiful or possesses literary value but because it reinforced for me some lessons concerning, well, serious writing.
When I started writing the poem, I had no idea where it was heading. The first three lines came to me at once: the instantly familiar quote from Joyce Kilmer in the first two lines, followed by a silly, somewhat surreal twist in the third line. That twist, I decided, would inform the logic of whatever might follow. And then I kept writing, just to see where that logic might lead.
Lesson One: Let the logic lead. I wasn’t trying to impose my own model on the poem—some notion of what the poem should be. I didn’t try to lead it. Instead, I let it lead me. A bit of absurdist inspiration had struck in the third line, and now my job, as I saw it, was to follow the logic.
The logic included several elements: The poem will use instantly familiar lines from famous poems, it will have a narrator, and the narrator will take those instantly familiar lines literally. I came up with one line (Whitman), then another (Frost), then a third (Millay). I paraphrased them for, I hoped, a modest comic effect. And then I looked for the second twist.
A second twist, I knew, would be necessary. The logic established by the first twist couldn’t remain strictly linear. If it did, the end of the poem would be just more of the same: familiar quote, paraphrase for somewhat comic effect. So I looked at where the logic had led me.
Lesson Two: Where the logic has led. By letting the logic of the poem lead me, rather than the other way around, I arrived in a place I couldn’t have anticipated when I started the poem (a familiar line of poetry) or even after I’d followed the first twist (a collection of familiar lines paraphrased for comic effect). But now that I was there, I had to look around: What was the second twist to which the logic had led me?
At this point I paused. Here were two lessons. I felt as if I might have seen them before. And then I realized I had.
They were similar to two lessons in a resource I sometimes use in my teaching: Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Writing Short Stories,” from her collection Mystery and Manners. O’Connor doesn’t explain the lessons in the terms I use above, but her account of the process of writing her story “Good Country People” is similar. (For the sake of those who haven’t read “Good Country People,” I’ll skip a crucial detail and focus on the lessons.)
Lesson One: Let the logic lead. “I doubt myself if many writers know what they are going to do when they start,” she writes. “I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women that I knew something about, and before I knew it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter” who was a “Ph.D. with a wooden leg”: the first twist. The wooden leg, O’Connor realized, would inform the logic of whatever might follow. So she kept writing, just to see where the logic of two ignorant yet prideful women gossiping in the resentful presence of a daughter in possession of both a Ph.D. and a wooden leg might lead: “As the story progressed, I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him.”
And then, she did.
Lesson Two: Where the logic has led. O’Connor writes that she didn’t know what the climax of the story was going to be until “ten or twelve lines” before she reached it, “but when I found out that this was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable.”
Inevitable, because that’s where the logic led.
“This is a story,” O’Connor concludes, “that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason for this is that it produced a shock for the writer.” What the final three lines of my bit of doggerel—the part about the logical and literal implications of a candle burning at both ends—produced in me wasn’t quite a shock. It was, maybe, more of a surprise.
The shock, instead, was one you’d think I might have gotten over by now, after all these years of writing. But no: Its power hasn’t diminished. It’s the power of discovering an ending that’s inevitable—but, seemingly paradoxically, only in retrospect.